Over the past few days, I have been doing a lot of reading on virtue signalling; a term I had heard tangentially. Virtue signalling is a modern habit in which one indicates their virtue by expressing either favour or disgust for something happening culturally or politically. And, in expressing either favour or disgust they can claim, both, moral high ground and feel morally superior. Whoa. It’s a win-win amirite?!
This concept of virtue signalling often gets associated with leftist and liberal snowflakes though the evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, has found that all people engage in virtue signalling. The millennials though, no surprise, with their ironic t-shirts, skinny pants, fedoras and topknots, get the worst rap. I mean they are the ones who will cancel a person, place or thing at a moments notice in order to keep their virtue intact. Purist ideas about: justice, fairness, environmental preservation, equal rights and treatment under the law. Nonsense of that nature.
Those that may, more largely, make up the Conservative party in Canada or the Republican Party in the U.S., would never virtue signal. No. They would never signal their virtue by laying claim to morality vis a vis the Church. And they would never signal that they are the party of ‘family values’ and a ‘right to life’ through the control, and manipulation of, women’s bodies and what women are to do with them; as well as the limitation of LGBTQ+ rights under the law. They would not dare to extend their ‘pro life’ position to the possession of weapons that belong only on a battlefield thereby virtue signalling that they are the guardians of freedom. They would also never virtue signal when it comes to race and suggest they are the keepers of order and will stamp out ‘thugs’ who dare demand something crazy like a right to live and be treated equally.
No, virtue signalling is clearly an affliction of the millennial. It’s unfortunate really. In opposite-land. In the real world, in actual reality, conservative voices do virtually all of the virtue signalling virtually all of the time. Except that what they are signalling is only virtuous, again, in oppositeland. It is the exact and direct opposite of virtue signalling; it is non virtue signalling but those who claim ownership over virtue don’t seem able to see themselves as they are. Muhammad Ali knew about virtue signalling before virtue signalling was even a thing and he knew who was the signified and who were the signifiers. Which begs the question: who has always decided what is virtuous? Who has decided what and who is deserving of preserving and what and who may be thrown away?
Religious clergy being among the signifiers as they have virtue signalled as they decided that women and their bodies were dangerous and had to be controlled. They also decided that members of the LGBTQ+ community who seemed to subvert the virtues of decency and normalcy were not virtuous. Slave traders who, as Ibram X. Kendi notes, decided that those they were trading were at the level of animals. A notion that continues now, 400 years later as untold numbers of black and brown people internalized that they were not virtuous, but rather, worthy of shame and scorn and devaluation.
We see this even in the face of COVID-19 which was an emergency only until data showed that black and brown people were disproportionately affected. Once that was known the U.S. President, who had been briefly moved by the effect of COVID on his predominantly white childhood neighbourhood, decided it was absolutely time to get back to work. Unless you worked in the White House. Then every precaution was taken. Virtue signal: honour. Some lives are more worthy of being honoured than others. White, heteronormative, male politicians have long set the standards for virtue. Even politicians, like Trump, who tend to be more orange, having had multiple wives, scores of affairs and multiple allegations of sexual assault get to signal virtue. It’s astoundingly great. For them.
Just think, this week alone Donald J. Trump, having been anointed by the Republican cabal, got to virtue signal how wrong, sinful, shameful and immoral it is to be trans. On the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Pulse nightclub Trump decided a lovely anniversary gift would be to strip transpeople of their civil rights health protections.
In what was to be a very busy week for him, he also decided to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma (the site of one of the most brutal massacres against black people in U.S. history) on June 19 aka Juneteenth aka the day the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the enslaved in Texas. He was, rightly, chastised for the decision and claimed, what he always claims: ignorance. He didn’t know the significance of the date and place. And he is ignorant. It’s not at all a stretch to know that about him but, it’s also, a lie. He is not ignorant when it comes to throwing red meat to his base. He is not ignorant when it comes to knowing who is the most vulnerable and therefore who he can control and hurt the absolute most.
No, his cruelty, like his virtue signalling is always calculated to meet his ends and advance whatever his self-interest may be at that time. And he is enabled in doing so in the most oxymoronic way possible. When confronted about the Juneteenth debacle, members of the Republican party, with a straight face claimed, just as Daddy Dearest taught them, ignorance. See they had not read a 280 character tweet themselves and therefore couldn’t form an opinion about the facts being placed in front of them. In his thought provoking essay, “I Didn’t Know” Is Not a Defense for Enabling Trump”Masha Gessen dissects the frailty of this defence and the lack of favour with which history will view it.
The Juneteenth rally has been cancelled, Trump claims, out of ‘respect’ for the black community but, really, it was cancelled so it would not be overshadowed by protests and the negativity of a press finally getting wise to his craven ways. Everything Trump and his ilk do is not even virtue signalling, it’s virtue slamming. It’s putting a Batman-style signal in the sky to the base for whom he is a superhero. I see you. I see your righteousness. I see your virtuousness and I will defend very single bit of it because we decide what is virtuous and, therefore, what is right.
What they’re signalling is the opposite of virtuousness but since they’re into gaslighting they frame it as such. Virtues and the signals towards them are fluid, relative, evolving. The young people, the activists who are all out of f’s to give will not be gaslit and they won’t let you or me be gaslit anymore either. In his recent YouTube special, 8:46, Dave Chappelle expressed such beautiful confidence in young people across the globe who are pissed as hell and they absolutely will not take any of it anymore.
They will not let you, or me or anyone, decide where virtue is found or whether or not they are virtuous. On the contrary, they are laying claim by, for and to themselves. No one will tell them anymore that they are not enough, not worthy; wrong or to be feared and shunned. They will be signifying, they will not be signified and they will decide, for themselves and without subjugation, where actual virtue is to be found. And it will be found in a world that is more true, more just, more fair and more reflective of the world that it is. A world full of virtues and virtue signalling that work for, and are reflective of, not just the few, but the many and, ultimately, not just the many but the all.