There is a social media practice, recently unleashed into the real world, sometimes called virtue signalling, which is really just a re-branded bien pensantism.
Re-branded because there is now a critical mass of people too young or ignorant to have come across the term bien pensant, and who are likely to go no further than Googling the words, gaining an ahistorical, decontextualized perception that strips away the political meaning: people at pains to articulate that they believe in ideals currently fashionable, but without critical analysis of those ideas, nor any real commitment to them.
Just like bien pensantism, virtue signalling is a relatively undisguised, if sub-conscious, attempt by unthinking people to remove critical thinking, rationality, and identity from people and their moral, ideological, and intellectual positions. Including their own.
This practice should be called out as the intellectual and personal degradation it is. A form of authoritarian personal policing.
Looking at contemporary virtue signalling, it seems to me it has six characteristics: it is employed by both left and right wing standard bearers; it is always only for show; it is always couched in the negative, as opposition to something; it never has a shred of intellectual credibility; it devalues the currency of standing against (or for) ideas and developments; and it desensitizes people to the imbecility of bleating about personal stances that lack integrity or credibility.
Left and Right
There is a misconception, promoted heavily by reactionaries, that virtue signalling is a practice of the political Left. Just as bien pensantism can embrace right-wing ideology, so can virtue signalling. Nominal conservatives berating the poor for the sin of poverty–implying that all people can be wealthy–is as much virtue signalling as someone deploring bigoted behaviours as a signal of left-wing solidarity.
For show only
Virtue signalling is mainly for show. New Statesman associate editor Helen Lewis wrote three years ago:
A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.
That’s not to say no one who signals moral or political rectitude is not sincere or actively committed to such virtues. but mostly that’s not the case.
As Guardian commentator David Shariatmadari wrote:
When we’re defining ourselves and our core beliefs, vanity is generally not something we want contaminating the brand. Saying someone’s opinion is driven by self-regard is a powerful putdown.
“Virtue-signalling” is also a neat, pithy phrase, with – and this is the killer, really – a social-sciencey air, as though it’s a phenomenon recorded by behavioural economists and factored into nudge-unit projections of how many men pee standing up.
Right-wing commentator James Bartholomew suggested:
It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious …
That’s not just negative, but spares the practitioner from having to rationally argue a position. It relies on others ‘knowing’ what it is that is being hated, and why it is hate-worthy.
Devoid of intellectual credibility
Psychologist Christopher Dwyer argued that social media are usually devoid of critical thinking, analysis, and integrity. I couldn’t agree more. It’s cheap and easy to present yourself as something you’re not. To make yourself feel good. To lionize yourself. To gain approval from an imagined circle of desirable peers, potential friends, and imagined ‘allies’ in white knight campaigns of self-righteousness.
Journalist Brandon Ambrosino wrote:
Most of what passes for political discourse on the Internet does not consist of actual attempts to persuade. Rather, the opiners are like preening birds, chirping for anyone within earshot to signal that, “I am a decent, virtuous person…unlike the troglodyte rightwingers or degenerate leftists I’m denouncing.” In other words, we share our opinions on Facebook not to persuade someone to change his or her mind, but to signal both the kind of people we want to be seen as and the kind of people we never want to be seen as. These signals are socially profitable (get enough likes and your kindness can go viral!) and, as [neoliberal commentator Dan] Sanchez notes, can often lead to personal, professional, or even romantic opportunities. On the other hand, signal the wrong kind of virtue and you might lose a friendship, or your social standing, or even your job.
Devaluing the currency
The overuse of virtue-signalling. with endlessly repeated ranting about bigotry and right-wing politics, starts to devalue the underlying arguments, no matter how much sense they made, and still could.
New York Times Magazine journalist Jane Coaston wrote:
The cynicism we’ve felt about public figures for decades has trickled down to apply to our friends and neighbors as well. We imagine that people who take stands on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves are all a bit like those hypocrites in Matthew, standing on the street corners of the internet, telling us to stop buying conventionally grown potatoes and start using racially sensitive terminology before themselves going home, eating McDonald’s french fries and swearing at the television. Our personal and political isolation has rendered us suspicious and blind to the fears and concerns and cares of others.
With the overuse of virtue signalling on social media, one of the most disconcerting social patterns in recent years has been the unashamed normalization of behaviours that were already dubious online into real-life situations.
Internet anonymity seems no longer necessary as a shield against shame, responsibility, or potential ridicule as consequence for behaving like some American social media sociopath—ignorant, narcissistic, irrational, and likely to become pathologically vindictive if contradicted.
What more reason could there be to stay away from that kind of behaviour?
Virtue signalling may be an empty, hypocritical shell of its intentions, but it seems a good indicator of the shallow character of its practitioners, and the certainty they lack integrity of any kind.