Virtue signalling and vice signalling

by John Quiggin on December 5, 2019

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is not just a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to tu quoque, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of ccusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote actual virtue over fraudulent signals: rather to argue against virtue and in favour of vice. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

In all of this, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”. The accusation of virtue signalling represents the refusal of vice to pay this tribute.

{ 102 comments }

1

Fake Dave 12.05.19 at 7:17 am

I’ve been coming around more and more to the theory that it’s always projection with the right. Reactionaries are in the habit of exaggerating their own virtues because that’s what is supposed to make them worthy of ruling over the rest of us. They see the self righteousness of the left and assume it’s the same sort of bluster.

2

Phil 12.05.19 at 10:10 am

So…

Accusation of virtue signalling = “You claim to be superior to me on the grounds of certain attitudes you hold, although (a) you only pay them lip-service, you hypocrite and/or (b) the claim that they’re morally valuable is spurious anyway. Since this claim falls, you and me are actually pretty much on a level morally, except that I’m superior because the values I believe in are genuine and/or I only claim to believe in something when I’m trying to live up to it.”

MAGA hat-wearing = “I’m superior to you because [etc]”

I’m not sure how the hypocrisy of claiming to be righteously principled Trump-supporter plays into this, although I suppose the repressed sense of living a contradiction returns in the conviction that the other lot are raging hypocrites – cf. allegations of corruption, sex scandals, paedophilia etc, often wildly misdirected (it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that some Democrats are in fact corrupt, but the Right’s rhetoric wrt this one doesn’t have a ‘follow the money’ look about it).

The other thing that interests, indeed bugs, me about ‘virtue signalling’ is how upside down the idea is relative to the origins of the idea of signalling in evolutionary biology and, particularly, sociology. Perhaps this is a British mutation of the theme, but in my experience the kind of people who talk about VS also talk about ‘clicktivism’ and similar; in other words, a lack of effort or cost is particularly characteristic of VS (and, in their eyes, particularly repugnant). But Gambetta’s argument – which accords with both evo. biol. and common sense – was that signals are more credible the more costly they are, and less ditto ditto. On this basis, ‘clicktivism’ (or wearing a rainbow badge) should not only have no effect on the real world but – more importantly – be seen as having no effect, or at least as communicating no meaningful commitment or investment.

But if this were the case there’d be no virtue signalling for anyone to complain about, because nobody would bother doing it. So Gambetta must be wrong. But Gambetta wasn’t wrong (common sense! evo. biol.!). So…?

3

Scratch 12.05.19 at 10:13 am

“People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.”

I think the subtext is “I support it and you totally don’t.”*

Rightist narratives around the poppy might be a better counterexample than MAGA hats.

*Kind of snotty given the virtue signalling classes never quite got around to decriminalising homosexuality whilst the democratic will of the ghastly proles did.

4

nastywoman 12.05.19 at 11:13 am

but –
my favourite T-shirt for a while read:

”Speak slowly I am Blond”

Was/is that ”virtue signalling”?

And what’s about all these people who wear these:
”I’m a Deplorable” – T-shirts?

5

bob mcmanus 12.05.19 at 11:32 am

I was going to stay away…but my principled a/anti-sociality may be useful.

1) I have heard “VS” used on the left. I pay no attention to the right.
2) I am unclear as to the differences between “virtue” and “morals” so let’s pretend they are the same, and leave the distinction to the Platonists and Aristotelians in the other threads.
3) Virtue Signaling then becomes the expression that reproduces the prevailing values of a particular community, extremely varied and dynamic almost existentially so, it being very important to distinguish which communities are being addressed. You are the intended audience for the rainbow but not the MAGA hat.
4) I grew exhausted, have withdrawn, because I saw that VS, the reproduction of community values, was what people do, cooperatively and competitively, in almost every sentence spoken or frame filmed. It’s all virtue signalling? All? Yup. If you don’t see this, I sentence you to a week of primetime sitcoms.
5) Speaking of which, after that week of tv, perhaps you will see that the rainbow denotes the dominant culture and MAGA the insurgent and revolutionary/reactionary. The dominant, the hegemonic, the default community does not need to be hostile, snarky, aggressive. It can be seen as “natural” and kept semi-conscious, can call itself inclusive and benevolent. Social reproduction is what society and socializing is for.
6) That the rainbow is my preferred culture (of the two) doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten tired of being lectured and tested 24/7/365. Neoliberal (soft?) capitalism is immanent and the only way to fight it is not to play on its terms, or even deliberately transgress, like a MAGA cap or Sanders support.
7) Burn it all down and take their stuff, with metric bucktons of casualties and collateral damage. Guillotine for Obamists. My old, beloved wicked thoughts!

6

nastywoman 12.05.19 at 12:31 pm

and about:

”The MAGA hat (unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption”.

Or – the very simple statement that the owner of the hat – likes to ”own the libs”?
Or – even simpler –
is ”a Fan of Trump”.

And that’s ”the thing” –
-(after having interviewed a lot of Fans of Trump – AND a lot of ”Swifties”) I have come to the conclusion that the problem actually is ”Fandom” –
Like as a typical ”Swifty” would say:

No rules – we just LOVE Taylor Swift so much and will do anything to defend her! She’s our bestfriend!!” Except, of course you should ‘LOVE’ Swift and ‘do anything to defend her’.

With the major difference between a ”ClownstickFan” and a ”Swifty” that in the Fandom of Taylor Swift ”Respectful behavior is very important.”
Bullying is NOT tolerated – and cursing is also not appreciated.
When these type of things happen, the bullies will get heavily criticized and will in some cases even be removed from the group.

AND that’s why the MAGA hats – soon – will get totally – completely out of fashion – and if still worn – will just signal – ”loser” –
(and not ”virtue” anymore…)

7

SusanC 12.05.19 at 12:37 pm

I thought the concept was supposed to be (a)not actually doing anything to reduce a problem; while (b) making ostentatious signs that purport to show you care about it.

A better example might be attending an Extinction Rebellion protest without changing your own consumption/pollution causing activities.

I wonder if it somehow relates to the Mary Douglas cultural theory of risk?

If so, we might tentatively include, e.g. Making a big noise about terrorism without really considering yourself to ve at rosk from it

“Vice signalling” was a good joke; I think it captures a notion that the affiliation the person is attempting to signal is not a universally shared one,

8

SusanC 12.05.19 at 12:45 pm

For that matter, terrorism itself, in its typical modern form, could be regarded as vice signalling: ostentatiously commiting public acts of violence ostensibly in support of a political cause, without regard to whether the political cause is in fact being advanced by their actions.

9

Recovering Banker 12.05.19 at 1:36 pm

What is the best way of describing the following dynamic:

1) I am a cis white male and display a rainbow flag.
2) My support for rainbow is limited to showing the flag, and not backed up with any actions or other support. Rainbows who attempt to rely on my support will be disappointed.
3) What I’m doing is competing with other cis white males and using the flag to score points against the MAGA wearers. What I am saying is “I am a good person, unlike those people wearing MAGA caps”.

I’ve seen this described as virtue signalling- both by MAGA and also by rainbows. It is a form of hypocrisy, but I don’t think hypocrisy captures the inter-group dynamic.

10

cs 12.05.19 at 1:37 pm

I feel like this post kind of misses the intended meaning of VS (as in the way the term is understood by the sort of person who uses that term). I would say the implication is about the ostentation and a kind of insincerity. Insincerity in the sense that the person displaying the rainbow flag wants to be seen as the kind of person who cares about gay rights, when maybe they don’t actually care about it all that much. That isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy I think.

11

nastywoman 12.05.19 at 2:01 pm

– and y’all think –
the real problem is –
that some people have mistaken ”MAGA”
for some ”insurgent and revolutionary/reactionary” hat?
– and not my current favourite ”Virtue-T-Shirt” – which says:

”Surfboards
Palm Springs”
-(like ”surfing” in ”the desert”)

12

MisterMr 12.05.19 at 2:02 pm

I’ll try to give my economic based explanation for this, based on this paper from Piketty:

Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right:Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict

This paper has been cited here various times, however I’ll drop this line from the abstract that summarizes the main finding:

Using post-electoral surveys from France, Britain and the US, this paper documents a striking long-run evolution in the structure of political cleavages. In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for left-wing (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. It has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to a “multiple-elite” party systemin the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income/high-wealth elites still vote for the “right”

(I have my doubts abut Piketty’s explanation of the reasons for this).

Basically we have a situation where left vote is correlated to education, whereas right vote is correlated with wealth (ownership of assets).
If we look at votes by income, we see that the two effects add up in a weird way and the right vote is U shaped: the bottom income decile (more or less) votes strongly to the right (low education wins on low assets), then we have the middle 8 deciles that vote slightly to the left, and in the end we have the top decile that again votes strongly to the right (high assets win on high education).

My economic explanation is this: the kind of “new deal” economics the left aspires to is by its nature quite technocratic, and therefore high education people are ok with it. It’s arguable wether it specifically represents their intersts too (I think it’s quite ambiguous, because the other party isn’t exactly low education worker friendly either).
The right mostly represent the interests of high wealth people, who are mostly pissed off by taxes, but they need the votes also of the bottom guys, so they present leftish parties as made by out of touch ivory tower bureaucrats and play a lot on conservative cultural values that go against ivory tower type of guys.

This ultimately leads to an lectoral strategy that caters to “High RWA” guys according to Atelmeyer’s book on the authoritarians, that are fundamentally people who place a lot of emphasis of perceived traditional values.
In a marketing sense they position themselves as the defenders of traditional, mum and apple pie values against the dubious and vaguely alien ivory tower lefties.
The fact that lefties are perceived as somehow “fake” is a charachteristic of the High RWA approach, that is suspicious of outgroups by default.

When we go to the cultural representations of these groups, we have a nice example in the recent Spiderman movies (who knew Marvel was that perceptive)?

– Vulure: is a small business owner. He is quite cruel and an axehole in many ways, but he is also represented as a good family father. He is culturally “working class”, even though in pratice he is a small capitalist.

