Progressive social movements serve a pivotal role in public discourse – whether it be in student circles or in wider society. They act to critique the status quo’s intrinsic flaws and inadequacies, but also remind the public of the distance between the ideal aspirations towards which we strive, and the non-ideal reality that confronts disempowered groups on a daily basis. Yet in an age where the simulation has displaced the originally simulated, an uncanny spectre haunts the contemporary progressive left – and that spectre is the performative act of virtue signalling.
To be clear, this isn’t an article that advocates against armchair activism, popular media campaigning, or the low-cost high-returns effective promotion of worthwhile causes; nor is this an article that condemns the usage of tweets or Facebook statuses or YouTube vlogs as means of raising the salience and public comprehensibility of social justice causes. These are all worthwhile and important dimensions of social activism, especially given the increasingly technologically fixated zeitgeist of our times. Instead, I want to focus on the very specific phenomenon of virtue signalling in activism – the instrumentalisation of discourse about social justice causes as a means of accruing personal social capital.
To be clear, there are no clear-cut, paradigmatic cases of this phenomenon, beyond perhaps Rachel Dolezal or Pepsi’s atrociously insensitive faux-Black Lives Matters campaign in 2017. Indeed, by definition, for one to successfully accrue social capital in the process of talking about or advocating social justice, one cannot come across as inauthentic or merely instrumentalising justice as a PR talking shop: doing so would defeat the entire purpose. Yet the underlying features of virtue signalling can easily be established: i) it involves a performative, often quasi-theatrically expressive speech-act – whether this be a strident social media post or a self-congratulatory tweet; ii) it features a reward to the individual partaking in it – perhaps in the form of greater ‘respect’ or credibility, or higher volumes of social capital and likeability amongst one’s circles. In other words, ii) takes the ‘warm glow’ we feel as we donate to charities to a whole new level.
To some extent, a moderate volume of virtue signalling is not necessarily undesirable. The existence of rewards to the individual motivates them to engage in activities that have net positive effects: in engaging otherwise unengaged members of the public, in disseminating information about otherwise obscured causes, or in mobilising their surrounding friendship groups and acquaintances to participate in activism. To perform a virtuous speech-act is also one of the quickest ways of inducing individuals into potentially caring for the ideologies and causes they advocate – by preaching in a necessarily quasi-authentic manner, one becomes enrolled in the ideology one may have initially paid only lip service to. There is a dangerous tendency in contemporary activism for us to spend so much time self-critiquing and problematising all of our natural inclinations and habits, that we forget what we are campaigning or struggling for in the first place; let’s not take the critique of virtue signalling too far.
Yet beyond a certain threshold or limit, virtue signalling becomes deeply problematic, for two reasons. The first is its blatant instrumentalisation of the suffering or misfortunes of others for individual gains. Take the classic ‘friend in hospital’ example – suppose your friend ends up in a hospital due to an accident, and you are deliberating whether you ought to visit them. In scenario 1, you visit them out of a deep sense of sympathy and concern for their wellbeing, and you hope that your visiting them could help them recover as soon as possible. In scenario 2, you visit them because you are motivated by the expected reciprocation and benefits you will acquire from them after they recover. Scenarios 1 and 2 feature exactly the same actions, but we would intuit that Scenario 2 is wrongfully motivated. Why? Perhaps it is the act of dishonesty – that we feel that you are being fundamentally deceitful towards your friend in concealing your ‘ulterior motives’ as you visit them; or perhaps it is the fact that you are instrumentalising the unique context in which they have ended up as a means of advancing your self-interest. It is for this very reason that we may be a tad appalled at Tahani in The Good Place (an excellent series worth watching even if you do not enjoy philosophy), who views all of her philanthropy and charitable activities merely as a means of obtaining fame, recognition, and the ‘warm glow’ associated with being perceived to be a moral character. The treatment of social justice as a tool, as a weapon is deeply disrespectful to victims of injustices, but also to other activists who take their advocacy seriously and genuinely.
The second issue with virtue signalling is that it is practically counterproductive. For the privileged, the question of justice may be an afterthought, what Carol Ann Duffy describes as “the reader’s eyeballs prick, with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.” (War Photographer); it may even be rhetorically appropriated in theoretical, obscurantist academic-lese by charlatans like Jordan Peterson. Yet for the victims – far removed from the virtue signalling sliced in-between a snap and an Insta story – their pains are real, actual, and urgently in need of relief. Excessive virtue signalling creates superfluous content that causes prospective audience to be desensitised to calls for help. Moreover, given that most virtue signallers tend to come from positions of privilege, their voices end up silencing and erasing those of actual victims or individuals with lived experiences of oppression. The last thing we need in the campaign for greater equality and justice is for the targeted audience’s newsfeed to be saturated with free-floating hashtags, meticulously planned self-obsessed videos focusing on the Me behind the manicured public images, as opposed to They who live on in silence.
All of this is not to say that activists should not feel good about the work they do – they deserve to, and such ‘feel good factor’ often acts as key motivating reasons for activists to continue campaigning. Yet let us not forget that questions of justice are real, political, and deeply personal – they’re not there to be your ticket to the La La Land of moral self-righteousness, so let’s not treat them as such.