It’s time again to unpack a regular talking point made in our most sacred institution of discourse and dialectic investigation, internet comment sections and Twitter. Today I thought it would be interesting to unpack accusations of virtue signaling.
This is a common accusation, usually in response to a tweet or otherwise public statement like a speech that contains ideologically-coded language. Often times it will contain certain buzzwords to rile up a certain crowd, or otherwise seem openly conciliatory towards a certain group. The idea is that the statement is designed to use language in order to win over favor and popularity within a certain group, even if the speaker doesn’t necessarily agree with their own words. While falsely expressing virtues that one doesn’t necessarily hold is dishonest and not worth defending, we should also take a look at the value in spreading genuinely strong virtues as much as possible through public pronouncement and demonstrations, and many people seem to conflate the two.
Wikipedia currently defines virtual signaling in the following way:
“Virtue signalling [sic] is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group.”
This seems like a good operative definition, so I will use it for now.
There are many reasons why we engage in virtue signaling. It’s most apparent in politicians, who have a voter base to appease, and will often will say whatever they need to get the most votes. Campaigning is the ultimate popularity contest, so obviously a candidate will do whatever they can to increase their standing in any manner they can to translate their behavior into votes.
However, sometimes the act isn’t nearly as malicious as the connotation leads us to believe, and is simply using language in a creative and concise way to express an idea. For example, when writing a Twitter bio limited to 160 characters or less, we may use language we otherwise wouldn’t in a less limited context. Skeptics, use the (fairly overused) terms “science & reason” together when trying to describe themselves. It’s a concise way of describing what the person values, and that the person values evidence-based reasoning in constructing their worldview. By putting the two terms together, they are able to give a good first-pass approximation of their values in an illustrative, pithy way. This is also true whenever you see “science & reason” together in a generic skeptics meme, since the two used together are a common phrase espoused by skeptics, and when the three words are put together in conjunction in that order it is a sign that the person has embraced or is at least familiar with skeptic culture.
This type of virtue signaling is not just useful as a concise sign to indicate membership or participation within the skeptics in-group. The term “skeptic” is more concise than “science & reason” and therefore appears to be a superior choice in self-description, but it comes with its own problems. If you asked an average person what a skeptic is, you wouldn’t necessarily agree with their description. The general public tends to conceive of a skeptic as someone who disbelieves most things, rather than someone who formulates their worldview and beliefs based on the best available evidence. This leads to terms that really don’t make sense like “climate change skeptic”, which describes someone who doesn’t accept anthropogenic global warming despite the overwhelming evidence supporting it. To a broad audience, using the terms “science & reason” actually illustrates the person’s values much more effectively than the simpler term “skeptic”, while also leaving 144 other characters available for other things.
Of course, implicit in the definition above is that someone may virtue signal for the sole purpose of enhancing their social standing. If that is the case, they may not even believe the values they are espousing, and may actually be lying out of their teeth for their popularity. This, of course, is unacceptable behavior. That being said, many of us may be playing a bit loose with our abilities to accurately assess whether someone is signaling for the sole purpose of boosting their moral currency for an in-group.
As skeptics, we hopefully can agree that none of us can actually read minds. Our internal beliefs and desires cannot be accurately assessed by anyone but ourselves. So when someone signals a virtue publicly, whether or not that espousal gains them any popularity we usually cannot accurately determine the motives behind their statement. We cannot know if they are trying to speak truth to power, or rather using that stance to gain clout, since we cannot evaluate their internal model or behavior. As a result, unless the person virtue signaling has clear examples of contradictory or hypocritical behavior elsewhere, any accusation of signaling for the sole purpose of gaining clout is unfounded.
While I can’t defend espousing virtues for the sole purpose of climbing in social status, there are actually very good reasons to signal one’s moral stances publicly. We are often quick to judge public figures for making public statements that boost their support from their followers that often end up propping up moral virtues within their base. This will often happen when, say, a progressive celebrity decries another public figure’s sexism or racism. Another example of this is when a tragedy strikes the news and people take to social media to express their grief and condolences (#JeSuisCharlie, Justice for Philando, etc.). These actions are often performative in nature and can be rightfully criticized as slacktivism.
It’s true that all things considered, doing work on the ground or donating money towards a cause will be preferable to simply expressing words. It takes little to no effort to express your stance on social media, and the boots-on-the-ground work is where most change comes from. However, there is actually a lot of merit to expressing values publicly.
I have expressed in the past that humans aren’t logic machines, and that changing people’s mind requires a lot more than simply making the best and most rational argument. It’s important to have the strongest rational foundation for our beliefs, but when it comes to convincing others there are many other factors that come into play that are the result underlying human instincts far more inherent to our nature than dialogue involved in rational discourse.
Visibility is incredibly important for a cause. This is why campaigns such as #NormalizeAtheism are being set up, partially why the gay rights movement was so successful in their movement towards success, and why things as simple as platforming marginalized groups are more important than we might initially think. This is part of why when, for example, Matt Dillahunty debates Christians onstage, his largest goal is simply to be a kind and fair visible atheist so that Christians can overcome preconceived negative stereotypes that they harbor.
