Monday, October 19, 2015

Virtue Signalling

We are signalling all day - we signal how much education we have and how smart we are; we signal health, religion, availability, attitude to work, region, profession; we not only signal wealth, but our attitude to wealth (as in Earl's link on the subject of class and understated wealth under "Buddhist Ethics"). We signal with clothes, with buzzwords, with cars and hairstyles and references to what media we follow. While our initial response when we are reminded of this is to deplore it, signalling is efficient.  It did not grow up out of nowhere in the human condition.  It is a shortcut expression of who we  are.  As it is a shortcut, others can also learn it and fake it. But that does not invalidate signalling per se. It merely adds a layer of complexity to separating signal from noise. We will see through some ruses.  We will be taken in by others.

There is layer upon layer here, worthy of painful contemplation. In affecting to care not about wealth we may be quietly saying we care very much.  Writing a blog post about signalling is a way of signalling we are more objective and above all that. If we show we see the danger of hypocrisy even in that, we can take signalling to a one-and-half gainer-with-a-full-twist of candor/hypocrisy, leaving the reader to guess whether the essay is all quite humble or quite arrogant.  As I just did.

We signal virtue as well, and we do it all the time.  This is more problematic. When we signal that we have a good quality like generosity or honesty we are taking a shortcut.  We may not actually be generous, we may have merely found a phrase or an action which makes us believe we are generous, which may fool others as well.

On some cynical days, I believe that 99% of all politics is mere virtue signalling, that we don't actually care much what happens to the country or the poor or the Syrians or Hispanic women, we just care about what people think about us, and perhaps about Our Tribe.

The other days, I think it's 100%.

Side Discussion:  In our discussions of May We Believe Our Thoughts (MWBOT) a few years ago, and my intermittent comments on whether altruism actually exists I have already covered whether I really believe we are only reactions, or whether free will and reason enter into the picture at all.  In short, I believe that because we are all aware of better and worse moments in ourselves, and better and worse examples in the rest of humanity, this implies that however low the level of freedom/altruism/virtue is in the human personality, it is clearly worse in some places and persons than others.  Therefore the best of us have some non-zero amount of these qualities. If some wretched humans go to 0.0 and some others are better, they must go to 0.1.  To claim that they are merely disguising their virtue or freedom under deeper and deeper levels of evasion is to grant the point. If there is mixture, there is something to mix. End Side Discussion.

But for the moment, let us grant that all political statements are 99 or 100% affectation for the purpose of virtue signalling.  Several values are up for scrutiny here, but those are details for the reader to play with.  If you look at the political posts people put up on Facebook, or the articles they link on their sites or send to you, take a completely cynical approach for the time being. They may not know that they don't actually care about the issue, but they don't.  They are just virtue signalling: they care about the poor or the taxpayer more than you.  They really, really care about all things, and everybody, and everything, not like those selfish others who care only about themselves or their group/class/tribe.

Let me show you that this is true.  The gun rights people have a dead solid argument in their favor: the proposed gun buying-and-using restrictions haven't improved things where they have been tried.  But they don't use that argument.  Instead, they use culture-war arguments that signal what sort of person they are, and more importantly, what sort of evil people their opponents are.  On the other side, there are intelligent people who can certainly understand the simple point that overall homicides are the key issue, not gun homicides.  But no matter how many times it is pointed out, they still revert to postering how few gun homicides they have in Europe. They are not much caring about death - certainly not the deaths of black people in American cities - they are showing how they cosmopolitan they are, and how much they admire Europe.  Because it also has more socialism than us, and it suggests Junior Year Abroad, and the wealth and sophistication to travel, and all the other extras that come from saying I Heart European Stuff.  Very SWPL. 

Or, at a much more basic level, they are saying "You like killing things.  I like keeping things alive.  Because I'm a better person." Rinse, repeat for abortion, taxation, welfare, immigration, etc.  Look first to the signalling.  Pretend that no rationality exists, and everything your read and hear will actually make more sense. Readers alert to guilt will worry that I am going to suddenly going to turn this back on you with one of those speck-log admonitions. I am actually cautioning against that at present.  Jesus may know you are going to be hit by a bus before you can get to that and force you in that direction, but I am going to assume you are not, because statistically you can't all get hit by buses that soon.  I think you can only learn this lesson the easy way first, by applying it to your political enemies, and perhaps to allies who are sorta jerks.

Consider: If we cared about saving lives or saving money or saving the environment or saving the world we would be far less likely to get upset so quickly, because it would be a rather dry, rational argument of the pros and cons of various approaches. Yet we get furious almost immediately instead.  Why?  Because we resent it when others use virtue signalling on us, and we try to use it back.  Or, we resent when they try to steal our virtue-signalling from us by nefarious logical means.

So indulge this pleasure, because I think it is the quickest way to understand the politics around you.  I, the Assistant Village Idiot, absolve you because it is the best way to see the obvious. The candidates speaking are not those who represent our better natures, they are the ones who express our hypocrisies best.  They actually care the least about the downtrodden and oppressed. But they know better than the rest how to look that way.