– Misteryo: is an high achiever with clearly high cultural level, who is pissed off because he was fired by and in his opinion exploited by the owner of the corporation where he worked. He is represented as the ultimate untrustworthy guy. In strict sense he is actually a worker, since he is an employee (he even bands with other disgruntled employees) but he is part of the aristocracy of workers, the professional classes.

In socilogical terms, while lefties think in terms of economic classes, the right thinks in terms of what Weber called social ceti (that unfortunately is still trtanslated as classes in english, I had to use the italian word for it because I don’t know the english one), that refer to groups of similar cultural values.

So “virtue signalling” refers to the idea of signalling of being part of a specific cultural group, in more or less the same sense in which the term “shibboleth” is used.
This is different from hipocricy because hipocricy doesn’t imply the appartenence to a group.

13

bianca steele 12.05.19 at 2:30 pm

“Virtue signaling” would seem to be closely related to the accusation that a male person is trying to be a “white knight,” swooping in to defend women or nonwhite people.

14

Alison 12.05.19 at 2:31 pm

I think those who make accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ believe that nobody *really* cares about – whatever – climate change, hunger, women’s rights. It’s just that they – on the right – are honest about their robust indifference, while those on the left are affecting false concern. This ties in with the common idea that left wing voters are rather well off and unaffected by the issues they bleat on about. And that rather strange type of right wing comedian who claims to be ‘only saying what we are all thinking’. I think they do believe that. We are all thinking ‘it’, in their view.

15

nope@nope.com 12.05.19 at 2:42 pm

“Virtue signalling” is wearing your hair shirt inside out, so everyone can see. A core example of virtue signalling is when people started wearing safety pins “to show support for the vulnerable” after Trump’s election. Another example would be wearing a giant cross in an Catholic country.

Wearing a MAGA hat in trump country is “virtue signalling”. Wearing one in San Francisco is an act of defiance. Flying a rainbow flag in trump country is an act of bravery. Flying a rainbow flag in San Francisco makes you Havel’s greengrocer, nothing more.

16

Jim Buck 12.05.19 at 2:45 pm

I wore rainbow laces in my trainers, until the latter wore out, some months ago now; it was an eye-opening experience; walking in lonely places, on my approach, some women seemed visibly to relax when noting the laces; other women, in busier places, nodded in respect, or smiled at me. Encounters with men were interesting too. I was chatted up by a very friendly man as we waited with our baskets at a vacant Aldi checkout:
“You first!”
“No, you first!”
“While we’re waiting we could do each other!”
Also, a couple of out front overtures from pretty young men in cinema toilets.
Hostility and fear too; in a street, I fell into conversation with a strange bloke who speaks the thee-and-thou dialect that I was born into. He was venting dissatisfactions imported by him from rightwing tabloids. He appeared to have taken a shine to me until he casually glanced down, spotted the laces, and abruptly terminated the conversation, by hurrying away.
Another supermarket encounter: A group of young men–possibly sports students– colluded in smirks and nudging elbows, obviously with reference to me. I mentally noted all that, and carried on wandering the aisles. After a while, I turned a corner and there perusing a shelf was one of those young men; it was just me and him in the long empty aisle; obviously again, a small old guy like me is no physical threat to a twenty-something male, but his fear and embarrassment was patent.
I put the laces in my trainers simply because they were free stuff, handed to me in the street as a parade went by. It was not virtue signalling then, but if I get given a similar pair of laces (I hope I do!) wearing them in my trainers will be a political semiotic, like wearing the poppy–which I no longer go out of my way to buy.
On the subject of “free stuff”: Is not this phrase quickly entering popular discourse, now in this UK election period? Should it not be unpacked on every occasion we encounter it? What I have taken to saying is:
It’s not “free stuff”–it’s “freed stuff”.

17

bianca steele 12.05.19 at 3:12 pm

On some level, it seems possible that the vocal opposition to supposed virtue signaling is a bit of religious dogma that has escaped its narrow sect into the wild. We all know right from wrong, say, but to talk about it much smacks of moral preening (it should be obvious that this is not an attitude shared by all religions). So the MAGA hat may be closer to the flag pin than it seems. We know it’s gauche, but why embarrass the poor dears?

18

chedolf 12.05.19 at 4:14 pm

Do you think the criticism of Pharisees who pray theatrically in public was exclusively an attack on hypocrisy?

19

Sashas 12.05.19 at 4:15 pm

I would add to Phil @2 a third option.
(a) You’re a hypocrite.
(b) The thing you’re signalling isn’t actually a virtue.
(c) You’re attacking me by reminding everyone of a virtue I don’t have.

I would argue that for many conservative uses of VS, they will claim (a) if pressed, fall back to (b) if (a) is disproven, but they really mean (c).

I don’t feel I have evidence for my claim, although it feels right to me and it appears to be missing from the discussion so far. I have a vague sense that people who truly hold (b) would behave differently from people who hold (c) in some way that we ought to be able to observe. Perhaps a different tone to the anger? After all, the main “crime” under (b) is that the VSer is acting immorally, or perhaps persuading others to act immorally. The main “crime” under (c) is that the VSer is being overt with their moral action.

20

Orange Watch 12.05.19 at 4:32 pm

I think one mistake being made here is assuming VS only has one intended meaning. I have seen multiple usages, and while some are indeed accusations of slactivism/hypocrisy, not all are. A usage I have seen fairly frequently is as an accusation of vanity (although the people using VS in this manner would say narcissism): VS is attention-seeking, and attention-seeking is to be condemned as a despicable act. Of course, the obvious problem with this is the same as almost every other usage: decrying VS is a performative act meant to show you have the right virtues or belong to the right tribe just as much as the ostensible VS. In this way, I think this usage is showing its ancestry, as it smacks of a very old strain of (elitist) putative anti-elitism that most frequently manifests as anti-intellectualism: I am superior to you because unlike you I’m not trying to prove it, forex by “talkin’ smart”. As with most public boasts of humility, it betrays itself if listeners detect the implicit self-agrandizing comparison, but since it’s using conformity to cultural norms as the standard of judgement, third-party listeners are implicitly complimented if they’re not complicit with the VS.

The other use I’ve seen most frequently is the more reflexive purely tribal one, where the accuser uses it as a signal of their allegiance to the conservative tribe to shift an argument from one based on facts to one based on group loyalty. While any ostentatious display of tribal membership could achieve that effect, an accusation of VS is a fairly clear rejection of non-tribal reasoning: “you’re only making appeals to authority by invoking group membership, so I can reject that supposed authority and sink to your level”. Oft as not, there’s some projection involved here, too; returning fire by shooting first.

The only reasonable usage I’ve seen relates to the above: when a speaker is signaling, i.e. through code switching or ostentatious jargon usage, that their arguments carry the weight of a group’s consensus, which is to say in calling out a particular style of appeal to authority. Even in that case, it’d be better to make clear that the speaker is trying to drape their argument in authority-by-association. However, brevity is valued for its own sake – sometimes in terms of showing off your virtue; you’re not so pathetic or over-invested as to waste time droning on like a psycho, are you? Which brings us full circle to accusations of VS being like a a boast that you’re far more humble and less judgemental than these ignorant, preening asses.

21

MrMister 12.05.19 at 4:34 pm

I think the old-fashioned term for virtue signalling is sanctimony, not hypocrisy. Notably, sanctimony is also compatible with genuine belief and/or commitment. It does connote that the committed person has a degree of self-love over their commitments, and that perhaps the frequency or intensity of their display of their commitments is caused by an underlying desire to experience that self-love whenever the opportunity arises.

The psychological claims about people who use “virtue signalling” in this post strike me as not credible, at least if taken as anything like a description of their conscious thoughts. Few people are such villains in their own story. Even as a description of the deep unconscious processes leading people to their conscious commitments, this strikes me as implausible. Politics is extremely cultural. How could it be otherwise, when its covariance with race, class, gender, and other social factors is extremely strong, and its covariance with cognitive styles and ability is so weak? (Haidt’s work has failed to replicate). People respond to cues from respected community members, family, etc., about the values they’re supposed to hold, or that would be prudent to hold, and when they do directly think about the issues “on the merits” their thought is extremely clouded by confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Basically, I think McManus above has a needed dose of realism about how omnipresent cultural posturing and reproduction is as the default mode of engagement, which is depressing, although I do follow him in wanting to burn it all down and kill bucktons of people.

22

dh 12.05.19 at 4:39 pm

I see a lot of shithead MAGAts virtue-signaling in their widespread Jesus Structures, then fucking over out of these Jesus Structures everything Dead Jesus allegedly stood for.

23

MrMister 12.05.19 at 6:54 pm

*”do NOT follow him in wanting to burn it all down and kill bucktons of people.”

such a small omission, such a semantic impact

24

H 12.05.19 at 8:06 pm

It is useless to argue in public with the Republicans. They do all evil, say more evil and hear no good sense. They have made up their minds, for whatever reason or cause, and the American flag is holy to them even if Trump wipes his ass with it as he does the Constitution.
They are authoritarians who are poised to make the fatal power grab in the coming election. All they understand is raw power and any of their rhetoric is all fired up and is smeared withfake gold. There is no use debating them because they have no arguments and no use shaming them because it only validates them and eggs them on. The only thing to do is fight them, and the main theater for that is the voting booth. The left has to play to win and not to stage a debating society. Being right matters, but as witness the success of Trump, being right and being a decent human being has nothing to do with winning Presidential elections. He is an unconventional threat fight a full throttled guerilla war in the elcetions

25

Kenny Easwaran 12.05.19 at 8:06 pm

I think “virtue signaling” is a really useful concept that has only recently entered the lexicon. But I think that most people that use it don’t recognize that their uses of it constitute virtue signaling of their own – that is, the only noticeable effect of them having mentioned the concept of “virtue signaling” is that others will be aware that they are aware of the status of the original action, and aware of how smart they are for recognizing it as such.

