Friday, October 23, 2015

Cheap Virtue Signalling

This is the followup to Monday's post about virtue signalling in general.

Chiefs of police tend to be more supportive of gun-control measures than the rank-and file officers, who trend in the opposite direction.  I have strong opinions on the subject myself, and I think one side of the argument is simply wrong. But in both groups have in some sense paid for their opinion.  I cannot imagine disagreeing in anything but a polite, even deferential and listening manner. Even if they get irritable and condescending about the issue with one such as I, I don't much mind. They earned it.

Similarly, I knew a woman who worked in a battered women's shelter who held simply ridiculous ideas about what would be helpful going forward to reduce violence against women, including a lot of age-inappropriate verbal exercises in a school curriculum virtually dedicated to social change rather than, say, reading or geography. She was not only impassioned, she was pretty insulting about what the evil motives must be of the people who disagreed with her. She viewed just about any contradiction as an endorsement of abusing women. Yet my discussion with her was not at all confrontational. (Okay, maybe I was just afraid she would beat me up verbally and I cowered. So sue me.) Her ideas might have been loco, but her anger was not irrational.  She had seen too much pain and given too  much of herself to expect complete dispassion from her.

In contrast, we all know people who signal virtue who are doing it entirely at the expense of others - The big ones would be people who say hateful things about mothers receiving WIC benefits who are themselves spongers; OWS youth blaming their student debt on an unfair system that allows a 1% to exist; officers of non-profits trying to raise funds by demonising others. But I think cheap virtue signalling is even more common than that.  It is common among relatives, among the everyday folks we work with, go to church with, and receive emails from.  My cousins and nephews who leaped to the conclusion that Ferguson cops must be racist (the subsequent report declaring them racist actually had data showing the opposite), contrasted with those who leaped to the opposite conclusion just as fast.  Dylann Roof couldn't find a co-conspirator in Charleston.

People jump on these bandwagons to show what good folks they are.  It costs them nothing, and it tears down others who may be innocent. It's evil.

I describe these situations to illustrate that virtue signalling is not an entirely bad thing.  In my first post I asserted that we are always signalling a dozen things, which is one of the efficiencies of human interaction.  Donna B noted a difference between positive and negative virtue signalling, which is not quite what I'm thinking but overlaps.  Grim pointed out that when we are aware of signalling, the only decent thing to do is be very careful about it, even consciously stepping away from it.  I heartily agree, but know from my own life that there can be layer upon layer of self-deception here. There is an entire class of wealth which understates itself in what used to be Puritan humility but is now a type of pride. Even in spiritual matters, there are those who equate worship understatement with Christian humility, and enthusiasm with pride and Phariseeism. They have a point, and emotionally I am myself drawn to that.  But I have to admit that Jesus doesn't seem to share my opinion. (Luke 19:40)

Virtue signalling is perhaps never fully justified. Yet even the best of us do it even as we undo it. I will leave the spiritual solutions to your own spiritual directors and advisors.  We do this, but we hope not to, and in some places we are by grace free of this sin of the Pharisees*. God grant that we become free of it in all things.

Yet what about our public, political selves? When we express virtually any opinion we are short-cutting to a statement about ourselves - that we care about fairness, or the poor, or the future of America, or women, or the working man, etc. We can't very well stop saying what we believe, or genralising from specific events to larger trends. It is often a good thing to take a public stand.

But what does this stand cost you?  The idea that some "others" who you seldom cross paths with will disapprove of you is not really a cost.  It is a pretend cost.

I submit that others get outraged more when you attempt to take away their cheap virtue signalling than when you contradict their knowledge that is earned. And that applies to us as well. The modern PC mantra is "check your privilege."  I think it's more important to check your cost.

*BTW, while some Pharisees were of course deep hypocrites and dangerous, many of them must have been decent religious people attempting to keep the law by finding loopholes, much as we do in our day.  Jesus did not exempt them from his charges. That is why, when reading the scriptures, it is best to think of the Pharisees as "us," not "them."


Unknown said...

I suppose this sort of preening, you describe, is part of the human condition, just like witch hunts. Do you think it is more prevalent and obnoxious now? Today’s voyeurism, butt sniffing, and ankle biting is pretty over the top; it does seem more perverse and sometimes even random. Germaine Greer got swept up in it. Is being avant garde a virtue? Maybe they fancy themselves as avant garde. I can’t help but wonder if, for some of these folks, it’s an income stream and what many people do in lieu of having a real contributing job. Or, maybe it is as simple as oneupsmanship. If you are not one up, you are one down.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was worse in the 1970's, as were my friends. I don't know about the culture as a whole. It's rather like serial killers, who we imagine are more common now because the national news tells us about them.. But they are actually on the decline, as a percentage of population.

Texan99 said...

You seem close to concluding that taking any moral stance out loud is suspect virtue signaling. Can that be right? Jesus had no problem with taking moral stances out loud; was He really encouraging us to think we should never do so, even if we must obviously be careful about our poor attempts to do what He did superlatively?

That we ought always to be on guard against the danger of cant and hypocrisy is inarguable, but it seems like a mistake to hobble ourselves completely lest we make an error. Sometimes you just have to say what you believe to the best of your ability.

Unknown said...

"I don't know about the culture as a whole. It's rather like serial killers, who we imagine are more common now because the national news tells us about them.. But they are actually on the decline, as a percentage of population......"
Exactly! In part, media types piggy back on the bizarre "muttering mutterers from the bus" stuff and magnify its significance and support all out of proportion to reality.
Like Vegas, it used to be that the drunk drivel spewed in the bar, stayed in the bar, but now it is broadcast far and wide. How much of this "click bait" stuff is fabricated?
In the Germaine Greer case I wonder how many actually did object to her saying that "surgery doesn't turn a man into a woman", two? and if they were even students.