Start with the people you really disagree with, who you sniff out at fifty meters are trying to virtue-signal when you suspect they don't actually care. Don't just hate, analyze.  What are they getting from this posture?  What are they claiming or defending from attack?  If you feel up to it, move on to those sites you go to sometimes, or even to me or my sidebar.  Do not apply this to yourself.  That will lead to hopeless muddles and dead ends.

I'm not setting this up as a trick.  (Though I am certainly capable of that.)  We will go to one other place before I leave you to your own devices. For now, observe the virtue signalling in others.

9 comments:

james said...

It is certainly easier to spot it in others. An updated version might be amusing--but it is hard to match the meter. (Our Savoyards try to put in an updated line or verse in the patter songs.)

Texan99 said...

I don't follow you here. That there is a lot of signaling I can easily accept, but that people don't actually care about the effects of their policies in the real world--that doesn't ring true with me. Yes, of course, I know some people who are that shallow, but many more who are not. Often they share with me some broad goals about the benefit of humanity, but they disagree with me on the most likely means to our shared ends. Other times they simply disagree with me about what humanity's benefit looks like; we may put very different priorities on security and independence, for instance. They're not just signaling. They simply disagree, and naturally take the opportunity to say so. As I see it, what they're signaling most clearly is their disagreement.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You may know nicer people than I do. I am thinking of relatives, often quite intelligent ones, whose cultural insults directed at those they disagree with can only be explained by large doses of virtue signalling.

There are those I know whose opinions are more firmly grounded, even if I disagree. I find they signal far less often. I see some correlation between the amount of political communication and my certainty that virtue-signalling is behind it. In some instances, the phrase "culture war" may come closer.

However, I remain disquieted by the research of Haidt and others, which suggests that even the best of us aren't much better than the worst of us.

james said...

Another take; I like the line about "increasing age". I wonder if the aged worry less about being accepted, and if that plays a role in the stereotype of their extreme frankness.

I see a lot of the sort of offhand viciousness you mention on Facebook, and much less in conversations--but still some.

Living in Madison you'd find few to disagree with invidious remarks about the evil of Bush/Walker/Koch, so perhaps some of the talk is less tribal signalling than is just a conversational fill-in to tell that you're still listening.
... from Twain:
Slang was the language of Nevada. It was hard to preach a sermon without it, and be understood. Such phrases as "You bet!" "Oh, no, I reckon not!" "No Irish need apply," and a hundred others, became so common as to fall from the lips of a speaker unconsciously—and very often when they did not touch the subject under discussion and consequently failed to mean anything.

Grim said...

We are signalling all day - we signal how much education we have and how smart we are...

I do my honest best to do the opposite. I live in rural Georgia, and I don't want people to feel at a disadvantage. I want to meet them on grounds of equality, and so I signal almost in the otherwise: to mask my education, and whatever intelligence I might have. It's to my advantage, though. It turns out people who aren't as well educated and maybe not as intelligent know a lot more about things you don't know anything about than you do. The other week I had a guy teach me how to rewire a fuel pump so it would work with my machine -- for free. Just cause I asked him to help me figure it out, and he didn't have anything better to do for an hour. He was 75 years old, and just wanted somebody to talk to for a bit. He had no education to speak of, and was no philosopher, but so what? He was a man of accomplishment in his field. I was his student, at his grace, and I am grateful. He taught me a lot.

People forget that. I couldn't have taught him anything about what he cared about, and he didn't care a fig for what I might teach. But he liked teaching me, and so that was in its way a service to him -- and he gave me a great service in turn. He's a good guy, who can do things with ease that I would need years of training to do. He doesn't care: he'll give that training away for free, if you'll just spend an hour talking to him. He just wants that respect and human attention, and surely he's due it.

Donna B. said...

Maybe what AVI is decribing could be called negative virtue signalling. Or dishonest. What Grim describes is still signalling but it's positive. It lets observers know who he is, rather than advertising that he's certainly not one of the "them", such as the one I saw this morning by some Facebook group called "Too Informed to Vote Republican". It was shared by a relative of mine.

bs king said...

the people I know who are the worst about this are always the ones who I feel "earn" it least. The three worst on my Facebook feed are all smart but have had a lot of job instability and don't work often. There's a weird ego thing there....like "I may be unemployed and living with my parents at age 57, but at least I'm not a Democrat!"

In pro wrestling there's a term "cheap pop" (the opposite of cheap heat, obviously), that describes what happens when a wrestler says something to the crowd that they can't not cheer. Think "hello Boston! Ready for a Red Sox win?" This signaling stuff feels like that.

Donna B. said...

bs king -- now isn't it strange that the worst ones on my Facebook feed are similar except that they end that with "at least I'm not a Republican!"

As one of my older cousins put it "Papa always said any democrat no matter how sorry he was, was better than any republican."


bs king said...

Donna B - yeah, my Facebook feed follows the same pattern as AVIs - the two worst are Republican, the next 8 worst are Democrats.