26

Tohubohu 12.05.19 at 8:15 pm

Sanctimony–correct word, I think–puts me in mind of that old bumper sticker, “I brake for animals” of which I once saw an example tidily shortened to: “I bake animals”.

27

Tohubohu 12.05.19 at 8:24 pm

A nifty, not nasty, corrective to those sporting the original, so I took it, saying gently, “your sticker is superfluous.”

28

Marc 12.05.19 at 9:04 pm

This is an interesting case, because this is also very much a dispute between people on the left. For example, I recently read an article tied to professional development in my field. At the very opening was an apology starting with “I recognize that I’m speaking as a cisgendered white female….”. I see no difference between this and someone starting their writing out by proclaiming their devout religious faith. It’s the impulse to make absolutely everything about your intellectual hobby-horses; to inject appeals to the in-group into all topics, regardless of whether they’re relevant.

And, of course, the label is also used as a tribal weapon by the right. But the exasperation with self-righteous scolds, and the fear of the mobs they can empower, transcends ideological boundaries. Those of us on the left will simply have to fight these tendencies; even if we win, the revolution will devour it’s own if we do not.

29

Trader Joe 12.05.19 at 9:41 pm

The problem I have with the whole concept is the stereotyping and bias implicit in it.

When I see the Rainbow I’m supposed to think open minded, inclusive and left-thinking and that’s fully o.k in the minds of liberals, but not in the minds of the Conservatives who see something else (which I’m not inclined to list).

When I see the MAGA I’m supposed to think closed minded, racist and right-thinking, but Conservatives would see hard-working Americans trying to make their country a better place.

I’ve never actually myself flown/worn either, though would do the former but not the latter. Is my unwillingness to signal a signal in itself?

20 years ago a red hat would have just been a red hat and the phrase behind it would have been patriotic, not racist. The rainbow flag would have been quicker to start a fight than a celebration.

Why is it o.k. to make tribal judgments on these symbols and not leap to similar judgmental conclusions when I see a Hispanic, a Woman or disabled person – is it just because they are protected classes or they just don’t have obvious or singular symbols.
It seems like a slim line between virtue signaling and hate signaling….which is perhaps JQs point made differently.

30

Dr. Hilarius 12.05.19 at 10:24 pm

Displaying a rainbow flag or wearing a MAGA hat strikes me as visible tribal identification more than virtue signaling. I think MrMister’s mention of sanctimony is closer to the truth. Another poster mentioned Pharisees and public prayer.

Consider a meeting to discuss replacing culverts to allow better passage of spawning salmon. The participants represent various interested parties, private and government. The meeting is disrupted by a person who proceeds to lecture all present about the history of racism, broken treaties and Native American reverence for nature. This person is not Native American. The speaker assumes that his/her information is unknown to the audience. The information does nothing to advance the goal of culvert replacement nor does it do anything to right historic wrongs. The speaker gets to feel superior. This is high-grade virtue signaling.

It has been my experience that virtue signalling is often practiced on behalf of marginalized groups by people who do not belong to that group but presume to speak for them.

31

oldster 12.05.19 at 11:01 pm

Small correction. I believe you meant to write, not:

The point of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

but rather:

The point of accusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

32

SamChevre 12.05.19 at 11:17 pm

I’ll second several commenters above: “virtue signalling” isn’t primarily an accusation of hypocrisy. The related accusations targeted at the right are “sanctimony” and “prudishness” more than hypocrisy. The accusation is that you care more about “being seen as the sort of person who supports X” than about X.

33

Orange Watch 12.05.19 at 11:46 pm

bianca steele@13:

There is indeed a large number of people who use both phrases – and these groups also tend to decry anything that identifies someone as not being a cis het white European-descended conservative man as seeking to manipulate people for their own gain. One can identify themself as “the default” all day, but expressing any identity outside what “is normal”? There plainly must be nefarious motives for saying that – or for not attacking others who are saying that. Possibly the most explicitly expressed version of this idea is the Tits or GTFO meme that has circulated in certain online sewers for over a decade.

34

Chetan Murthy 12.06.19 at 1:38 am

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The MAGA hat is all of these things, but like the Dixie Swastika, it is something more: it is a warning to uppity non-whites, women, etc, that they better watch their step. And this is DIFFERENT from “owning the libs”. It’s a warning to every person like me, that I better not insist on my rights, or I might find myself beat up or worse some night. To every woman who insists on her rights, that *worse* will happen to her.

It’s a statement, an assertion, of naked power. In that sense it is indeed about “vice signaling”. As in: “yeah, we’re back in control, so siddown and shaddup.”

35

Chetan Murthy 12.06.19 at 1:43 am

SusanC@8:

For that matter, terrorism itself, in its typical modern form, could be regarded as vice signalling: ostentatiously commiting public acts of violence ostensibly in support of a political cause, without regard to whether the political cause is in fact being advanced by their actions.

I thought that many terrorists actually thought this thru? E.g. Al Qaeda certainly did: their goal (and that of many Islamist terrorists in the West) is to cause Western society to turn on the Muslim communities in their midst, hence producing fallow fields for the nurturing of new generations of terorrists. Eventually the West will be weakened and in turmoil, and this will allow AQ and others to retake their homelands. And, well, they succeeded partially in that, eh?

Also, I remember reading a VERY interesting article about the IRA and how they were VERY careful to calibrate the impact of their terrorist acts, b/c they understood that going too far would be bad, bad news for their cause.

Of course, you could also argue that many terrorist groups aren’t so skilled at all this. But I would hesitate to derive some social-classification-ist theory of terrorists, that is based mostly on their incompetence.

36

Chetan Murthy 12.06.19 at 1:50 am

Alison @ 14:

I think those who make accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ believe that nobody *really* cares about – whatever – climate change, hunger, women’s rights.

YES! For instance, many eloquent observers have noted that the RW/Christofascist f0lks pretty much don’t believe or understand the concept of consent. So they conflate sex with: (1) people of the same sex, (2) children, (3) animals all together. And when we insist that these are different things, they accuse us of virtue signaling.

Some of this virtue signaling is simply the denial of moral agency and subject-hood, to entire categories of people. So when we insist that Trayvon Martin was murdered, that Tamir Rice was murdered, we’re accused of virtue signaling. Because the only other choice, is to admit that those two children had rights that were violated.

37

engels 12.06.19 at 2:19 am

I think it means making a political statement in order to look good, where good is understood in a moral sense. That’s a real phenomenon, especially in our age of online narcissism/personal branding, and it probably does affect the liberal-left more than the right because left-liberal politics tends to be more morally inspired.

I wouldn’t use the term myself (or SJW) because it’s a right-wing shibboleth and it’s usually used unfairly but the idea itself isn’t nonsense imo.

38

Bernard Yomtov 12.06.19 at 2:28 am

I agree with SusanC at 7 and cs at 10 that the term is mostly intended to suggest that you support some cause or other that you don’t really care about, as a way to identify yourself, or establish bona fides, with some group.

As such, it is an obnoxious and useless term, since in almost all cases it implicitly claims mind-reading skills, and is a sort of ad hominem attack. To say that someone is virtue signalling when they display a rainbow flag is to avoid engaging with the implied argument for SSM, say, and to suggest that it is so obviously wrong that the flag waver must have ulterior motives.

We would be better off without it.

39

Orange Watch 12.06.19 at 9:18 am

Alison@14:

Very true – asserting “no one is really virtuous, so I’m blameless for my vices, and your claim to virtue is in fact a vice” is certainly one of the usages of accusations of VS that one sees. It’s a lot like calling a classmate who cares about doing the work and learning the material a nerd or pretentious, or someone who cares “too much” about civics and politics try-hard, or over-earnest, or lame, or a nerd, etc. That’s more of a nihilistic usage than an overtly political one – certainly it’s not an overtly partisan one.

40

SusanC 12.06.19 at 9:48 am

An alternative take on “vice signalling”: its ostentatiously violating the values of a community you don’t belong to, in order to demonstrate that you don’t belong to it.

Virtue signally and vice signaling might occur simultaneously (publiclly violating the norms of the community you dont want to be associated with, while publicly asserting your membership of the community you do want to be associated with).

I am now wondering about ganapuja in tantric Buddhism (if you’re not bound by the monastic vows of vinaya, opportunity to eat meat, consume alcohol, etc.[*])

[*]exact content of “etc.” may vary

41

MFB 12.06.19 at 10:01 am

We don’t really have the term “virtue signalling” in South Africa, but we do have the thing itself, and perhaps it’s worth considering how problematic the thing is, and therefore, how valuable the term is (contra Mr. Yomtov).

South African virtue signalling revolves almost entirely around racism. Now, in South Africa, there’s lots of whites who are racist but are very strongly discouraged from showing their racism verbally thanks to very strong legislation against it. (There’s also lots of blacks who are racist, but since it’s official doctrine that blacks can’t be racist because they are oppressed, this isn’t talked about much.) Various official organisations exist to punish white racism (apart from the regular courts), such as the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Courts.

The point about this is that it’s important to signal your virtue by showing how much you support the system, regardless of whether it actually works to discourage racism (which it doesn’t) or whether it’s fair and just (it isn’t). So an entire media industry has arisen to chide white racists, largely based on people shouting along with Twitter, and to cheer on the current system.

Last week in the city nearest me (East London) a middle-aged Afrikaner farmer named Joubert beat a sangoma (an amaXhosa spiritualist and healer) to death with a rifle butt on his farm. The locals called the police, who swiftly came to the farm and killed the farmer. The local newspaper, the Daily Dispatch, then splashed the story as an example of white racism, thus signalling their non-racist virtue. The Economic Freedom Fighters, who are the only political party whom the media admit to be racist (largely because they are also anti-plutocrat) then charged onto the farm and occupied it, declaring themselves to be doing this to protect black people from the evil white farmer (thus signalling their non-racist virtue and also getting free drinks since they looted the dead farmer’s bar).

