Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Signifiers

Virtue Signaling

B.D. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Where we once signaled we were good, now we signal that we are virtuous.

“Virtue signaling” is the newest online diagnosis of why other people do the things they do. Like “trigger warning,” it’s a term that has enabled an endless, circular conversation: People who delight in sniffing out hypocrisy always have plausible reasons to accuse people of doing things merely because they want to be thought good people; those who resent the accusation will accuse the accusers of engineering the “debasement of kindness, of empathy and of love,” as one writer in The New Statesman asserted. But before there was “virtue signaling,” there was just “signaling”—no virtue implied.

This is a subtitle.

For certain online critics, everything was signaling: your politics, your taste, your friends. “Neo-reactionaries”—disgruntled souls who seemed to aspire to a kind of racist techno-utopian feudalism—viewed the larger culture as a tangle of signals directed to “the educational organs, at whose head is the press and universities” (as the blogger Mencius Moldbug described it), otherwise known as “the Cathedral.” The Cathedral controls you, but you don’t know it; that’s just how insidious it is. In a post defining this and other terms, Moldbug stated that the goal of neoreaction was to “cure your brain.”

While neo-reaction has largely collapsed, its adherents were not the only people to fixate on social performativity. “Signaling,” as a term, was alsobeloved of the only other online group as wordy and tedious as neo-reactionaries: online rationalists. If neo-reactionaries couldn’t seem to understand the working of culture except conspiratorially, online rationalists were unwilling to recognize any kind of human interaction unless it was redescribed and subsequently reunderstood on their own terms. As Robin Hanson, a professor of economics who plans to live forever, explains in a recent blogpost:

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical tests, and bank statements.

Spend time in rationalist communities and you will find taxonomies of various actions and what they signal: apologizing (low status), blowing your nose (high status), good posture (low status). “X,” states Hanson, “is not about Y,” and provides several examples to this effect: “Food isn’t about Nutrition,” “Church isn’t about God,” “Politics isn’t about Policy.” Instead, these things are about other, unspoken conflicts. And those unspoken conflicts often have to do with status.

When, around 2015, “virtue” began to be appended to “signaling,” its main function was to make the unspoken aim of the signaling in question explicit. Whereas before you might have been signaling that you were smart, now you were signaling that you were a good person. But whatever you’re doing, it is, and will always be, about what people think about you, either to the exclusion of any other reason or before any other reason. (The degree to which this diagnosis can also apply to rationalists and neo-reactionaries remains unclear.)

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