‘Virtue Signaling’ Isn’t the Problem. Not Believing One Another Is.
There is a clear implication here: Nobody could really care very much about any of these things, except insofar as it allows them to appear virtuous. No one cares about Afghan girls or distant tanker fires; no one is that concerned about America’s poor. The term carves the world neatly into parts: There are real concerns, and there are contrived, theatrical ones. As one Twitter user wrote to Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey: ‘‘Voters care about jobs, security, family, retirement. Not bathrooms, gay marriage, virtue signaling, climate and transgender.’’ Those who purport to care about the latter set of issues — including, apparently, gay or transgender people — must be doing so for attention.
The real problem, of course, isn’t the signaling part: Everyone is signaling all the time, whether it’s about social justice or their commitment to Second Amendment rights or their concerns about immigration law. Those who accuse others of virtue signaling seem angry about the supposed virtues themselves — angry that someone, anyone, appears to care about something they do not. Another Twitter user, defending Donald Trump after the infamous ‘‘Access Hollywood’’ tape, wrote: ‘‘Stop virtue signaling. It doesn’t work. Are you saying you never talked dirty in a [private] conversation?’’ The logic here is not that Trump or his actions were morally correct, but that no one else is, either, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying.
Those who cry ‘‘virtue signaling,’’ though? At least, they claim, they’re honest about it. They are, of course, trying to signal something about their own values: that they are pragmatic, appropriately cynical, in touch with the painful facts of everyday life. Virtue signaling can be a way of staking out a position in an argument — not just the high ground, but the highest ground. (You may be against racism, but I am more against racism than you.) But calling out virtue signaling is a useful position in itself.
Most talk of ‘‘virtue signaling’’ is limited to the realm of arguments: debates, spats, flame wars. It’s just talk, and mostly just talk online. In 140-character arguments on Twitter, the phrase ‘‘virtue signaling’’ creates a virtual foxhole, the spot from which you will attack and defend before logging off for the evening.
But it indicates a problem that goes well beyond our rhetoric. Americans are now more sheltered and siloed in our sources of news and information than ever before. We live in areas and send our children to schools more segregated by class and color than they have been in decades. We are less likely to know different kinds of people, people who might care about different issues than we do. At the same time, we’ve grown dangerously inured to pious doublespeak — whether it’s the politician claiming to stand for the family while engaging in multiple extramarital affairs or the corporation that combines feminist ads with hostile work environments. A result is that we simply don’t believe one another anymore. We do not believe that our Facebook friends really care about terror attacks in foreign countries, or that celebrities really care about climate change, or that Nancy Pelosi actually prays for Donald Trump and his family. Even our most exalted moral leaders aren’t safe. Last year, Pope Francis pointedly opined that ‘‘A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.’’ Someone recently shot back online: ‘‘Oh please Pope. Stuff your self righteous indignation and tear down that wall around the Vatican before you start your virtue signaling.’’
The cynicism we’ve felt about public figures for decades has trickled down to apply to our friends and neighbors as well. We imagine that people who take stands on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves are all a bit like those hypocrites in Matthew, standing on the street corners of the internet, telling us to stop buying conventionally grown potatoes and start using racially sensitive terminology before themselves going home, eating McDonald’s french fries and swearing at the television. Our personal and political isolation has rendered us suspicious and blind to the fears and concerns and cares of others.
But of course many people do care, about all sorts of things that you or I might disagree with. People on low-lying islands in the Pacific care about climate change. Members of the armed forces care about military spending. Transgender people care about their ability to access public facilities, gay people care about whether they can adopt children and evangelical Christians care about their ability to live out their faith in the workplace. These people have families and friends, and next-door neighbors and dog walkers, who most likely care, too. This caring is not a crime; it is an argument, about what people should value in the first place. And accusations of ‘‘virtue signaling’’ are, more than anything, a way of walking out on that argument and dismissing it altogether — a quick and easy solution for those moments when engaging and listening, agreeing or disagreeing, seem too hard, too challenging, too personal, too dangerous.
via NYT Magazine http://nyti.ms/2mcceZp
August 8, 2017 at 02:06AM