The Dispatch, however, then sought to keep the story going by giving a bit more information. So we learned that the farmer had a lot of black friends (one of whom the Dispatch interviewed — he seemed puzzled by the whole affair and had been making videos for the farmer), hosted music concerts with black performers on his farm, and was studying to become a sangoma himself (which, whatever you think of traditional amaXhosa spiritual culture, is a very tough process) under the sangoma whom he beat to death. In other words, all the virtue signalling which the Dispatch and the EFF had undertaken, while completely consistent with the official non-racist doctrine of the state and its virtue doctrines, was complete rubbish and taught us nothing about what was going on. As a result of all the posturing, we know less about what Joubert was doing, or why he committed the murder, than we would have known otherwise, and the whole episode has been used to damage race relations whereas the purpose of combatting racism is supposed to be to heal race relations.

I think this is what the issue is about, in which case virtue signalling is worth noting because it is something which serves to cover up — sometimes inadvertently, as I think in this case, but I’m sure sometimes deliberately — essential hypocrisy and corruption.

42

harry b 12.06.19 at 1:22 pm

I love this post John — it made me see things a bit differently, and made me laugh. I want to send it to my vice-signalling father in law, but am not sure it would go down well (he may see it anyway).

A couple of musings:
engels says “I wouldn’t use the term myself (or SJW) because it’s a right-wing shibboleth and it’s usually used unfairly but the idea itself isn’t nonsense imo.”
I take this as a basically friendly comment. What engels is saying is that he, while irritated by the sanctimony involved in some ‘mere’ virtue signalling (when unaccompanied by the right kind of will and disposition) understands that using the term as abuse aligns him with the vice signallers.

Also. Long ago, on the English left, we had the adjective “right on” which we used to refer to someone who had adopted all the ‘correct’ left positions and was ostentatious in demonstrating that those positions guided their personal choices (no Israeli grapes; no South African whatevers; banked, as I did, with the Co-op; often wore a Yasser Arafat-style scarf; listened to a lot of Reggae… whatever) but whom we suspected of not being fully reliable when it came to action. It could be a term of affection, or one of suspicion, and it had wide application. And, of course, was frequently used casually and ironically (“Oh, that’s very right on of you”, if someone was taking a taxi instead of walking.) It also served the function of warning ourselves that if we shifted, culturally, too far from the people whose hearts and minds we needed to win, we’d become a sect, not a political force, something we all knew was a present danger. I’ve long thought that the term “politically correct” (which, also, emerged within the left, as a term expressing suspicion, but was subsequently adopted by the right) meant basically the same thing as “right on”, but your post makes me wonder whether “right on” was picking up on the actual phenomenon of virtue signalling, in a way that “politically correct” didn’t.

43

bianca steele 12.06.19 at 2:40 pm

The entire concept of virtue signaling depends on assuming that the only people talking are “default” people. Flying a rainbow flag if you’re gay is just selfishness, I suppose, and none of us is better than that, but it can be assumed that nobody here has any “special” qualities that separate him from the group.* Moreover, nobody *actually* supports rights for LGBT, the “default” is contempt. Therefore, anybody *here* who flies a rainbow flag or the equivalent is either lying or a deviant.

Of course, it also assumes that the only people *listening* are default people.

The end result is to raise the cost of being a non-default person or to protest mistreatment of such people. Which presumably why it happens.

* I doubt I’m the only person who’s been challenged on some minority status they possess, as to whether they *really* belong to that group or are *really* committed to it sufficiently that they should be permitted to assert it as if it weren’t some horrible defect. I’ve no patience at this point in my life for defenses like “everyone hates people who are different from them, you’re being quite unfair, we’re not talking about such horrible things as you fear, not at all.”

44

marcel proust 12.06.19 at 2:56 pm

I wrote something (more wordy) along the following lines yesterday, then deliberately closed the browser tab before clicking on submit, but I think I will try again, now that additional thoughtful comments are available.

The typical use of VS refers to someone from a different tribe or political community, and the discussions of both sanctimony and hypocrisy get to this (though some of the discussion of sanctimony also touches on use within the same community). An additional source of VS is for the virtue-signaler to position their dominance in a hierarchy within a community/tribe. That is, one signals virtue to place oneself above an interlocutor in the local hierarchy. I am thinking here of the leftier-than-thou approach that I recall in particular from when I was in college (in the US in the mid-70s), but which is not unique to that place and time, nor, I imagine, to the left.

As harry b observes above (though with some skepticism I think), the term <i"politically correct was originally developed to address and curb this behavior.

45

bianca steele 12.06.19 at 2:59 pm

I think it’s interesting that comments here divide into “here is how I’ve heard the word used” (sometimes with some indication of where they’ve heard the word used), and “here are some examples of what I think the word actually means.” I’ve done the latter myself more than once, but it seems to me that’s not what the OP was calling for.

46

marcel proust 12.06.19 at 3:54 pm

@bianca steele: RE: what the OP was calling for.

JQ mentions hypocrisy, asks why we need a new term for an age-old behavior, and answers (in part) both that it is a passive-aggressive way to avoid an assertion that can be demonstrated to be wrong and is a way to argue for a position that is not supportable either reasonably or morally, merely tribally . Some of the comments, including mine, respond either (or both) that hypocrisy does not completely capture what VS gets at, or (and) that the term is not used merely by the right to complain about and accuse those on the left. These comments strike me as not off topic.

47

nastywoman 12.06.19 at 4:45 pm

@43
”but it can be assumed that nobody here has any “special” qualities that separate him from the group.*

made me smile – as I AM (ME!) can very well ”surf” AND ”dive” and is… ”blond”.
– which could get us to:

* I doubt I’m the only person who’s been challenged on some minority status they possess, as to whether they *really* belong to that group or are *really* committed to it sufficiently that they should be permitted to assert it as if it weren’t some horrible defect”.
-(for example being ”blond”)

And perhaps? being young(er)? you need a lot of patience for defenses like “everyone hates people who are different from them, you’re being quite unfair, we’re not talking about such horrible things as you fear, not at all.”

48

bianca steele 12.06.19 at 5:00 pm

Orange Watch @ 39

I’m not sure it’s anti-intellectualism as such that’s driving the use of the term “virtue signaling.” The kind of people who make that accusation don’t prize egalitarian values. They believe in hierarchy. (They appear to be egalitarians, sometimes, because they often recognize only two/three levels of hierarchy: high, low, and outside. They insist on being treated as just as good as every other person at their own level, and on “low” not being treated as derogatory. They insist on every person at the high level being treated identically, which is why they can’t grasp the fact that Congress can exert checks and balances over the behavior of Donald Trump. And they insist no person who’s outside being treated better than any other: for example, Obama.) Someone like John Quiggin, or the other front-pagers here, can make a show of complex thought, moral condemnation, or demands for complex reading skills. Anyone else, and it’s “I have to take that kind of talk from my pastor, but I’m not going to take it from you!”

All the rest of it is rationalization for why various objections to this three-caste rule don’t matter.

There are people who try to straddle the line. Those are usually liberals, and if they allow themselves to be detected, probably will be subject to accusations of “virtue signaling” themselves.

49

Colin R 12.06.19 at 8:03 pm

I think Alison @14 is completely correct about what conservatives use the term, and contra @39 I think it is a decidedly political argument. The problem conservatives face is that many of the things they want are indefensible in moral or ethical terms; ‘virtue-signalling’ through its cynicism completely removes morals and ethics from the discussion by turning them into empty preening on the behalf of their enemies.

50

Orange Watch 12.06.19 at 9:48 pm

Collin R@49:

I don’t mean it’s not political in so far as it would not have political ramifications; I mean it’s a rejection of the political relevance of morality. Its effect is very political in that it counsels disengagement and chides against the efficacy of collective action for dealing with matters in moral terms, but the act itself is not ostensibly tied to any political ideology in particular – it’s nihilistic if taken at face value. That was not well-stated on my part, though, and still may not be.

I would caution against your conclusion that conservatism is full of morally/ethically indefensible goals. This is rarely true; there are ethical and moral underpinnings to almost everything conservatism advocates for. What there may not be is ethical underpinnings that are compatible with the communal understanding of ethics and morality in our society – and rather than making the case for the commonly accepted moral/ethical standards being wrong, decrying virtue ethics can function much like an extremely sweeping invocation of moral relativism might: it can act as an assertion that there is no agreed-upon standard of correct behavior, so acting like there is one is dishonest and presumptuous – even when there are agreed-upon standards and the VS accuser wants to be judged according to them even in terms of the accustation of VS (e.g., sanctimonious behavior is odious).

51

bianca steele 12.06.19 at 11:01 pm

marcel proust @ 49

There are people in this thread who say the term is not used only viciously and only by conservstives. This seems to them to be the most important fact at issue. I see that some are in England and some (who also may be in England) say they are on the left and use the term. They don’t say where they use the term, whether online or elsewhere. I also see that the term is used viciously by conservatives, exclusively, in the US, online. This seems to me to be the most important fact.

52

John Quiggin 12.06.19 at 11:31 pm

Bianca @51 Spiked (the former Revolutionary Communist Party) uses the term enthusiastically and claim to be leftwingers when it suits them. They absolutely aren’t.

Here are a couple of relevant links

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/08/02/rememberance-of-things-pastish/
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/dec/09/highereducation.uk2

53

steven t johnson 12.07.19 at 12:19 am

54

Jim Buck 12.07.19 at 8:13 am

I am happy to signal my support for all that the rainbow flag may represent. Amour-propre on my part? Definitely. Amour de soi too. I value (and expect) the approval of individuals who otherwise may take me for gammon. I can bear the cost of being identified as the opposition by individuals whom I consider my opponents. I sneer at the efforts of retiarii who fail in their efforts to trip me with their Pascalian nets. Spiked? They are hypocrites, patently so.

55

Chris Bertram 12.07.19 at 9:16 am

I see “virtue signalling” just as one element in pro-social norm establishment and enforcement. Much of the sneering comes from people who resent the idea that they should have to change their own behaviour and so want to stigmatize and undermine those who are pushing for norm change as hypocrites.

