What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.
James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").
To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.
When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’
Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.
My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.
W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.
I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.
One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.
[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.
It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]
This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.
I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.
Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.
Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.
In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.
When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.
Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.
Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.
In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.
More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.
The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.
In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"
Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."
He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.