Virtue vs virtue signaling
Virtue signaling is a controversial term often bandied about on the internet as a criticism of both individuals and brands. But what does it mean and where does the term come from? And what is virtue anyway?
Origins of virtue signaling
British writer James Bartholomew claims that he coined the term ‘virtue signal’ in an article in the Spectator in April 2015. In the article I’ve linked to above he argues that he created the phrase to describe the phenomena of individuals making vague gestures or statements to associate themselves with left-wing values, but then not backing up these statements with actions.
This feels like a valid criticism. Take campaigns such as posting a black tile to show support Black Lives Matter on social media or the trend of wearing a safety clip to show your support for the vulnerable, after the rise in racist attacks in the UK and the USA after the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the Brexit plebiscite. Both have been heavily criticised by people of colour and anti-racism campaigners for being essentially toothless. These are gestures that assuage white guilt without effecting real change, or demanding any real action from those participating. Optimistically, this could be the first step in understanding the complex issue of racial discrimination and beginning to engage in anti-racist behavior and campaigning. However if this is the only action you ever take towards ending racism you could rightly be accused of having employed a ‘virtue signal’.
It’s not just individuals where this criticism is useful. We’ve seen a large number of brands who’ve signaled their support for the global Black Lives Matter movement. Nike created a short video ‘For once, don’t do it’ and followed it up with a series of adverts (which they label ‘short films’) including black athletes known for activism such as Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams. Viacom, an American telecommunications network, set several of their channels silent for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to mirror the length of time George Floyd, a victim of police brutality, was throttled by a police officer. But are these brands really committed to anti-racism, or are they approaching BLM as a PR opportunity? A quick look at Nike’s diversity statistics shows that their directors and VPs are over 70% white, despite their workforce as a whole being less than 50% white. They have a vague commitment to improve representation, but without any timeframes or hard targets. In 2018 the Clean Clothes Campaign released it’s Foul Play report, which highlighted companies such as Nike moving it’s manufacturing from China to countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam to chase lower wages – despite wages in China still remaining lower than the recommended ‘living wage’ for the country. It might be committed enough to produce a series of adverts themed around Black Lives Matter, but the company still has work to do if it wants to live up to it’s anti-racist branding.
None of the above are the types of behaviours that are usually referred to as virtue signals online. ‘Virtue signal!’ is usually shot back at a person in any discussion of morality online. As discussed in this article on the Conversation, ‘virtue signal’ has just been added to the right-wing linguistic armory, alongside ‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘TRA’ or ‘SJW’. It no longer has any relation to it’s original purpose – its simply a meaningless slur used as part of an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem attack is a rhetorical device, which seeks to undermine a person’s argument not by attacking their actual argument, but by criticising the person making the argument. The issue with ad hominem arguments is that they don’t disprove a person’s argument – if someone provides statistics showing discrimination in a particular field, accusing them of ‘virtue signaling’ does not detract from their original point, but the bad faith argument does pollute the discussion and lead to a break down in communication.
But what is virtue?
There’s a well known aphorism ‘patience is a virtue’ – but it isn’t actually included in any of the categories of virtues. So what are we talking about when we talking about virtue? What qualities make some actually virtuous as opposed to someone who just signals it?
There have been several phases of thinking about virtue, so let’s go through them:
- Prudence – or the wisdom to choose the right path
- Fortitude – also thought of as courage or resilience
- Temperance – the practice of restraint and forbearance
- Justice – being fair or righteous
Plato identified these 4 virtues in his utopian work The Republic. Aristotle furthered these ideas in his work Rhetoric:
The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.
Roman philosopher Cicero promoted these virtues and Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic and Roman Emperor, retooled them in his work ‘Meditations’ as “goods” that we should identify within ourselves and promote. They were picked up by early Christian scholars such as Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo and incorporated into Christian thinking.
- Faith – suspending doubt and finding comfort in your belief in God
- Hope – not giving into despair and having hope in salvation
- Charity – not the act of giving to those in need, as you might think, but the act of cherishing God
These core virtues evolved from the cardinal virtues and the writings of Paul in Corinthians:
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The future of virtue
I personally feel that the Theological virtues aren’t very inspiring, because they are so passive. They involve quiet internal reflection and devotion, without actively doing anything to help others. Perhaps this is what right-wing Tweeters would prefer – for us to quietly reflect on morality, and not discuss or advocate against injustice.
However, when I think of Aurelius’ Meditations or the Cardinal virtues, it does encourage reflection on my attitudes and actions but it also involves performing those virtues. Being wise, courageous, temperate and just might well get me labelled as a ‘SJW’ or ‘virtue signaler’ online – and maybe rightly if I’m all talk and no action. But the logical end point of the backlash against virtue signaling is a backlash against virtue itself and the pursuit of building a better world. Condemning those who want to talk about making a more just world is perhaps less of an insult to them and more of a reflection of the insulter’s own apathy – or even worse, a reflection that they actively want to make the world less just.
Virtue signaling sources I’ve referred to above
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
The Republic – Plato
Rhetoric – Aristotle