56

engels 12.07.19 at 10:33 am

Pete Buttigieg Thinks Chick-Fil-A Boycotters Are “Virtue Signaling”
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/henrygomez/pete-buttigieg-chick-fil-a-gaydar

57

engels 12.07.19 at 10:41 am

I invented ‘virtue signalling’. Now it’s taking over the world
https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/i-invented-virtue-signalling-now-its-taking-over-the-world/

58

engels 12.07.19 at 12:34 pm

What engels is saying is that he, while irritated by the sanctimony involved in some ‘mere’ virtue signalling (when unaccompanied by the right kind of will and disposition) understands that using the term as abuse aligns him with the vice signallers.

I guess. Plus I hate the EvPsych pretentiousness. I just think if there wasn’t a grain of truth in it it wouldn’t have taken off. I think this is the kind of situation where it might be deserved:

https://mobile.twitter.com/TomLondon6/status/1203002840148512772

59

Mike Huben 12.07.19 at 2:16 pm

As I see it, what’s needed here is rhetorical jiu jitsu.

I like Quiggan’s idea of vice signalling: thus in response to “You are virtue signalling” you could say “Oh, does that mean you are vice signalling?”

This is really in the same category as “When did you stop beating your wife?” The correct answer to that is “When did you stop f***ing your mother?”

Indirect accusations are easily met with other, more vicious indirect accusations, rather than head on defenses.

Does anybody have other suggestions for counters?

60

Barry 12.07.19 at 4:25 pm

Chetan Murthy 12.06.19 at 1:50 am

” Some of this virtue signaling is simply the denial of moral agency and subject-hood, to entire categories of people. So when we insist that Trayvon Martin was murdered, that Tamir Rice was murdered, we’re accused of virtue signaling. Because the only other choice, is to admit that those two children had rights that were violated.”

Three things are key:

1) Every accusation from the right is a confession (see the current set of right-wings wailing about impeaching Trump and recall what they said in 1998).

2) These people *support* these acts of evil. As the old Army chant went, they like it, they love it, they want more of it. However, admitting it would alienate to many in the middle, so they have to cover it. They try to discredit those opposing evil.

3) I believe that a lot of these people can’t understand why others would care. It’s no skin off of their noses. I’ve noticed that the right has a striking lack of empathy.

61

Chetan Murthy 12.07.19 at 6:19 pm

engels@65:

Pete Buttigieg Thinks Chick-Fil-A Boycotters Are “Virtue Signaling”

Heh, I read part of the linked article, until I couldn’t stand the treacly smarm. He doesn’t think any such thing — he says it b/c he’s trying to win the votes of embarrassed homophobes by telling ’em “it’s OK to be homophobic, I won’t bite your head off.”

62

mtraven 12.07.19 at 6:47 pm

63

steven t johnson 12.07.19 at 10:13 pm

Seven years of boycott is all it takes to get one company to drop two charities!
https://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/os-bz-chik-fil-a-charity-20191118-n62iyftwpvgona23ttieoc6uyu-story.html

The consumer is king, boycotts are effective political activism and everybody who ate/eats at Chik-Fil-A was/is a homophobe who should be ashamed. Clearly, saying political issues should be dealt with in the political arena instead of the marketplace is treacherous folly.

Sarcasm aside, context matters. When Buttigieg talks about approving their chicken, it means he’s talking about how the popularity of Chik-Fil-A made the boycott ineffective as a tool, leaving it as a more or less meaningless gesture, how the choice of Chik-Fil-A was kind of random in the first place, and how eating at Chik-Fil-A is not a sound diagnostic for identifying homophobia.

Condemning a gay candidate for not passing the Chil-Fil-A test for purity on gay issues when no other candidates need pass any test at all strikes me as a meaningless claim to virtue. But it’s a convenient way to savagely insult a gay candidate while reminding everyone he’s gay. The claim that eating at Chik-Fil-A means you’re a homophobe, is vice signalling is the issue. The thing is, it’s not. Saying so may be treacly, but it’s not homophobic apologetics either. All that’s just about hating Buttigieg. Buttigieg is a terrible candidate because he is capitalist to the bone. But hating him instead of Warren who is too is only about being down on him.

Buttigieg is not going to be the nominee, so when Nathan Robinson goes nuts on Buttigieg it’s not about the politics.8 When the New Republic suddenly discovers the need for a radical gay perspective on the undesirability of marriage, the desirability of sexual freedom for multiple partners etc and the need to shatter social convention, it’s not about the politics.* Pretending Buttigieg’s low polling with blacks condemns him when Biden’s high polling with blacks doesn’t count isn’t about the politics.* When a columnist for The Root invents the term “Buttganger” and dog whistles about wanting to physically attack Buttigieg it’s not about the politics.* Fortunately those of us who do care about his bad politics can enjoy him representing, because he’s not going to be the nominee.

*Unless the “politics” are, you don’t really like …..

64

Donald 12.08.19 at 12:42 am

The term is related to “ Social Justice Warrior”. It is both a rightwing attack on people who oppose racism ( or sexism or homophobia) and also a term that is used to criticizes sanctimonious posturing, as others have pointed out.

Go back a few decades. The term “ politically correct” was originally invented, I think, by lefties to make fun of other lefties who were overly puritanical and self righteous. The term was then hijacked by the center and the right to ridicule anyone to their left. In this case I am not sure who invented “ virtue signaling” ( I haven’t read the links someone provided above) but the term along with SJW is used by both lefties and righties to describe certain behaviors, though the right uses it much more broadly and maliciously.

65

engels 12.08.19 at 2:34 am

Fwiw I don’t think either ‘virtue signaling’ or ‘SJW’ are really used on the Left (‘woke’ and ‘PC’ are). Ymmv.

66

bekabot 12.08.19 at 2:44 am

Rainbows who attempt to rely on my support will be disappointed.

Will rainbows who depend upon you not to persecute them also be disappointed? Because for many rainbows, that’s enough.

67

mtraven 12.08.19 at 5:09 am

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is just a not a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

There’s a typo in the above, and the meaning is a bit unclear. I think what you mean “not just a matter of semantics”? And I think what you REALLY mean is that the semantics of the two signals are different, one signals something like virtue, the other loyalty.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

I don՚t think that՚s quite right. It is a claim, a claim that you can be a patriotic American while supporting racism, misogyny, and corruption. It is a claim on a certain version of America. A false claim, one hopes. But it՚s a political statement and so is making some kind of claim, just not the kind of claim we are used to recognizing in civilized liberal society.

No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise.

At a certain level it is denying that virtue exists or that any virtue claims are legitimate, and that identity and power is everything, ethics and virtue are nothing. This is a basic feature of Trumpism and fascism in general.

68

John Quiggin 12.08.19 at 7:16 am

I’ve fixed the typo. See if that clarifies things.

69

John Quiggin 12.08.19 at 7:22 am

@Oldster Thanks, I’ve fixed this.

70

Fake Dave 12.08.19 at 7:36 am

I think it’s interesting that people haven’t talked about virtue signalling, “sjws” etc. as being hallmarks of the “extremely online.” The first person who I heard use either term aloud was a mentally ill 4Chan addict who not long after went full shut-in and wound up institutionalized for a while.

Maybe this crowd is a little too old and sophisticated to have spent much time in the mystical land of Kekistan where everyone is assumed to be a lonely young white male with poor hygiene/social skills (universal low self-esteem is a defining part of the culture) by default and all others are treated as interlopers (“normie,” “tryhard,” “fake nerd girl” etc.). These people largely self select by their own degraded self-image. 4Chan was started by a group of teenage anime nerds who got run out of the Something Awful Forums for being too weird/creepy/lame even for other nerds so the chip on the shoulder was baked in from the start.

A lot of channers, Twitter nazis, gamergaters and other foot soldiers of the alt right basically don’t have offline social lives. Certainly they’re not “political” in the community-oriented sense of the word. They spend the vast majority of their free time in a digital hall of mirrors where everyone is assumed to be like them and they are assumed to be like everyone else (and can always cloud their genuine personality in a haze of venomous irony). These people may only stay in this simulacrum of a subculture for a few years (often until they get a real job/girlfriend), but there’s always more alienated boys to refill the ranks and, since everyone is hiding behind personas anyway, the actual turnover rate is impossible to estimate. The original 4channers are mostly pushing forty these days and have largely left the scene, but the ethos lives on.

In particular, there’s still a lot of belief on the internet that everyone with a Tumblr blog or a Twitter account or a Twitch stream is just doing it for the attention. They don’t really care about whatever they’re talking about, they’re just trying to get attention. This is a reflection of how an awful lot of young people (no less the channels themselves) actually seem to approach the internet so there’s enough reality for people to by into it.

It’s worth noting that the conventional wisdom about gamergate just being about misogyny isn’t quite right. The disdain for uppity women is very real, but the targets were almost always bloggers and journalists and Twitter personalities — basically, people in the attention industry. People who were confident enough to promote themselves under their real names and with real pictures and YouTube videos and signature affectations like blue hair or flashy outfits. Suddenly, good looking and charismatic young people seemed to be taking over a culture that had (allegedly) been for the outcasts.

Many of these same young turks were also active in trying to spread pop-intersectionalism, trans acceptance, sex/body positivity, and similar newfangled ideas. Since these people had the temerity to actually try making a living online and more attention= more money, their own motives were suspect. Everyone else who agreed with them was assumed to be a white night or a follower trying for a bit of residual praise (which certainly does happen). They saw “fake” online personalities pushing scary new political perspectives and getting a shocking amount “unearned” attention for it and assumed that it was all just another hollow online fad perpetrated by people who were trying to put themselves above everyone else. Hence, virtue signalling.

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Collin Street 12.08.19 at 10:33 am

At a certain level it is denying that virtue exists or that any virtue claims are legitimate

Not so. It’s not “any virtue claims” are illegitimate, but that virtue claims that are not ones they make themselves are illegitimate. Their own claims are valid, but anyone who claims to want something different must be faking it for social approval.

