In Depth

What is virtue signalling?

The phrase has become a popular putdown for those expressing their kindness

Virtue signalling, a phrase coined just four years ago, has become a popular putdown for anyone who appears to hold a belief but doesn’t act on it.

At its most basic, virtue signalling is often described as the act of pretending to be virtuous rather than having genuine passion for an issue.

More specifically, users of the term are often targeting people who seem to take relish in being outraged or partaking in activism on behalf of a demographic or cause with which they are not directly associated. This can encompass actions ranging from the personal – such as a man attending a woman’s march – to the public, such as a multinational oil firm pledging to fight climate change.

But has the term always had such negative connotations? Here, The Week takes a look at the rise – and bastardisation – of a sociological phenomenon.

Creation of the term

On 18 April 2015, James Bartholomew wrote an article in The Spectator headlined “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling’”, in which he lamented the “increasingly common phenomenon” of “indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous”.

“No one actually has to do anything,” Bartholomew wrote. “Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs.

“There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.”

He also tied the concept – and those who decry it – to religion. “There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin,” he wrote. “Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off.”

Analysis and growth

The Guardian reports that the phrase “began to spread via op-ed sections” in the year following the Spectator article, and “proliferated rapidly on Twitter”.

The paper adds that because the term is a condemnation of vanity “dressed up as selfless conviction”, it is a “powerful putdown”.

“When we’re defining ourselves and our core beliefs, vanity is generally not something we want contaminating the brand,” it says.

Writing for Medium, Nick Babyak exemplifies why the term took off among those looking to distance themselves from the left.

“When you say ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a mass shooting, do you stop there, or go donate time or money after, sign petitions, or contact your representatives? It’s the difference between making a difference and wanting people to think that you’re making a difference,” he writes.

The New York Times suggests that the phrase gained popularity as a response to the fact that “expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality”. As a result, the paper says, expressions of feigned righteousness may be used to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.

Yet others believe that the phrase is not one that solely belongs to the right. The Boston Globe suggests that virtue signalling as a concept “has proven useful in discussing self-glorifying online behaviour, regardless of politics”, pointing to social media trends which are purely symbolic and low on substance.

These include Facebook users changing their avatars in the wake of a disaster or people taking part in the ice bucket challenge, the latter of which was an online movement to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but one that prompted people to take part specifically to avoid giving money to ALS charities.

Criticism

Usage of the term has prompted harsh criticism from left-wing news outlets, with the New Statesman’s Tanya Gold calling it “the debasement of kindness, of empathy and of love – as a concept, and for profit”.

In a takedown of Bartholomew’s coining of the phrase, Gold notes his previous work for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which she describes as a “neoliberal PR company disguised as a think tank”.

“If you imagine – and then proselytise – that people cannot love each other, and that community can be dismantled for the benefit of the funders of the IEA, who cares if children smoke cigarettes?” she writes. “To insist that anyone who offers fellowship to a stranger has a narcissistic condition is not making expression and argument easier. It is failing to understand people who are nothing like you; or impugning them.”

HuffPost went a step further, noting that Bartholomew had in fact resurrected a previously used term found in anthropology and evolutionary biology.

Bartholomew has not taken kindly to these criticisms. In The Centre for Independent Studies, he wrote that the term “has really annoyed some people” who describe it as a “weapon of the ‘far Right’ to dismiss moral behaviour and legitimate protest”, despite his insistence that it is not a right-wing concept.

“They choose to ignore the fact the original article distinguished between true virtue – such as looking after a disabled husband through the last 10 years of his life – and statements intended merely to boast of virtue without doing anything,” he writes. “The anger is revealing. It shows that some on the Left feel stung.”

The IEA’s Kate Andrews goes a step further, explicitly pointing out that virtue signalling is “not unique to the left” and using the US president as an example of this.

She claims that Donald Trump “is the ultimate virtue-signaller” because he has “made a daily habit of overtly expressing his moral stance, which is wrapped up with nationalist and protectionist sentiment.

“The slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is itself a catchy form of virtue-signalling,” she adds.

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