Let’s be clear about what is happening here. When Wagner accuses Bari Weiss and company of writing their apology tweets and correction letters in order to signal thoughtfulness and moderation, she is excusing herself from any need to actually engage with Weiss et. al. The same is true for most of the “virtue signalling” critiques lobbed at the left: to label an argument a virtue signal is to discredit it without actually having to respond to it. Why would you respond to it? The signaler is not arguing, but maneuvering. Their words are not written in good faith. Their appeals to reason are merely a clever gloss for strategic, self-serving behavior. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a slave of narrow self-interest.
As a rhetorical strategy this is extremely effective. This is why we have seen it spread from the right’s ideological fringes, to the centerpiece of conservative critique, and now to leftist attacks on the center. But there are consequences for intellectual life dominated by a theory that no person’s words mean what they say they mean. When words have been reduced to a mask for status seeking, signalling worth, dog whistling, securing privileged interests, solidifying tribal identities, or what have you, then words have been reduced to mere tools in a competition for domination. It is foolish to think they will not be treated as such.
This is a good post. I’ve been chewing on it for a week now. And while it’s always useful to be reminded of the need to be charitable toward intellectual opponents, I’m not entirely convinced by his argument that accusations of “virtue-signaling” are equivalent to the Marxist notion of false consciousness and equally destructive to reasonable debate. Primarily, this is because, for Marx and his doctrinaire followers, class was an immutable, objective characteristic as determined by scientific analysis. Your interests as a bourgeois or a proletarian were defined by class identity, not personal choice or idiosyncrasy. The borders of identity, like the eventual physical borders of Marxist countries, were closed.
In contrast, virtue-signaling is about the effortless and cost-free demonstration of one’s place on the “right side of history.” It’s about individuals striving to keep up with an ever-changing definition of radical chic. The definition of chic is fluid, not fixed, and today’s cool kids are tomorrow’s lame embarrassments. As Kristian Niemietz observed, why does one pundit receive fawning praise for proudly proclaiming herself a communist on TV, while a student group is considered to have committed a faux pas by specifically praising Stalin’s Gulag? If a communist is a communist, how else can one explain this without recourse to the vagaries of fashion? What are people responding to if not the style in which the sentiment is expressed? To accuse Ash Sarkar of virtue-signaling isn’t to say that she “doesn’t truly believe” she’s a communist; it’s to accuse her of using the term aspirationally while not taking it seriously. She’s wrong for thinking that communism can somehow be separated from its history, and she’s contemptible for flirting with it, but no one is claiming that it’s objectively impossible for her to do so because she’s a media figure and not a factory worker.
The modern version of Marxist false consciousness appears in the form of identity politics, where your ideas and interests are assumed to be determined by your race, class, gender, etc., and you are treated as an interchangeable widget in a demographic category. Virtue-signaling, however, describes a frivolous space where ideas and words are little more than brand logos, separate from their real-world consequences. No personal epiphany or act of will could ever allow a bourgeois shopkeeper, let alone an aristocrat, to become a proletarian. No heterosexual white man can ever be truly woke, no matter how often he flagellates himself for his privilege. By contrast, accusations of virtue-signaling are intended to embarrass their targets into recognizing their hypocritical superficiality and changing their behavior. “Pardon me, but your social-climbing slip is showing.”
If Aristotle was correct that virtue is the mean between two vices, virtue-signaling denotes a lazy attempt to claim the benefits of virtue without doing the work or paying the costs. Russell Brand, the imbecilic British celebrity, is virtue-signaling when he writes a book advocating for some vaguely-defined revolution while giving interviews in which he melodramatically proclaims his willingness to die for the cause. He wants the gravitas of a savior or a martyr, but he isn’t about to seriously inconvenience himself to attain it. Should he actually move to Venezuela and become a guerrilla fighter in an attempt to preserve the dying embers of Chavismo, though, well, he would still be a contemptible idiot, but at least he couldn’t be accused of only caring about looking cool among his celebrity-entertainer peers.
To reiterate what I said years ago, to get any profitable use out of the term, I think it’s best to understand it as being specific to social media. As Greer notes, the behavior of trying to project and manipulate a certain image of oneself has always been around, but the thing we call “virtue-signaling” emerged from a specific context. It’s built on the recognition that social media has created a cultural space for the expression of opinion with a low barrier to entry. We thought talk was cheap until we invented tweeting. Now, any idiot with a smartphone can participate in a worldwide hashtag conversation. The value of having edgy political opinions has plummeted. How does one distinguish oneself in a flooded marketplace? As with all fashions, the distinctions will seem irrational to an outsider. Why is this hemline in but that one is out? Why is it cool to say “I’m literally a communist!” but gauche to say “Actually, the Gulag wasn’t that bad”? The distinction has to seem arbitrary; if it were logical and predictable, anybody could crack the code and appear cutting-edge. And the performance of virtue has to become more creative to stand out. Anybody can feel bad about injustice, but only a select few can wear that look well and receive praise for it.
Greer is concerned that when we lose the ability to argue under the assumption of your opponent’s good faith, we’re on a slippery slope to using force to resolve our differences. I do take the possibility seriously, but as I said, I’m skeptical that this is where we’re headed. I think that with social media, we’ve created a space for people to indulge en masse in fantasy. To me, Sayre’s Law describes the teacup-tempests of our social-media age — the rhetoric is so vicious because the stakes are so small. I don’t think that many people truly believe in the possibility of radical political change, let alone desire it. I think both the tiki-torch Nazis and the Antifa goons still expect their Amazon Prime deliveries to be waiting on the doorsteps of their suburban homes after they’re done brawling downtown. I don’t think any of the media figures caterwauling about fascism honestly expect to have secret police kicking in their doors. Everyone takes for granted the stability of the political system, which allows them to waste their time on romantic fantasies of redemptive violence and heroism. Lord knows there are plenty of pathologies to diagnose in the body politic, but I don’t think this particular concept is one of them.