From the Editor: Virtue Signalling: More Complicated Than It Seems

(Nicola Kwit)

Virtue signalling has been a hot topic in the northern hemisphere this year, especially with anyone following Justin Trudeau’s humiliating “peoplekind” flop.

What the Prime Minister is now calling a joke ended up sending more than a few writers into a fit of anti-virtue signalling rage, and it wasn’t the first event this year to do so.

The term has been brought up to criticize A-list celebrities wearing black dresses to the Baftas in support of the Time’s Up movement. It has been called a slur and “part of the Trumpian scream” used to oppress activists. And it has been deemed a dangerously easy way to belittle anyone’s personality, efforts, or opinions.

But before all of this, it was purportedly “invented” by James Bartholomew, a contributor to The Spectator who isn’t shy about comparing himself to wordsmiths like Shakespeare and Thomas Carlyle. Nor is he shy about begrudging the fact that Radio 4 journalist Libby Purves is sometimes credited for coining it, albeit reminiscing about “seeing her walking in front of [him] wearing hot pants” when they attended Oxford together. Commendable.

In actuality, neither Purves nor Bartholomew coined “virtue signalling”—according to online phrase tracker Word Spy, it has been in use since 2004. But they surely popularized it, and it’s this prescribed meaning that defines the term today.

Loosely, virtue signalling is communicating something solely to prove that you are virtuous. One oft-cited example is the adoption of Facebook profile pictures adorned with calls to support refugees or LGBTQ rights, for instance. These actions accomplish nothing other than boosting the social capital of those presenting themselves as righteous and wholesome. The point of naming someone a virtue signaller is, ideally, to get them to actually take action.

The problem, however, is that “taking action” is subjective. The term was used originally to act as part of callout culture for petty things such as this. And it’s certainly annoying to listen to holier-than-thou neighbours bragging about their socio-political opinions, but as it has evolved, the use of virtue signalling has become more volatile.

With the recent school shooting in Florida, it has come up again. The generic “thoughts and prayers” signature that’s often shared on social media has been responded to with anger towards so-called virtue signallers. In response, many of these people have asked what else can reasonably be done by the everyday citizen not directly affected by such a tragedy. Still, others attest that the notion of keeping victims in mind as basic human empathy ought not to be discouraged.

Once a cute way to make fun of those spouting pompous and hollow rhetoric, the meaning of the word virtue signalling has become too broad. As a result, it’s being thrown in the faces of protestors (watch the end of the Black Mirror episode called “Black Museum” to see a fictional example of how doing so can be oppressive), everyday folks on social media, politicians, and still others endeavouring to share their thoughts to spur change.

Even when used effectively, it’s little more than a taunting tactic employed to take the wind out of one’s sails in an apt and trendy way. The phrase, although relatively newborn, has become trivial to the point of obscurity.

The nuances of properly navigating the use of “virtue signalling” have overgrown its utility. Before using it next, be careful that the implications of your words are actually meaningful and not, ironically, merely a tactic for standing on a higher moral ground than your ideological opponents.

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