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.

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.)

To what extent is “virtue signaling” a useful, or at least meaningful, phrase? That the desire to be thought of a certain way can preclude the desire to be a certain way, or at least complicates the latter, is certainly true. That sometimes people say and do things just to be seen saying and doing them is also true.

Take rich white parents who profess to believe in the importance of desegregation of schools but who send their own children to segregated-in-all-but-name schools. Both of these actions (the professed antiracism, the choice of school) involve signaling of a kind, since the name of the school you send your children to can sometimes carry more heft than the substance of their education. At the same time, choosing to send your children to an integrated school could also be understood to be a virtue signal—that you’re so obsessed with appearing right-minded that you will make decisions that might penalize your children.

People being—for millennia, as the saying goes—social creatures, things begin to get muddy right around here. Anything can function as a signal, and to some extent does: the clothes you wear, your taste in books, the car you drive, the food you eat, the religion you practice, the organizations to which you give time and money, and so on. Unless you take great pains to make sure nobody ever sees you doing any of these things—which some people have been known to do—they’re all information by which other people judge you.

In other words, maybe you like the novels of Leo Tolstoy because they’re good; or maybe you like them because you’ve been told that’s what smart people like, and you want to be thought of as smart. But most likely, your reaction is an inscrutable mixture of the two, because your taste doesn’t exist in a vacuum but also is probably not purely developed for cynical reasons. And if every action you can take in a given situation can be a virtue signal—whether in accord with your principles or against them—then as a diagnostic tool, “virtue signaling” isn’t very useful.

Like hypocrisy, virtue signaling should function as a reminder to people that what they say or write should be more than empty words. But more often it is a way of saying you don’t need to listen to any words, because they’re all empty. To signal virtue is bad if signaling overrides actual virtue; to borrow Robin Hanson’s terms, one should say that X is, and ought to be, about Y. More often, however, the accusation of virtue signaling is a way of trying to avoid the question of whether X really is about Y by elevating motive over the content of beliefs.

It’s no accident that this obsession with signaling flourishes in communities of online discontent, because signaling—in a very deliberate sense—is unavoidable in digital interactions. Everything you do online is conscious; it lacks the quality of offline life in this way. E-mails, tweets, and texts are deliberated over in way that doesn’t admit of spontaneity. When you fill out a list of your favorite books for Facebook, you’re aware of what that list says about you, and what emphasizing books (rather than movies or music) says about you. When you pick a profile picture, that’s your face, unchangingly, for as long as you use it. When you fill out a dating profile, you’re trying to pick attributes that represent you accurately but which will also attract a certain kind of person. You signal that you are your ideal person’s ideal person.

The criticisms implicit in accusations of virtue signaling demand one sort of impossible purity of motive—the assurance that, if you performed this action in a total vacuum, it would be the same—then substitute another for it. If actions are unavoidably performed before others, and the way we think about them is shaped by our culture, then all actions can be understood to be only performative; you wouldn’t do them if you had grown up in a different place with different parents and a different value system, and you wouldn’t do them if you thought they’d diminish your status or your standing as a good person. But what “virtue signaling” can’t admit into its framework, even though it should, is that most people act from mixed motives: They desire to do the right thing, and they also want people to think well of them.

There are also actions that are a kind of virtue signal, but only—as it were—to oneself. When a piece in The American Spectator claims “recycling is one of the left’s favorite sacraments” because it “helps overcome the guilt of consuming,” the assumption here is that recycling does nothing and its merits (as an environmental practice) aren’t worth discussing. You recycle to look like somebody who cares about the environment, and you want to look like somebody who cares about the environment because caring about the environment is a thing good people do, and you want to look like a good person because, well, who knows? But you do.

And recycling doesn’t do that much, just as shorter showers do little to conserve water; the kind of actions needed to address environmental threats have to happen at a higher level. Buying free-range eggs doesn’t stop industrial farming. One set of parents choosing to send their child to an integrated school will not—by itself—integrate schools. Individual actions mean little when it comes to bigger changes. Recycling is instead a kind of internal prompt—you care about this, remember?

So, yes. That’s virtue signaling. But I would be loath to condemn taking small actions every day to remind yourself of a higher goal. An old Greek fellow named Aristotle seemed to think that building little habits was the only way one got to be virtuous at all. I’ll admit I’m dropping his name here as a way of signaling my education. But I also think he was on to something.