Again: the problem is that people on the right don’t actually realise/comprehend that different people want different things. If you’re projecting your own beliefs onto others, if you’re a bigot who’s projecting your own beliefs onto others, then the only explanation that’ll come to mind for a person who expresses a desire that gay people not be killed or what-have-you, is that they’re faking it for social approval: that they genuinely believe that gay people are humans deserving of human rights isn’t an explanation that’s available to you because it’s not a thought you think.

[see also the problems the right has always had with handling coordination problems: under the analytical framework/mental dysfunction we’re talking about, coordination problems can’t arise because everyone’s identical inside. So coordination problems aren’t something that really happens and a person who raises them must be doing so in bad faith]

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Ebenezer Scrooge 12.08.19 at 2:45 pm

I like the word “sanctimony” used above. But what about that wonderful Australian word: “wowser”?
In my experience, left sanctimony is pretty much undiluted. Right sanctimony has a heaping dollop of hypocrisy added. (Barney Frank’s “the right to life begins at conception and ends at birth.”) Both are all too common.

73

William Timberman 12.08.19 at 3:30 pm

bob mcmanus’s contribution tickled me, as his contributions often do. Reminded me of Bertolt Brecht at his most droll. We could use a lot more of these communist cabaret routines, I think, especially when being morally battered by the likes of Hillary, Joe, Elizabeth, and Pete. (Bernie I exempt, mostly because he seems to believe what he’s saying, or at least he’s been saying it for a long time, even when nobody was paying him any attention.)

Virtue signaling may be a right-wing trope, but if you understand what they’re objecting to as the passive-aggressive self-righteousness that we all know exists, whether or not we admit it, it doesn’t seem an evil concept per se. Truth be told, the social practices it mocks are annoying even when they aren’t in the slightest degree tainted by hypocrisy.

In other words, I agree with the OP’s take on the etymology of the term, but I disagree about its usefulness outside the MAGA/white supremacist/dominionist mutual admiration cults that are currently plaguing us. It’s probably not worth the effort that it would take to reclaim it as a neutral term, but if we could, it might very well prove useful. (I mean if we let them assimilate Pepe the frog without a fight, maybe it’s time to demand a little reciprocity….)

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steven t johnson 12.08.19 at 4:18 pm

engels@65 “Fwiw I don’t think either ‘virtue signaling’ or ‘SJW’ are really used on the Left (‘woke’ and ‘PC’ are). Ymmv.”

Yes, it’s true that Buttigieg isn’t a leftist, just like every other Democratic Party candidate…and if you include anti-imperialism as being left, neither is Sanders. Sanders is falsely accused of being a retread New Dealer, but the New Dealers played footsie with socialists and Communists (official trademark!) which Sanders never has and never will. He’s at most a Fair Dealer like Truman, not even a Henry Wallace Progressive Party type. It is impossible to imagine a Harry Hopkins in even a Sanders administration, much less a Warren regime.

Not directly OT…There is a subset here who like SF. There was an episode of Stargate SG-1 called “Revisions.” A man-made biosphere in a planet rendered globally uninhabitable by folly is slowly failing, and shrinking as it fails. The computer system that operates the biosphere also feeds information directly into the brain of every individual living within. Whenever the system abandons land and people to the lethal environment, it re-writes the information available to the remaining people, who are not even aware of what has been lost or how diminished their living space is becoming. SG-1 is sorely underestimated, but this single episode strikes me as relating to us far more than the anti-Communist hysteria in 1984. The conventional definition of “left” is very much like this pop scifi action-adventure story’s , except the story knows there’s something fishy about it.

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bianca steele 12.08.19 at 4:23 pm

I think Fake Dave gets a lot right (including, unfortunately, in my experience, his first paragraph). There’s an online culture that’s developed since well before 4chan was created, which presumably evolved for the environment in which it thrives. It partakes of some of the worst aspects of parts of American culture (the dismissal of nonconformism, as well as disruptive behavior, as “attention seeking” that should simply be condemned out of hand and then ignored), as well as some of the better ones (at times, genuine intellectual curiosity), and has absorbed other very online groups into itself. It isn’t clearly reflective of anything in the real world except its own perpetuation through time. It maintains enough of an appearance of reasonableness that it can manage to hold normies’ attention for enough time to achieve its goals. It appears “anti-elitist” enough (though it tends to possess its own kind of elitism) to fool silly people like Andrea Nagle into thinking it’s representative of a “left” movement. It pretends it’s only a threat to “elites” or “celebrities” and that the ordinary people have nothing to fear from it – which is true if “ordinary” is defined as “never going online and never dissenting from the Republican Party line.” It’s parasitic on mainstream “neoliberal” discourse to the extent that it manages often enough to pretend it’s just being reasonable.

It makes a heckuva lot of sense, in a world where dissent is nearly impossible. (Which is a world they’re adapted to, and thus what they would prefer.) Ordinary conservatives can’t get heard unless Donald Trump tells it like it is. Ordinary “egalitarian white people” cant get heard unless someone like “Anonymous” tells it like it is. Everyone else (and this is presumably projection on their part) is cowering in their living rooms, or under the camouflage of conformist virtue, waiting for it to be safe to publish their real feelings in Quillette.

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mtraven 12.08.19 at 5:13 pm

CollinStreet@72:

I don’t think I was very clear:

Someone wearing a MAGA hat while accusing the other side of “virtue signalling” is definitely signalling something — tribal affiliation, adherence to a certain set of values, whatever. And they have their own set of “virtues” (eg, military toughness). But at a fundamental level they aren’t playing the same virtue game as a liberal intellectual universalist. Fascist virtues aren’t universal; they are tribal, and the virtues and strengths of one tribe are pitted against those of others.

Again: the problem is that people on the right don’t actually realise/comprehend that different people want different things.

I actually think the problem is the opposite. People on the right, the more clearheaded ones anyway, are very cognizant that different people want different things, and ready to go to war over it. Civilized liberals tend to assume that we’re all cooperating in pursuit of a shared common good, which leaves them vulnerable.

Fascist thought is dismissive of the idea of virtue. It views life as a struggle between groups which is to be conducted on the basis of tribal self-interest without regard for justice or morality. That’s what I mean when I say that the use of “virtue signalling” is a subtle dig at virtue itself.

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Stephen 12.08.19 at 5:32 pm

Collin Street@72: “people on the right don’t actually realise/comprehend that different people want different things.”

Well, that’s very reassuring. It puts me (if you accept a Manichaean left/right dichotomy) definitely into the virtuous left camp, given my firm belief that different people do often in fact want very different things.

Hesitation, though: try applying Collin Street’s dictum to Adolf Hitler. I would say that he thought – in some cases perhaps quite deludedly, but sincerely – that virtuous German Aryans and diabolical German Jews wanted very different things. Does that mean that he was in fact on the left?

78

PD 12.08.19 at 7:00 pm

Does this originate with the custom, which strikes foreigners as curious, of flying a large Stars and Stripes on one’s house? How and when did that get started?

79

Orange Watch 12.08.19 at 7:40 pm

Collin Street@72

Not so. It’s not “any virtue claims” are illegitimate, but that virtue claims that are not ones they make themselves are illegitimate. Their own claims are valid, but anyone who claims to want something different must be faking it for social approval.

Sometimes this is true. There certainly are plenty of conservatives (and for that matter, liberals, but it seems more common among conservatives) who argue that “in your heart you know I’m right”, but that seems less common than it was a generation ago – possibly because religiosity has in general declined. It seems like there’s been some movement from an assumption of hypocrisy & deceit plus the same underlying values, to an assumption of ignorance/decadence & pride plus different & wrong values. In that context, the accusation of virtue signaling can take on a more nihilistic “all virtue claims are virtue signaling” as its bailey while retaining “your virtue claims are virtue signaling but mine are humble and sincere” as its motte.

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Suzanne 12.08.19 at 7:43 pm

28: “For example, I recently read an article tied to professional development in my field. At the very opening was an apology starting with “I recognize that I’m speaking as a cisgendered white female….”. I see no difference between this and someone starting their writing out by proclaiming their devout religious faith.”

It seems to me that a fairly obvious difference is that the first is apologetic, announcing from the get-go that the writer’s point of view may be somehow potentially compromised or limited, whereas people kicking off a speech or a piece of writing by declaring their devout religious faith rarely do so apologetically, at least in my experience.

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Chetan Murthy 12.08.19 at 8:13 pm

steven t johnson @ 63:

Condemning a gay candidate for not passing the Chil-Fil-A test for purity on gay issues when no other candidates need pass any test at all strikes me as a meaningless claim to virtue.

I don’t think that’s actually what happened, but I could be confusing the timeline. Specifically, I did not see anybody talking about Chik-Fil-A, and whether Buttigieg approved or disapproved, UNTIL AFTER he made that announcement and implied that boycotting Chik-Fil-A was akin to virtue-signaling. AFTER THAT, it started to get discussed.

To me, the problem wasn’t whether he, as a gay candidate, was taking this stand. It was that he felt it necessary to take that stand: in short, that he felt the need to piss on boycotters. This is a right-wing position, and just one of his many right-wing positions. THAT is what I find objectionable. So yeah, it’s about the politics. And it’s got nothing to do with the fact he’s a gay man.

Now maybe I came late to the controversy, and in fact there were people demanding to know what Buttigieg’s position was, on Chik-Fil-A, before he made that pronouncement. That’d be interesting to know, and would change my mind about what I saw as craven “SJW-bashing”.

P.S. Re: boycotts, you don’t really know how many people avoid Chik-Fil-A because of their association with homophobia. And your comments could be raised against many examples of boycotts. And yet they -do- work (as the Sleeping Giants campaign shows). Or BDS, for that matter.

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Orange Watch 12.08.19 at 10:02 pm

Fake Dave@70:

FWIW, in my @20 I was obliquely referring to the extremely online in the first category I listed, though I’ve seen enough spread of some of the “anti-attention-whoring” mindset that it’s no longer strictly the extremely online spouting it; once it moved from the safe spaces of those groups to places where they seek to redpill new members from among the normies, it started spreading to the normies.

