“Virtue signalling” has become a common buzzword in the self-defence world. The term is often throw about without much of an explanation or any words of caution, which I think is a problem. But then, I’m painfully biased on the subject. I grew up a short bus ride away from a concentration camp that was active within my mother’s lifetime. That’s coloured my views on a few subjects.
Virtue signalling is defined as:
the expression or promotion of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker.
If everyone stuck to that definition, many issues would not arise. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Accusations of virtue signalling are often launched whenever someone speaks on behalf of a group they don’t belong to, or against an issue they’re not directly affected by, regardless of context.
The vast majority of the time I see the term in play, it strikes me as nothing more than the right-wing version of the “check your privilege” trolling staple that’s so painfully ubiquitous on the left. It’s used to shut people up altogether, to undermine their opinions based on the “fact” that they don’t have a right to be involved in a subject, or to accuse them of having nefarious motives. There must be something inherently wrong with them, something decidedly fishy about their intentions; otherwise why would they be speaking out about something that doesn’t affect them?
I find it hard to look at this as just another poor rhetorical device; just another way to cheat at debates. I understand that my bias is affecting me, but I don’t really care. The bottom line is that I could be accused of virtue signalling for saying that I have a wee bit of a problem with the fact that the authorities in my town rounded up people of Jewish descent and sent them to Auschwitz to die. Yes, I’m playing the Nazi card; yes, that is an extreme manifestation of the phenomenon; but that doesn’t make it untrue. The fact that the vast majority of the times the arguments posed are not as extreme doesn’t make them benign; it makes them insidious. They can slip through without being challenged, or even noticed, and cause serious damage.
I personally consider this phenomenon malignant, for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it stems from and reasserts the belief that our differences are more significant than our shared humanity. For instance, I shouldn’t speak out for “gay rights” because they’re none of my business. In my head, that’s precisely the wrong way to look at both the issue and my involvement. Way I see it, some people are deprived of their human rights because they’re gay. The fact that they are gay isn’t the issue; not for me, anyway. It’s just the reason some people are picking on them. I’m not campaigning for gay rights: I’m campaigning for human rights irrespective of sexual orientation. As I’m almost certainly a human, that’s well within my bailiwick.
The hair-splitting that this attitude can devolve into is rather staggering, too. I’m not neurotypical. Depending on how you choose to classify such things, I may or may not be regarded as having a disability. We could then spend endless time and effort in territorial disputes as to whether that gives me the right to have an opinion about all disabilities, only about my specific disability, or anywhere else in between. Not only this would be intensely tedious, but it would also detract from the actual issue: that some people with disabilities are being discriminated against. That happens to be what I care about.
Accusations of virtue signalling can do a lot to effectively stop or derail conversations. They can do something even worse, though: they can make people feel bad for getting involved. They can make people believe that being an ally is a bad thing; a sign of their own iniquity, and an offence towards the group they would ally themselves to.
Not only this, yet again, affirms that we’re gay/women/disabled/whateverthehell first, and people second. It can actually seriously impede the progress against prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.
Prejudice, discrimination, and oppression are more than just words. They can have serious practical implications for the groups affected, one of them being that those groups tend to have less clout. The Jews in my town could have rallied against the Fascist government’s antisemitism (they probably did: I never looked it up); however, that same antisemitism made it both pointless and dangerous for them to speak up. Their voices quite simply did not count. In an infinitely less obvious manner, the same kind of thing can apply to other groups subjected to discrimination. I can speak up to my little heart’s content against misogyny, but a true misogynist will not be able or willing to hear me.
I’m going to leave you with a recent “experiment” carried out on Twitter. The numbers are not fantastic, so I wouldn’t take this as “data”, but it is a good representation of a common social dynamic. The way in which a message is received and acted upon is affected by the nature of the messenger. If a messenger who falls within a discriminated group speaks out against that discrimination, that can easily backfire.
Maybe we should give accusations of virtue signalling as little weight as we do any other form of trolling. I’m not entirely sure of a good response formula yet, though. Maybe none is warranted. Maybe the best option is to just let such statements lie untouched, like turds in the sun, and carry on as normal.