Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person's standing within a social group. The term was first used in signalling theory, to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue – especially piety among the political or religious faithful. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.
Within signalling theory
Within evolutionary biology, signalling theory is a body of theoretical work examining communication between organisms. It is concerned with honest signals. For example, a peacock's tail is an honest signal of his fitness, since a less fit peacock would only be able to produce a less spectacular tail.
Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. Such behavior is sometimes described as "virtue signalling".
The blog LessWrong was an early user of the term for an audience not comprising signalling theorists. It alluded to the concept as early as February 2009.
The site later squarely expressed the term on July 30, 2013 when commentator sixes_and_sevens began a discussion thread asking "What do conservative political traditions squabble over?" It opened "My upbringing and social circles are moderately left-wing. There's a well-observed failure mode in these circles, not entirely dissimilar to what's discussed in [a previous article] "Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate", where participants sabotage cooperation by going out of their way to find things to disagree about, presumably for moral posturing and virtue-signalling reasons. In recent years I have become fairly sceptical of intrinsic differences between political groups, which leads me to my opening question: what do conservative political traditions squabble over? I find it hard to imagine what form this sort of self-sabotaging moral posturing might take. Can anyone who grew up on the other side of the fence offer any insight?"
The thread made reference to a previous article ("Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate") written by Eliezer Yudkowsky on March 20, 2009 that included a question concerning authors who expressed resignation of a victory of radical Islam over Enlightenment values. The piece asked if such writers were merely "trying to signal their cynical sophistication or something." This question itself was hyperlinked to an earlier article ("Cynical About Cynicism") from February 17, 2009 that included the statement "If people are trying to signal virtue through their beliefs, then a rationalist may have to advocate contrasting beliefs that don't signal virtue."
In June 22, 2014 Andrew Klavan of PJ Media took to task Katie McDonough of Salon, Katherine Fund of The Huffington Post, and Mel Robbins of CNN for what he held was a shameful distortion of a piece by George Will about the US Federal government's reactions to claims of on-campus rape. Klavan held that "These people know most people won't read Will's column for themselves. They know their characterizations will get more play in the leftist media than Will's actual words. They know they can distort and lie about Will and some of it will stick." He held their anger towards George Will was misplaced and actually due to "Shame and self-disgust".
In the comments below Klavan's story, one contributor, dicentra, agreed there was "faux outrage" from Klevan's targets and "It's Moral Preening, Virtue Signalling, Competitive Pearl-Clutching, Flashing Tribal Signs — call it what you will — it's a Superior Dance beyond the Church Lady's wildest imagination. Screaming 'racist' and hitting the fainting couch — PUBLICLY! of course — demonstrates how very sensitive you are, that you're so far from being a racist that you can sense racism where mere mortals cannot. ...Best of all, you're more sensitive than Those People, which gives you license to heap punishment on them in whichever way you deem most deliciously vile. They're not fragile. They're not offended. They're not the least bit sensitive or caring. They're out for blood, which their ostentatious virtue entitles them to spill. We're fools to let them get away with this aggressive bullsplat this long."
Bartholomew pointed to in-store advertising at Whole Foods Market where a picture of a mother carrying her child on her shoulders under the caption "VALUES MATTER...We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what's good." He stated that "This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called 'virtue signalling' — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous."
He cited a Mishal Husain interview of Nigel Farage "interrupting him mid-sentence, insinuating that he is racist or that, even if he isn't his membership is." Bartholomew held that this was indirect virtue signalling "indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions, one of which is despising UKIP and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist. When she later goes to a dinner party attended by other members of the media elite, she will be welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views."
He also stated that "When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant." Bartholomew criticized the policy on a number of grounds. He held that it did not take into account the actual effectiveness of foreign aid, that it ignored unintended consequences and focusing on feelings and good intentions.
Bartholomew stated that virtue signalling often comprised proclamations of how one hated something. He held that this was camouflage deflecting charges of vanity and self-aggrandisement that would come with saying you care more: "Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness ...you must be virtuous to be so cross!"
Within the article he invoked the field of Economics saying that by its jargon "the assertion of moral superiority is a 'positional good' — a way of differentiating yourself from others." He pointed out that the "difficulty about positional goods is that others may encroach on your 'position'." He held that within virtue signalling, someone encroaching on your "position" causes one to advocate ever greater positions (such as supporting a higher minimum wage than your fellow supporters) so "You will not be outbid when it comes to your kindness." This bidding becomes divorced from the reality it claims to be concerned over – with unsupported, unrealistic and unsustainable positions advocated.