The channites et al are certainly the groups most incensed about “using virtue” for “unearned” attention, but it’s both bled off into adjacent groups, and also is itself related to older social conservative tropes. But you’re spot-on in pointing out this group’s usage of it, and they’re far more influential in popularizing and promulgating tropes online than many people (who are generally blessedly ignorant of them) give them credit for.

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steven t johnson 12.08.19 at 10:59 pm

“I just want to make sure we don’t overrate ourselves in terms of our ability to be pure in this regard.” In the case of Chik-Fil-A specifically, telling someone that buying a meal for a family member with issues with food makes you homophobic is insulting. Being insulted to no great purpose makes the insult greater.

““If you’re turned off, as I am, by the political behavior of Chick-fil-A or their executives — if that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, so to speak, and you decide not to shop there, I’d certainly get it and I’d support that. But the reality is, we, I think, sometimes slip into a sort of virtue signaling in some cases where we’re not really being consistent. I mean, what about all the other places we get our chicken from?” As in, buying from the Colonel is racist, you should eat at Popeyes.

“I do not approve of their politics, but I kind of approve of their chicken.” Letting people off the hook for liking the chicken doesn’t strike me as pissing on boycotters

“I just want to make sure that we’re not too sanctimonious about this, because sometimes we put ourselves in this position of judgment that doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.” Chik-Fil-A is one of the few businesses that closes on Sunday, at first glance supporting the belief that the religious motive is sincere. Instructing people that the true Christian religion means boycotting Chik-Fil-A is worthy of scrutiny.

“My belief is that we should primarily deal with political issues in the political arena.” A truism, about as helpful as most.

None of this pisses on boycotters. The notion this is right wing is preposterous, as the right-wing position is, religious freedom. Denouncing people for eating chicken as homophobes is a dubious business. The surprise that a moderate like Buttigieg uses language that soothes opponents on an issue of doubtful efficacy is pretended, I think. Because polls are worrying her, Warren has taken up demanding that Buttigieg out his contributors, who are supposedly nothing but straight white right wingers who really think Buttigieg is a good investment in his future presidency. No wealthy gays wanting to establish a precedent for taking a gay candidate seriously, uh uh. But this kind of behavior is admirable to the pissed on supporters of the Chik-Fil-A boycott.

The only respectable argument I can get from this is that boycotts aren’t the liberal version of consumer politics and really do work, and therefore Buttigieg being so moderate on this one is wrong. I disagree, especially at the insinuation BDS is really making a difference.

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bob mcmanus 12.08.19 at 11:14 pm

Looking up a recent movie, “Cold Pursuit” because I really liked the original “In Order of Disappearance” and was interested in the changes necessary for a US adaptation, I glanced at the comments to an article. Page after page, maybe hundreds of people saying they will never watch another Liam Neeson movie. Google for the Neeson controversy if you don’t know it.

The relevant question is why so many had to make a public statement about their decision. And this is not unusual or an outlier. Every day everywhere you have to declare and demonstrate an affiliation.

I could come up with a dozen other examples on the left from today’s Guardian front page. “Whitewashing” at the presidential debates?

Like I said, the relentless tribalism and the gaslighting of anyone who points it out (and why do I bother anyway?) has just exhausted me.

80:”It seems to me that a fairly obvious difference is that the first is apologetic”

There is a lot more going on there than that, including the public adherence to a fairly controversial (standpoint) ideology. Maybe humblebragging.

85

J-D 12.09.19 at 12:09 am

P.S. Re: boycotts, you don’t really know how many people avoid Chik-Fil-A because of their association with homophobia. And your comments could be raised against many examples of boycotts. And yet they -do- work (as the Sleeping Giants campaign shows). Or BDS, for that matter.

By what standard do you evaluate whether a boycott works? The readership of Breitbart has declined since the Sleeping Giants campaign began, but to what extent is that attributable to the campaign? and what has been the effect of the BDS campaign on the lot of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

86

Donald 12.09.19 at 11:51 am

“ and what has been the effect of the BDS campaign on the lot of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?”

Gaza? Gaza is under a draconian Israeli blockade— fishermen can barely fish off Gaza. This was a very poor example for whatever point you think you are making.

BDS theoretically could have an effect on Palestinians on the West Bank who work for Israeli run businesses. If the effect were huge, you can bet that Israel supporters would become passionate advocates for the rights of Palestinians to work.

BDS, to the extent it works, works as a publicity tool. The Israeli suppporters fear it or you wouldn’t have so many states and local governments passing laws targeting the movement, along with various people in Congress.

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WLGR 12.09.19 at 1:52 pm

Seems to me that the crucial ideological connection here, and the reason why this term is so strongly associated with the right, is with the broader notion of “signaling” in discourses inspired (if perhaps only loosely) by evolutionary biology. It’s primarily the right, after all, that’s spent the past several decades mounting a dubious rhetorical bid for intellectual legitimacy by reframing its ideological sacred cows in the language of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, subdisciplines whose basic premises are themselves often regarded as highly dubious among actual working scientists, but are largely unquestioned these days in the far less rigorous spheres of airport-bestseller pop science and/or “sugar daddy science” (the latter two of which are deeply intertwined, as Evgeny Morozov makes particularly clear in his recent denunciations of the Jeffrey Epstein-affiliated A-list popsci literary agent John Brockman).

Without having done any actual in-depth linguistic research into the use history of the term “virtue signaling,” this strikes me as the most obvious explanation why what might seem like a politically evenhanded euphemism for “hypocrisy” or “moral grandstanding” is in practice a staple of the modern online right, because of how naturally it fits with the right’s use of rhetorical “biologization” as an ideological master signifier for all sorts of reactionary social and political tropes, from racism and sexism with their alleged roots in innate race/sex differences, to capitalist market competition itself with its alleged roots in Dawkins’ “selfish gene.”

88

EWM 12.09.19 at 2:28 pm

Both sides support the “State”, so any claim to virtue is always a lie.
What Nietzsche Said
“There are still peoples and herds somewhere, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states.

The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.
The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth; ‘I, the state, am the people.’
It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.
It is destroyers who set snares for many and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred desires over them.
Where a people still exists, there the people do not understand the state and hate it as the evil eye and sin against custom and law.
I offer you this sign: every people speaks its own language of good and evil: its neighbor does not understand this language. It invented this language for itself in custom and law.
But the state lies in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it says, it lies – and whatever it has, it has stolen.
Everything about it is false; it bites with stolen teeth. Even its belly is false.
Confusion of the language of good and evil; I offer you this sign of the state. Truly, this sign indicates the will to death! Truly, it beckons to the preachers of death!
Many too many are born: the state was invented for the superfluous!
Just see how it lures them, the many-too-many! How it devours them, and chews them, and re-chews them!
…It would like to range heroes and honorable men about it, this new idol! It likes to sun itself in the sunshine of good consciences – this cold monster!
It will give you everything if you worship it, this new idol: thus it buys for itself the luster of your virtues and the glance of your proud eyes.
It wants to use you to lure the many-too-many. Yes, a cunning device of Hell has here been devised, a horse of death jingling with the trappings of divine honors!
Yes, a death for many has here been devised that glorifies itself as life: truly a heart-felt service to all preachers of death!
I call it the state where everyone, good and bad, is a poison-drinker: the state where everyone, good and bad, loses himself: the state where universal slow suicide is called – life.”

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bianca steele 12.09.19 at 3:54 pm

“The relevant question is why so many had to make a public statement about their decision.”

I think this is the confusion of social interaction with public interaction, and it’s too far gone to turn back. People and situations where this is less blatantly toxic or demoralizing will flourish, along with people who are themselves oblivious to the moral questions raised, and people who can’t manage that will slip away. Those willing to take a strong stance against it (if that’s possible) will create their own spaces if they can. Eventually it will turn into something else – maybe minor punditry for those with platforms and declarations of followership for without. (The former have an interest in knowing who the latter are and are not, seeing it as a form of security. The latter may well have an interest in it as influencing how the algorithm treats their posts.)

It’s no more a new thing than preteen girls deciding the top they begged for a month ago can’t be worn in public anymore. It’s how people form social arrangements when connection is more important than content.

90

Trevor 12.09.19 at 8:11 pm

If this has made it into a longer piece I can’t find it, but Jane Coaston on Vice Signaling is interesting: https://twitter.com/cjane87/status/1126884369715597312 et seq.

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engels 12.09.19 at 9:01 pm

Yes, it’s true that Buttigieg isn’t a leftist, just like every other Democratic Party candidate…and if you include anti-imperialism as being left, neither is Sanders.

Regardless of whether Sanders is a true socialist/Stalinist/Scotsman I’ll bet peso to donuts he’s never used the phrase ‘virtue signalling’. Which was my only point.

92

F. Foundling 12.10.19 at 1:17 am

it’s true that Buttigieg isn’t a leftist, just like every other Democratic Party candidate… and if you include anti-imperialism as being left, neither is Sanders.
.
Sanders condemned the recent US-sponsored Bolivian coup, which is a rather extraordinary thing to do for a mainstream US figure. He vehemently castigated Trump’s decision to occupy Syria’s oil-rich regions. His stance on Venezuela may have been too ‘balanced’, but was still the best one voiced by a figure of his stature, and he is also reasonably critical of Israel and Trump’s extreme pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian moves. Overall, he seems to have got better on FP than he was in 2016 (and closer to what he was in the 80s w.r.t Nicaragua and the USSR). ‘Right’ and ‘left’ are relative, not absolute concepts, and Sanders is *more* of a leftist on FP / of an anti-imperialist than almost anybody running (except, in a way, Gabbard, in spite of the various reservations that apply to her).