As a social species, the people visible to us and the viewpoints we observe affect our behavior and opinions. Social conformity is a more powerful effect than we like to admit to ourselves, since we are all susceptible to biases. I have already discussed the Asch conformity experiments, where the presence of people giving a clearly wrong answer significantly increased the probability of the test subject also giving an incorrect answer. There’s also a reason why companies can spend billion dollars on a celebrity endorsement deal and expect that to create even more profits. Often times, it seems like the size of the platform and the attention we give to an idea, product, or cause can be the largest affect on the number of people who accept these things than anything else.
Obviously, we should care about creating visibility to the causes that we care about, especially if they are going to be ideas that promote human rights and well-being. Because social pressure is such a powerful effect, being visible about positive values can start to become less of merely a good idea and more of a social responsibility.
Since skepticism is a virtue that most of the readers here hold, I can use that as an example. There are many representations of skeptics and critical thinkers in film and TV shows that portray them as curmudgeonly or overly-critical, often stubbornly stuck in their position and condescendingly lecturing other characters. Even positive portrayals like Sherlock or Agent Scully are riddled with these negative characteristics (and often these portrayals manifest as inaccurate applications of critical thought). It’s quite often the case that these characters will have their naturalistic and critical positions “disproven” by the end of the piece, when the scientists are done in and it turns out that faries or Santa Claus do exist afterall! This does place a bit of value on fantastical and often irrational thinking and trades it in for the unfettered romanticism of belief in magic and the supernatural. Would we not be better off with more portrayals of critical thinkers that live full, happy lives, and show off the benefit of critical thinking, and wouldn’t it be nice if the writers of these shows signaled the positive aspects and benefits of skepticism?
There is also a small other reason why we can be justified in “virtue signaling” beyond promotion of a value, we can also use it to signal care for members of a vulnerable group. For example, I as a graduate teaching assistant have the following poster hanging in my office*, and many other offices put up similar safe zone stickers. If there are any students who come to me during office or for help in the class I am helping teach, they can be more assured that I will not discriminate against them on any of the listed characteristics. It’s important that students have mentors and superiors who can advocate for them and help them when they are struggling in school, but this is not always something they are afforded in other realms of their life. If they have grown up in a home where they have been abused based on, for example, their gender or their orientation, they may expect the rest of their environment to be similarly hostile. When someone creates a signal like this, it shows that there are people willing to provide an environment where they are valued and safe, even if some aspects of their identity have caused this to not be the case in the past.
This raises questions about whether this type of signaling can be abused, and it certainly can. One could potentially put up a poster in the office, or a rainbow filter on their Facebook profile, yet do nothing beyond that to assist the people they are signaling support of. If someone has a rainbow profile filter, are they doing anything to fight LGBTQ discrimination? When a bully is harassing someone on the basis of gender or sexuality, does the person with a safe zone poster speak up against that person? If not, then these actions are wholly empty gestures, and the type of virtue signaling worth criticizing. Performative gestures such as this do very little to the group the person is implying that they support.
There was much debate over this type of virtue signaling around the time of the US election in 2016 regarding the safety pin symbol, which became a sort of catch-all symbol to represent solidarity with those suffering from racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc. in a right-wing populist craze. The symbol was quite controversial in progressive circles. While many wore it as a strong repudiation of Trumpian values, it was also outright condemned as performative allyship by others, and a thoroughly negligible act. Ultimately, most people seemed to not care whether or not the safety pin was worn, but it seemed to end up as an acceptable outward display of resistance as long as the displayer is willing to take action, especially if they see harassment or potential violence targeting marginalized groups.
This returns to the original question: can virtue signaling be acceptable? I’ve made it clear that there are obvious situations in which it is used as a meaningless gesture, and takes advantage of symbols and ideological lexicons to gain social stature. However, I can’t condemn it entirely. Boosting one’s appreciation for certain values and positions publicly definitely adds to social pressure and visibility definitely matters. While a public figure may or may not stand behind one of their public statements, that is a separate issue from whether or not the figure is bringing visibility and some modicum of progress towards a cause, therefore such signaling provides a net good despite the dishonesty. That being said, since we can never truly know whether a public figure is truly sincere due to a lack of ESP on our parts, we should be cautious when we throw out accusations of virtue signaling. It may be the case that those making a claim of virtue signaling are making any excuse to dismiss a figure’s promotion of certain values, and to make a public accusation that someone else is virtue signaling can be an act of virtue signaling in itself (with the accuser scoring social points for being “cool” or “edgy” due to this visible criticism).
Ultimately, it should be clear that there are good uses and bad uses of signaling in this manner. I cannot support the operative definition I started with, where a visible signal of values is used primarily to promote the signaler. However, this does not mean that every public display of values is done with that primary intent. Therefore, we have to be careful of our accusations of the intent behind these signals, since unless we have very good evidence of hypocrisy we will never really be able to demonstrate someone’s intent. Even though public display of values and virtues takes little effort, though, it can create a healthier social atmosphere and help push for positive change. As long as the person providing the signal is coming from a place of honesty and is willing to put their money where their mouth is if needed, we should make fewer accusations of virtue signalling and reserve our criticism for more substantial critique.
*Yes, I don’t particularly agree with respecting the “religion” of a student, but I will respect students of all religions. I wouldn’t have phrased the poster exactly this way, but it’s good enough for my purposes. And while part of my job as an educator is to challenge and help them question the world around them, my job is to do this in an engineering field and not in the realm of theology. If the student was interested, I would happily discuss their beliefs I found harmful in a friendly manner, but outside of an office hours context.