Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Spurious signals

One of the pleasures of modern language is the invention of particularly apt, powerfully descriptive phrases such as ‘virtue signalling’. This seems to be a recent one. According to Google Trends it first appeared as a blip in 2009 then rose from obscurity in 2015. In spite of claims by James Bartholomew it probably originated within signalling theory. Google Ngram Viewer isn’t aware of it at all.

Virtue signalling is 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. For example, expressing a hatred of the conservative newspaper Daily Mail might be an example of virtue signalling on the British left. The term is chiefly used by commentators to criticize the platitudinous and empty or superficial support of socially progressive views on social media, but has also been used to describe analogous behaviour in other groups, such as pro-gun rights grandstanding among the American right, and by signalling theorists to discuss conspicuous piety among the religious faithful as well as agnostics and atheists.

A real stonker of a phrase, it is extraordinarily powerful as a concise term for vast swathes of unedifying human behaviour. Yet the idea of signalling is hardly new - Strindberg saw it in art.

...for my art was incapable of expressing a single idea; at the most it could represent the body in a position expressing an emotion accompanying a thought—or, in other words, express a thought at third hand. It is like signalling, meaningless to all who cannot read the signals. I only see a red flag, but the soldier sees the word of command: Advance!
August Strindberg – The Red Room (1879)

In which case and given that it is now so obvious that virtue signalling is a vital aspect of human behaviour, what prevented us from describing it in such a powerfully accessible way before? Perhaps it is because, as we well know, forceful phrases soon become overused, lose their vigour and slip off into the land of cliché.

Which would be handy for those who rely on virtue signalling because it cuts so deeply into the social fabric. It exposes the manipulative mechanisms of power, the screen behind which personal interests hide.

Celebrity culture, mainstream journalism, drama, political allegiances, the EU, the UN, major charities, environmental drama, major sporting events and international businesses all lean heavily on virtue signalling. They cannot say so or folk might expect some genuine virtues instead of being caught up in the nonsense themselves. We can’t have that can we?


James Higham said...

I'm really great at virtue signalling, being a fine chap of unimpeachable worth.

Sam Vega said...

Have a look at this:

A Guardianista objecting to the term. If anyone has a vested interest in removing this dangerous phrase from the realms of public debate, it is surely him. Like a burglar lobbying to rid the world of CCTV, or fingerprinting.

The term is so beautiful and precious, that I sometimes wonder what we should do with it. Use it as often as possible, but risk blunting its wonderful honed edge? Or sparingly, so as to save it from cliche, but miss easy targets? One good reason to read widely and express oneself in writing is to create the type of written culture wherein new weapons can be forged when the old ones are past their prime.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, some of us don't have to try.

Sam - only in the Guardian, the virtue-signaller's rag of choice.

One way to preserve it would be to keep it low key, treat it almost as a technical term. Its eventual fate should be interesting.

Demetrius said...

I believe that virtue signalling should be open to all regardless of race, religion, class, gender and any personal inclinations that differ from another. So long as I reserve my inalienable right to thump anyone on the nose that I disagree with.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - it's often an attractive option, but is thumping people on the nose a virtue?

Demetrius said...

Virtue is it's own reward.

Graeme said...

The true grandmaster of virtue signalling is Rt Hon Mr Corbyn. I do not recall the exact details, but the Conservative chap with the shiny face once expressed commiserations to all those Israelis who suffered from bomb attacks, whereupon JC stood up and added "and also those Palestinians who suffered". Truly masterly.

A K Haart said...

Graeme - I agree, relentless virtue signalling from the sidelines is the greater part of Corbyn's political philosophy. Now he isn't on the sidelines he has problems.