93

Kiwanda 12.10.19 at 4:01 am

WLGR

:
It’s primarily the right, after all, that’s spent the past several decades mounting a dubious rhetorical bid for intellectual legitimacy by reframing its ideological sacred cows in the language of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, subdisciplines whose basic premises are themselves often regarded as highly dubious among actual working scientists,

I’m sure you’d agree that the validity of empirical claims doesn’t rest on whether they might be put to dubious uses, and that you would never discount scientific claims because they are politically inconvenient. What particular premises and what particular working scientists do you have in mind?
Suzanne:

It seems to me that a fairly obvious difference is that the first is apologetic, announcing from the get-go that the writer’s point of view may be somehow potentially compromised or limited, whereas people kicking off a speech or a piece of writing by declaring their devout religious faith rarely do so apologetically, at least in my experience.

The first is an affirmation of one of the mysteries of the left-identitarian faith, clearly: despite the fact that race and gender don’t actually exist, nonetheless whiteness and cisness are ineradicable moral stains.

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bob mcmanus 12.10.19 at 5:03 am

90: Good link;noted;far too aware; vice-signaling is demonic and I am chief among sinners for proselytizing misanthropy pretentiously.

Since my pride and fear find comfort in not-belonging and I can only express my grief as rage, I choose apophasis cause I like the word and kindly withdraw into silence. The crowd can label this signaling, until it graciously forgets me. Born to die a troll.

Words from the pastor of trolls

“Irony is the last refuge of the moralist”
“Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith.”
And oh, that comma that thinks itself misplaced and condemns the Author.

What the heck does it mean?
JJ:It’s meant to make you laugh.

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Jim Buck 12.10.19 at 8:11 am

@88 In prison, if a Nietzschean-virtue-signalling type is dumped on the wing, the chaps band together and each rush at a limb or other appendage on the body-builder bully. In play is none of the MVA that hampers the prison staff, he’s soon downed. State of Nature has unfair loopholes, says Fred You get it?

96

anon/portly 12.10.19 at 6:39 pm

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

I quoted at length because there’s much I don’t really follow here, although there’s also much I agree with.

First, I don’t follow why displaying a rainbow flag is signalling “virtue,” at least not in a general sense. It’s signalling support for Pride, it says “pro-gay” (or maybe pro-LGBTQ) in a general sense, at least in the USA. Maybe when Corporate America displays it, saying “hey Gay people, come shop with us, we’re good guys,” or when an educator displays it, saying “hey young people, I’m cool, I’m a good guy,” there’s an aspect of virtue signalling, tied up with personal gain. But when I see an individual, as an individual, display it, say on their shirt or their car or in their home, I don’t view “I’m virtuous” as part of the signal.

Of course we all like to think of our own cultural and/or political views as virtuous, but that doesn’t mean we want other people to think that we are describing ourselves as virtuous – that’s the whole sanctimony thing, isn’t it?

Why people who are against Gay marriage “don’t have any moral standing” for their view perplexes me. If you believe that society would be better off, that it would better promote human flourishing, isn’t that enough? That seems like the essential moral standing of people who are both for and against.

If various Christian and Islamic (et al) people base their opposition to Gay marriage in Holy Writ, I would say they’re wrong, in my view, but who am I say whether or not their view “lacks moral standing?”

But I totally agree that people who think homosexuality is a sin and who profess to believe in “norms of equal treatment and personal freedom” have to resolve that tension, one way or another. If a claim of “virtue signalling” is a way of finessing that, a way of criticizing the pro-Gay marriage view or pro-Gay views obliquely, then that’s smarmy.

The claim of “virtue signalling” seems like a cheap point in this case, but mainly because, as I’ve tried to argue, I don’t think people who display the Pride flag really are virtue signalling, for the most part. To the extent that they really are virtue signalling, wouldn’t that make the claim less of a cheap point? I guess I’m confused. (But will continue to believe that in the main, people who display the Pride flag are not in any important sense signalling virtue, but rather signalling their position on various political and/or cultural issues).

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steven t johnson 12.10.19 at 8:00 pm

The point that using the phrase virtue signalling is right wing is so doubtful as to be pointless.

98

anon/portly 12.11.19 at 5:26 pm

The MAGA hat (unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it.

If I’m confused by the discussion of virtue signalling, and I am, I’m even more confused here. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen a MAGA hat – I probably have, but I don’t remember for sure – but I’ve certainly seen a MAGA bumper sticker or two.

Is a MAGA bumper sticker also “deliberately offensive?” How about the more basic (and more common, I think) “Trump/Pence” bumper sticker? The only message I had ever taken from either of these bumper stickers was the one suggested by nastywoman in 6: “I’m a fan of Trump.”

Since political bumper stickers of this type are of course fairly common, it’s hard for me to see how the person displaying one could or would expect anyone else to find it particularly offensive. I.e. there’s a sense in which, if I put myself in the shoes of person who really wants to “own the libs,” that person would not really expect that merely displaying Trump’s campaign slogan, on their car or on an article of clothing, would accomplish much towards that end.

Or are hats (or for that matter t-shirts) different, somehow? They’re certainly not as common, at least where I live.

An example of a bumper sticker, or actually stickers, that I’ve seen where I think the person was probably wanting to “own the libs” is a parody of the “stick figure” stickers that replaced the standard “dad, mom, kid, kid, dog” family with “rifle, automatic rifle, handgun, handgun, handgun.” I would say that person was acting in a “deliberately” offensive or provocative fashion – they might have thought it was funny themselves, but they would know others would find it very unfunny.

99

steven t johnson 12.11.19 at 6:49 pm

Still stuck with thinking American flag lapel pins, pledges of allegiance and public prayer are virtue signaling. Still not convinced that using “virtue signaling” when talking about sanctimoniousness on “our” part is right wing. Attacking people as hypocritical or malevolent does seem to me to be virtue signaling. Examples? Inventing the category of “BernieBros” or, everybody’s favorite, the “troll.”

F. Foundling@92 puts more stock in recent pronouncements during an election campaign than I do. I most certainly believe people can change and move left. But Sanders moved right and I don’t much believe in people returning to their collegiate ideals while running for president. Also, unfair as it may seem, I tend to read the military budget as an anti-imperialist issue. For me the wonder of the democratic system is how it makes sure there is no choice, for some of us at least.

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WLGR 12.11.19 at 7:26 pm

Kiwanda, the most obvious examples I can think of as far as “who” among working scientists would reject the basic doctrines of evopsych and sociobiology (at least a “who” that anyone in the mainstream might have heard of) would be old-timers like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, both of whom have written a good deal about the methodological issues in those fields. If I recall correctly, it was Lewontin who first used the pejorative “just-so stories” to refer to the kinds of dubiously-testable evopsych “findings” that tend to grab mainstream headlines, especially insofar as they align with ambient cultural ideology on issues like racism and sexism. And this is part of the problem too, that especially in fields with a high degree of social or political relevance, there’s a large and growing disconnect between the unglamorous world of working academic knowledge and the glitzy world of pop scholars who get high-profile book deals with the likes of John Brockman and pal around with the likes of Bill Gates or Jeffrey Epstein, so even if I were to link to a paper called “Evopsych is Bullshit” collectively co-written by the chairs of the biology departments of every single Ivy League university, nobody who doesn’t already have a research background in the relevant literature would necessarily know them from Adam. Regardless, I’ve found that a good scholarly intro to some of these issues is the chapter “Evolutionary Psychology and the challenge of adaptive explanation” by Gray, Heaney, and Fairhall (2003), and the output of Michael Tomasello is a good starting point for recent cutting-edge science that addresses issues of evolution and psychology in a more robust way without falling into the more impoverished framework of evopsych as such.

Back to the main topic, the stuff about “signaling” is such a common staple of evopsych technobabble, i.e. women’s waist-to-hip ratios as “sexual signaling” and so forth, that before I give in and do some Googling, I’m gonna say that this is almost certainly where the term “virtue signaling” gets its ideological heft. And indeed, the very first query for “virtue signaling evopsych” returns a beautiful specimen of the genre, an evopsych professor named Geoffrey Miller with a recent book entitled “Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech,” appearances in outlets like Quillette and the Sam Harris podcast, a number of previous books pertaining to sexual selection, and a Wikipedia entry that contains the following magnificent sentence:

In 2015, in collaboration with writer Tucker Max, Miller launched The Mating Grounds, a podcast and blog offering advice about men’s sexual strategies.

I’m not sure I could even invent a more perfect example of all of this if I tried FFS.

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J-D 12.11.19 at 11:09 pm

Donald

Gaza? Gaza is under a draconian Israeli blockade— fishermen can barely fish off Gaza. This was a very poor example for whatever point you think you are making.

I am sorry if my point was not clear to you.

My exact words in my earlier comment were

By what standard do you evaluate whether a boycott works?

I asked that question in response to an earlier comment in which Chetan Murthy referred to boycotts working. So the point of my question was that when somebody refers to boycotts working, it’s relevant to ask about the standard by which that is evaluated. There’s no way this point is invalidated, or negatively affected, by reference to how Gaza is being blockaded.

BDS, to the extent it works, works as a publicity tool.

If that’s the standard by which BDS is being evaluated, then it’s relevant to ask what the publicity effects of BDS have been. What have they been?

Kiwanda

I’m sure you’d agree that the validity of empirical claims doesn’t rest on whether they might be put to dubious uses, and that you would never discount scientific claims because they are politically inconvenient. What particular premises and what particular working scientists do you have in mind?

I think you’re right to request a citation there, and I join in that request.

The first is an affirmation of one of the mysteries of the left-identitarian faith, clearly: despite the fact that race and gender don’t actually exist, nonetheless whiteness and cisness are ineradicable moral stains.

Citation, please.

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nastywoman 12.12.19 at 7:50 am

@98
”The only message I had ever taken from either of these bumper stickers was the one suggested by nastywoman in 6: “I’m a fan of Trump.”

Ah – you are one of those? – but what do you say if somebody – with the Pence/Trump bunker sticker – wearing a MAGA hat and a t-shirt which says:

I am a Proud Deplorable?

As I always wondered why would ”a Deplorable” confess that he is…
indeed… even
”a Proud Deplorable”?

And as there is this… ”theory” – that the main problem we are facing -(not only in this virtue and vice thing) – that somebody tells you the obvious ”truth” -(and you take it as a joke) is the main problem we are facing?

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