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 <i>tu quoque</i>, 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.