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Could there be a hidden virtue in virtue signaling?

| Wednesday, September 8, 2021

My sophomore year, I was a part of Pasquerilla East Hall’s Welcome Weekend team. Before the first-years arrived, our team convened in the family room, discussing best bed lofting techniques and reviewing the lyrics to our Jonas Brothers-heavy serenade. At the end of the meeting, the captains passed out name tags, t-shirts and LGBTQ+ “Ally” pins. As I walked back to my room, one of my friends leaned over to speak to me conspiratorially. “Ugh. Doesn’t this feel like such virtue signaling?”

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, virtue signaling refers to actions or declarations that are meant to publicly demonstrate a person’s morality. Often used interchangeably with terms like “optical allyship” or “performative activism,” virtue signaling tends to carry a negative connotation, implying a lack of sincerity on the part of the actor, a performance meant to increase clout rather than genuinely further a cause.

In the past year, I’ve noticed this phrase being wielded with rapidly increasing regularity. When I wore my mask at an indoor dinner last year, I was accused of virtue signaling. When my professor asked our class to change our Zoom display names to show our pronouns, I heard complaints of virtue signaling. And though I agree with the critics that these outward displays of values cannot and should not constitute the entirety of one’s devotion to a cause, I must ask: What exactly is the problem with signaling one’s virtues?

If my sociology major has taught me nothing else, I’ve learned that conformity is a paramount aspect of human nature. And while peer pressuring people into saying that one line is longer than another when it’s clearly not is one way to wield social psychology, influencing others to do the right thing is, dare I say, a better exploitation of the human desire to fit in.

As implied by the very nature of the phrase, virtue signaling signals what is virtuous, insomuch as it requires the actor to at least recognize which values have been deemed morally righteous. And isn’t that the first step of creating a just society? Isn’t realizing what is the “right” thing to do a good thing in and of itself? After all, if the critics’ complaint that these actions are carried out only because they’ll result in a reward for the actor, doesn’t that reward imply society has deemed this action valuable, even important? No matter the motives of a person pinning an “Ally” button to their backpack, the mere act that they do so reinforces the notion that being an ally is important. It communicates that the standard on our campus is love and acceptance and support. Even if there are secret bigots securing a pin, the fact that they know they have to keep their hate secret confirms that it’s wrong. An outward show of support, even if not yet internalized, supports the idea that this is how our world is “supposed” to be. This considerate conduct, this passion for equality, this support of the righteous is what we are striving for. If virtue signaling serves only to make hate taboo, isn’t that the first step toward eradicating that hate?

Every action we take, every “signal” we send, will invariably be noticed by others. Why not signal something that matters? I’m not advocating for moral grandstanding, but I do think there’s something to be said for leading by example. The people around us are watching. The actions we take cause a ripple effect. Shouldn’t it count for something that these virtue signals can create ripples for good?

Perhaps what bothers me most about so many of the accusations regarding virtue signaling is that, in my experience, more often than not this criticism is directed toward people with different views than the critics’s  own. Charges of performativity are used to delegitimize any point of view that doesn’t match that of the outcrier. A friend assumes my motives for wearing a mask at an indoor dinner must be disingenuous because they wouldn’t wear a mask. My actions are different from theirs and thus they can’t fathom that I put on a mask in earnest, genuinely not wanting to spread or catch disease. If I do something you deem rational, I’m a positive role model. If I act according to a set of morals different than yours, I’m posturing. After all, what is standing for the pledge of allegiance, but a performance of one’s patriotism? What is my wearing a cross around my neck but an outward show of my inner faith? The line between standing in solidarity and bragging about one’s beliefs seems to be decided only by which beliefs are deemed valid.

Ignoring the lack of respect this mindset allows for differing opinions, I’m mainly struck by how profoundly sad it must be to move through life assuming that people don’t actually care. How utterly exhausting it must be to doubt every act of kindness, every attempt at solidarity or allyship. Admittedly, I tend to have too much good faith in the people and systems around me, but let me be the first to tell you how liberating it is to assume goodwill among all. Let me emphasize how much easier it is to discuss a difference of opinion when both parties at least recognize that the other person is trying to do the right thing. Truthfully, I like believing in the good around me. I don’t have the time nor the desire to cynically question the intentions behind every possible move towards compassion and consideration towards others’s feelings. 

The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to separate oneself from the world. That’s how morals work. Morals are supposed to reflect communal, societal norms. Moral action is predicated on that mental interaction between how our decisions and words will be received and how we will be perceived. Our understood sense of ourselves as perceived actors in the world allows us to know right from wrong. So much criticism of virtue signaling is centered around the idea that people’s consideration of how people will react to their comments and actions and views is selfish or performative or bad. I disagree! Factoring other people’s reactions and feelings into your decision is considerate. It’s the first step towards caring about people.

Everything we do is inherently part of a performance, but that’s what makes us human. We are unshakably and tragically and embarrassingly self-aware. There is no true self that exists outside of its interaction with others. Who cares if that performance is motivating us to be better people than we really are?

The trouble with criticizing people who virtue signal is that it communicates an “all-or-nothing” mentality. And when all or nothing become options, it’s a lot easier to choose nothing. True, a person drinking out of their plastic Starbucks cup with a metal straw is still polluting the environment, but they’re at least polluting one plastic straw less. A selfish person who begins volunteering for clout is more likely to keep volunteering than a selfish person with no incentive at all. 

The world does not have time to wait around for everyone’s motives to be perfect. If we waited for every act of kindness to be completely unselfish, so little would get done. Who cares if the billionaire donated a hospital wing because they wanted their name on the building? The sick patients getting state-of-the-art treatment likely don’t. What is the harm in someone taking care to say a general “she” instead of “he” because they want to look like a feminist? The fact that they’re thinking about gender equality is a win in my book. Why sneeze at a company’s advertisement broadcasting their donation to racial justice causes? The activists impacted by that money can use every dollar just the same. If an onslaught of Instagram infographics about global issues reaches just one new person who might not have considered the situation otherwise, is that not a positive? 

In an ideal world, every comment would be followed by action and every action would be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to a cause that mattered, but we don’t live in an ideal world. And in the flawed, selfish society we’ve got, I’m happy for the kernels of consideration and compassion, no matter where they come from.

Again, I feel the need to note that I recognize posting a black square on one’s Instagram story in the name of racial justice is not adequate action. Putting your pronouns in your email signature is not sufficient grounds for calling yourself a champion of LGBTQ+ rights. Wearing a women’s empowerment t-shirt does not mean the fight for gender equality is over. Performative morality is not the same as making real change, and I’m not suggesting it should be as applauded as such. But it can be a starting point. Don’t shut down an action that could be the beginning of a conversation.

At the end of the day, the most important part of an action, a comment, a signal is the impact it has. And if the “Ally” pin I wear during Welcome Weekend lets a new resident in my hall know their campus supports them, I’m going to keep wearing it.

Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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