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VIRTUE SIGNALING: A Meditation on Doing Good

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Recently on social media I heard the phrase “virtue signaling” used about people who wear masks in response to the coronavirus. It was the first time I had heard it, but a little research showed me that it dates back at least to 2015. Apparently people who seek to improve their image by doing a little bit of good are described as “virtue signaling”. I guess they hope this is an easy way to get them brownie points from like-minded people, by “signaling” which side they are on.

Cartoon credited

One article used as examples “the pretentious signs at Whole Foods” and “changing one’s profile picture to add the avatar of a cause”, and was equated with another phrase, “moral posturing”.

In the old days we used words like “do-gooder” or “prig” to describe this kind of behavior. Later, there was “politically correct (PC)”, which almost immediately became a term of ridicule, and even spawned a popular TV show, “Politically Incorrect”. Something about “doing good” in a highly visible way has been pushing people’s buttons for years if not centuries. Why? Is it because doing good where many people can see is regarded as showing off? The Bible says “Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In other words, keep your good works a secret. Is this an admonition to practice humility, to not show off when you do good works? Or is it a caution that if you show them, some people may see your good works in the wrong light? Or both?

What about all those videos that show people giving money to the homeless or feeding stray animals? Why aren’t these labelled “virtue signaling”? The people that do them certainly gain a high profile on social media when their videos go viral. Is it the difference between a relatively empty gesture such as changing your avatar or proclaiming “I hate animal abuse in the food industry”, and a real, life-changing action? This reminds me of phrases like “All talk and no action”, “Put your money where your mouth is”, or “Walk the talk”. It is easy, and therefore cheap, to “signal one’s virtue” in public these days. It doesn’t require any commitment or suffering; just a click and you can show others you support gay pride or whatever. Do actions such as marching at a “Black Lives Matter” rally show more commitment or suffering? What about donating money? There is a whole spectrum of “doing good”, and I guess changing your avatar is at one end. What’s at the other? Risking your life, perhaps.

I once had an unforgettable dream in which I was talking to a respected public figure of some kind, a woman who had just given a lecture. She said in answer to a question I asked, “Remember, it isn’t money that will help the poor, it’s your good thoughts.” This is usually thought to be way off the spectrum; yet good thoughts do have power. To change your mind about a point of view you have cherished takes courage, and to align yourself, even by thoughts, on the side of those who subscribe to high ideals, has to make some energetic difference, even if you never march in a protest.

Nowadays we are seeing, in the US, confederate statues being pulled down, street names being changed, and unfortunate stereotypes such as Aunt Jemima retooled to be more in line with present-day culture. I remember when the “Sambo’s” pancake restaurant chain, named after the children’s story “Little Black Sambo”, went out of business due to this same kind of cultural pressure. I was kind of sorry to see Sambo’s go. I thought the concept was kind of clever, plus I knew the original story was not about a Black person in the US but about a child in India. The tigers running around the tree and turning into ghee – it was cute. At the time I thought, “PC wins again.” I guess this has been happening throughout history – certain images in the public eye are discovered to be sending the wrong message, so they are scrapped in favor of more “enlightened” ones. And certainly, images we adopt unthinkingly are the source, as well as the result, of much misunderstanding and prejudice. In the end, it has to be a good thing – even if beloved cultural icons must be sacrificed in the process. It’s one of the ways human beings can be said to be evolving.

Well-loved family book, now no longer PC

At the same time as we are becoming more sensitive to such things, however, there seems to be a widespread resistance in popular culture to doing any kind of good at all. In a book I am reading, Rule Makers – Rule Breakers by Michele Gelfand, “tight” (rule-making) cultures are equated with stultifying security, and “loose” (rule-breaking) cultures with freedom and creativity. Generally speaking, mass culture these days seems to be on the side of the one who stirs things up rather than the one who contributes to order. Is good equal to order? Of course not. Surely both are necessary for a functioning state. Making social progress requires both a status quo (rule makers) and people to push against it (rule breakers). But pointing fingers at one or the other is not productive.

Where am I going with this? I think there is a real danger in condemning actions such as public mask wearing as “virtue signaling”. Sometimes society demands that we “take the high road” by doing something for the public good, even if it involves a little private discomfort. This kind of thinking seems to be lacking these days in mass culture. In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin’s dad used to say that activities like shoveling snow “build character”. What if he was right?

That is what the world could stand a little more of, right now – character. If people perform an action that shows they are on the side of the common good, they don’t deserve to be put down with a derogatory word. The important thing is that we consider our thoughts, words, and actions in any situation carefully – are we truly “taking the high road”? Are we making enough of an effort to live, and show, what we know is right? Does anything good come out of our showing this – are we at least setting an example to others?

I welcome your comments.

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Jun 26, 2020

Thank you for writing this. The last paragraph is full of food for thought, and the questions are ones I struggle with in many situations. The term "virtue signaling" seems to be a way to deride common sense (such as wearing a mask when out in public right now even if you are not ill). Those that use the term forget that when pointing a finger at someone, there are 3 more pointing back at themselves.

As for the restaurant, there is still at least one in Oregon, going by the name of Sambo's.


Jun 24, 2020

Another thought-provoking essay. So sad that doing good is virtue signaling, that is, something to be held up to contempt and something that should be done in secret or indiscreetly. Evil and hateful actions, however, can be done in public with no such stigma. It’s a variation of Asimov’s observation, “democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” My evil is as good as your virtue.

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