Bartholomew held that the acceptance of virtue signalling diminished actual virtue, saying with the practice "Virtue comes from mere words or even silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things...These things involve effort and self-sacrifice." He argued that virtue signalling is about what is said, and contrasted it with doing something genuinely virtuous, such as donating money to charity, visiting the sick, or befriending the lonely.
In a later article, Bartholomew incorrectly claimed to have invented the phrase.
In an interview with The Daily Beast's Jay Michaelson, on September 17, 2015, Ann Coulter used the term when defending her Tweet that followed a Republican debate for the 2016 Presidential nomination, where she wrote "How many f--ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?"
Coulter held that the many mentions of support for Israel made by the Republican candidates was virtue-signalling to ensure that Jews supported the candidates and by overuse of this signalling the GOP was descending into pointless pandering. She stated "My point was this whole culture of virtue-signalling where debates are about nothing. Look, Republicans all agree 100 percent that we are pro-Israel, pro-Life, pro-gun. So why do we spend so much time on these issues? It's just pandering, so who are they pandering to? ...My tweet was about Republicans and the pandering. It wasn’t about Israel, it wasn’t about Jews. It's what Republicans are thinking in their little pea brains. I could say the same thing about evangelicals. Who are you pandering to? A lot of it is to Sheldon Adelson and the evangelicals... This kind of suck-uppery is humiliating. ...There is no doubt that the Republican Party is the party of Israel and of Life. So why keep sucking up on Israel?"
In a September 21, 2015 article Alt-right website VDARE noted the withdrawal of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker from the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination race. They noted "Scott Walker fell back on 'Reaganism', which nowadays has less and less to do with the historical Ronald Reagan anyway. Among Republicans, referencing Reagan is now a form of 'virtue signalling'. We don’t face the same issues as Ronald Reagan faced in the 1980s, and we would best emulate Reagan by taking the National Question [Race, Ethnicity, and Identity In the 21st Century] by the horns and going with that. Maybe if Scott Walker had made the National Question his main platform, the candidate might have done better."
- changing social media avatars to support a cause
- participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge
- faux outrage
- celebrity speeches during award shows
Reception of the phrase has been mixed: writing in The Guardian, Zoe Williams described the phrase as the "sequel insult to champagne socialist", while fellow Guardian writer David Shariatmadari says that while the term serves a purpose, its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword: "What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It's too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments." Some on the left have embraced the term: Helen Lewis, writing for the New Statesman, blamed virtue signalling for the Labour Party's defeat in the 2015 general election, suggesting that the desire to be seen as holding virtuous opinions leads political activists to focus on issues such as nuclear disarmament that are lofty and remote to common voters, resulting in an echo chamber effect that led Labour strategists to underestimate support for Conservative policies. However, in an article later published by the New Statesman, Tanya Gold claimed that 'people who accuse others of "virtue signalling" are trying to stigmatise empathy', describing it as 'devious political propaganda'.
- Bulbulia, Joseph; Schjoedt, Uffe (2010). "Religious Culture and Cooperative Prediction under Risk: Perspectives from Social Neuroscience". Religion, Economy, and Cooperation. pp. 37–39. ISBN 3110246333.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Pemberton, Becky (January 25, 2017). "What is virtue signalling?". The Sun. Retrieved 2017-01-27.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, virtue signalling is "the action or practice of publicly expressing opinion or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue."<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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- Irons, W. (2001) Religion as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment, in The Evolution of Commitment, Randolph Nesse (ed.) New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 292–309.
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- Bartholemew, James (April 18, 2015). "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". Spectator. Retrieved 2016-04-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- "Values Matter". Whole Foods Market. October 20, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- "Whole Foods Market launches first-ever national campaign". Whole Foods Market. October 20, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Bartholemew, James (October 10, 2015). "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". Spectator. Retrieved 2016-04-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Jay Michaelson (September 17, 2015). "Ann Coulter Defends 'F--king Jews' Rant".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Allan Wall (September 21, 2015). "Scott Walker--What Could Have Been". VDARE. Missing or empty
- Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Lewis, Helen (July 22, 2015). "The echo chamber of social media is luring the left into cosy delusion and dangerous insularity". New Statesman. Retrieved 2016-04-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Gold, Tanya (9 February 2016). "People who accuse others of "virtue signalling" are trying to stigmatise empathy". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 February 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>