The Sham of Virtue Signalling

In a previous post I mentioned something called ‘virtue signalling’. This is when people publicly express an opinion intended to demonstrate their moral correctness on any given issue. I now realise, perhaps a little belatedly, that virtue signalling is without doubt the dominant factor of social media platforms like Facebook. As I mentioned in my post, ‘Giving the NHS the Clap’, it is easy to do and leaves the individual feeling good about themselves. Virtue signalling requires little thought, no self-discipline, and can mask a serious deficit of knowledge in the subject concerned.

It looks good therefore it must be good!

Virtue signalling is also why genuine debate cannot thrive in mediums like Facebook. Those who practice it assume that everyone of a like mind will make the same signals as themselves. It has become a pattern of behaviour. All good people signal their good moral stance on an issue. Indeed, early examples of virtue signalling were those in which an individual would claim to ‘stand with…’ whoever or whatever was in the news. I always found this a strange concept, one bordering on delusion. You make a post by sitting in front of your device and watching it appear in a virtual space. No actual standing is required. The poster may also be geographically removed from either the incident or the people that they are ‘standing with’ in the real world. Of course, what they mean is that they are expressing moral support for something or someone, but they are doing it in a very superficial way. Saying and doing are two very different things. In the real world we are judged by our actions, in the virtual world we are judged by our virtue signalling.

The problem with virtue signalling is that it becomes an expected behaviour, a means of judging who is on side and who is not. When someone makes a response that is not in line with that behaviour then they frequently provoke accusative rejoinders. Virtue signalling appears to inspire a certain degree of intolerance. This is not surprising as social media debating has been reduced to a very simple dichotomy; either you are with us or you are against us. If you fail to make the right signal, then you are presumed to be against them, and you will suffer accordingly.

Imagine that the colour green is in vogue. Everybody loves the colour green. Virtue signallers post their love for the colour green and expect everyone else to do the same. However, green is not an absolute colour. It has a large number of shades and I might find some of those shades less agreeable than others. Perhaps I already know a lot about the full spectrum of green, more than the average person does. I might post my appreciation for the colour green but limit it to the shades I like. That is not virtue signalling. Such a post is intimating that green is not perfectly right just as it is but that it might contain a degree of imperfection or a questionable quality. Such a post suggests that the person making it is not really a supporter of the colour green because they are clearly questioning an aspect about it. They are daring to debate and not just accepting the rightness of the colour green that everyone else is.

It is almost like committing heresy!

People who understand how real debate works know that it is only by exploring any given issue to its full extent that a genuine truth can be revealed. In that act of exploration some less attractive aspects of the topic might be revealed, but then that will lead to a better understanding of the subject. The problem for the virtue signaller, however, is that this makes things complicated. It means that you have to take the time to understand the subject and accept that it might not be as clear and concise as you might wish. Very few topics are clear and concise, most are messy and convoluted and require us to accept uncomfortable truths. Virtue signalling is, at best, a mask behind which people can hide their shallow understanding, at worst, a lazy way of looking morally superior.

10 thoughts on “The Sham of Virtue Signalling

  1. Pingback: Responses to The Sham of Virtue Signalling Post | Peter C Whitaker

  2. Virtue Signalling is a term used almost exclusively by people who perceive themselves to be on the wrong side of a moral argument.
    For example, if I wrote a public post on social media in which I claimed black, gay, disabled or any other minority group were stupid or less worthy of respect than other groups, I might be accused of many things but ‘virtue signalling’ would not be one of them.
    But if I write something in support of such a minority (for example supporting Black Lives Matter) some people would accuse me of Virtue Signalling.
    QED, Virtue Signalling is a term and a concept invented by those on less stable moral ground to attack those who seem to be winning the moral argument.


  3. This is the definition of virtue signalling that I used in writing this piece:
    ‘an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media’, which is taken from the Cambridge Dictionary; where did you get your definition from?


  4. I didn’t need to look the definition up in a dictionary before replying to your post since I already know what it means. Out of interest after reading your comment, I looked it up on several dictionary sites (Oxford, Cambridge, Websters, Wiki etc) and yes, they all agree with your definition and the same idea I had in mind.
    This does not change the point I made in the least. Indeed, from the various ways the term is defined, it is clear that the application of the term is entirely subjective. It has become a pejorative term used exclusively by those on the less morally defensible side of any argument to try and undermine opposing views.
    Using your definition above, who decides what was in the mind of the writer when they express an opinion?
    I also did some further reading via google where I found hundreds of articles debunking the whole concept of virtue signalling. As it said in a Guardian article, the whole concept is well past its use by date and has become a lazy form of defence for those who use it.


  5. What is in the mind of the writer can be inferred from what they have written, unless they are being less than honest of course.

    As you say, the application of any term is entirely subjective, but the understanding of that term is not, as demonstrated by it having an agreed definition. The behaviour described by the definition I used is apparent in social media, which makes it an objective fact. If a concept is supported by empirical evidence then it cannot be debunked, only misrepresented. It is not the quantity of arguments that win the debate, only the one with the strongest inherent logic that proves it to be true.

    However, your comments seem more interested in the term ‘virtue signalling’ than in the argument I made, which was the point of the original post.


  6. Well you seem to be implying that all virtue signalling is a sham or, by implication, that the views of anyone positing an argument which conveys a popular moral stance can be condemned as ‘virtue signalling’, as if that is enough to debunk the point they are making.


  7. I am not implying anything. I am arguing that virtue signalling in social media is a shallow activity that achieves nothing in the real world. No point is being made by its use, other than an individual getting personal satisfaction from publicly indicating their supposed moral position on a given subject. It requires no effort, no particular knowledge of the subject, and results in no practical outcomes.


    • Do you deny that the accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ are usually made by those who disagree with the supposed virtue being signalled?
      I am arguing that making accusations of virtue signalling in social media is the really shallow activity.


  8. I am writing about the behaviour of ‘virtue signalling’ as seen on social media, not about the people who use it as an accusation. Anything created by the human mind can be used for any purpose anyone else can imagine.

    As a disabled person, I have experienced many instances of discrimination, most of which I have dealt with by myself, the one aspect that really annoys me, however, is not the prejudice but the apathy of others. Virtue signalling, as illustrated in my post, allows people to fool themselves into thinking that they have done the right thing when they have done nothing, as far as the physical world outside of social media is concerned, at all. In that respect virtue signalling is a sham. I might write a post recounting an episode of discrimination and get 100 responses, but that does not mean that any of the responder’s attitudes have changed significantly to the topic. Most have merely indicated a sympathy only, that is, they have behaved in a manner that they think is expected of ‘good people’. It does not mean that they are going to actually do something to help disabled people in the real world.

    Social media platforms like Facebook do not require people to think about a subject. Most participants appear to just jump on the popular bandwagon and enjoy the ride. As I said in the original post, divergent opinions are generally not welcome in social media. There seems to be a determined effort to reduce even complex issues to simple ‘for or against’ arguments. This is not limited to Facebook, I have encountered it elsewhere on other platforms. Virtue signalling, as I described it, is merely one of the more prominent behaviours of this process of reductionism.


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