As a buzz phrase its rise has been rapid, this year gaining more traction than ever. And in recent weeks the list of what constitutes virtue signalling has grown significantly. Any number of acts can be labelled as such, it seems: wearing a mask, Joe Biden’s choice to not hold large scale rallies during a pandemic, proposing a policy to help alleviate child hunger and poverty and now it contravenes the BBC’s employment guidelines. With such a disparate array of acts being labelled as such you could be forgiven for wondering what virtue signalling really is.
Virtue signalling was first coined as a term in 2015 in a Spectator article which defined it as the act of saying or signalling that you were against or for a social or political cause without actually taking any action on it. The term was always meant critically but over time it has grown into a put down or insult but also a means of calling out. But is there really any problem with publicly showing that you care about something? Citing a cause or showing empathy or support for an idea is after all not a bad thing. To make a blanket decision that because someone suggests that something is good or right publicly is only acceptable if they have engaged with it at a high level (whatever that may be) seems ill advised. At what point has an individual done enough to be able to announce their support and who becomes qualified to dictate it?
Social media has played a significant role in the rising tide of virtue signalling acts and accusations. This year particularly has seen a lot of it with celebrities frequently accused of posting virtue signalling content focusing on the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, Madonna’s tone deaf post about how Covid was a great leveller (an idea that came to her whilst lazing in a rose strewn bath) or any number of others participating in Black Out Tuesday, for which many called them out. Journalists and influencers also drew attention posing for pictures at protests, treating them as photo ops rather than actually participating. This type of cynical grandstanding naturally seems fatuous. The idea that an important cause could be used to state relevance or be used as a setting for a photo shoot. It reflects both the way activism plays out online in general and the nature of social media platforms more broadly. Slacktivism and clicktivism are terms we’ve known for some years now; the idea that by signing an online petition or posting about an issue in some way contributes to it. When in fact real change requires more engagement.
One interesting correlation with virtue signalling is that of the rise of conscious consumerism. In fact consumerism is its own form of virtue signalling. Over the years we’ve become accustomed to seeing products and our product choices as representative of something about us; Apple’s early affiliation with creativity for example. In turn brands have become more socially engaged, more politically aware. Much of this is good of course, corporations being socially conscious and implementing better practices is a good thing. But posting content doesn’t necessarily reflect internal change. And in turn influencers posting pictures of themselves with products- vegan food products or wellness brands- that represent their beliefs in turn somewhat reduces beliefs and choices to products. And this is perhaps the crux of the issue with virtue signalling. It removes so much of the nuance that is needed in discussion or debate. It’s far easier to make a quick display of something than actually engage with an issue or offer reasoned suggestions (and indeed this doesn’t suit the nature of discussion on social media at all, it’s not a place for lengthy discussion but quick sentences or soundbites).
What’s more it re-enforces the idea that beliefs are entirely reflective of identity. But most of us are more than the sum total of our beliefs and how many of us are entirely right about everything? It makes it easy to pass judgement on others entire belief system or moral compass when in fact many of us are a lot more complex than that. At a time when division and tribalism are rising it seems more important than ever to consider individuals fully, rather than making snap judgements on whether someone is something as reductive as good or bad. Or whether they have the same virtue as us or not.