He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
For those who don't know, "virtue signalling" is how you say "politically correct," when you think you're hip but actually just a schmuck.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) April 28, 2016
"Virtue signalling" is also a way to make clear you think someone who is trying to be decent is, in reality, as much an asshole as you are.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) April 28, 2016
I'm pretty sure at this point I could say, "It's nice to be nice to people" and some indignant turd would castigate it as virtue signaling.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) April 28, 2016
Virtue signalling is a relatively new phrase, but the concept has been around forever; Jesus pointed it out.
Virtue signalling is not virtue, it is the pretense of virtue. A virtuous person is virtuous because they act virtuously. A charitable man extends mercy to those around him, a generous man gives to those in need, a kind man treats his neighbours kindly, and so on.
Being virtuous generally, at least if the virtue is not one disdained by fallen culture, results in status. People look-up to virtuous people. But on the other hand virtue is hard and requires sacrifice and discipline. You are only as generous as the portion of your income you’re actually willing to give to others.
Some people try to acquire status the honest way, such as the pharisee above. They practice virtuous activities so they can show off their virtue to others. But this virtue is not real virtue.
A generous man gives to the poor because it’s the right thing to do or because he is compelled by compassion, duty, or guilt; he does so for some reason intrinsic to himself and his own character. He is generous because he is a generous person. The generous man who gives to the poor while telling those around him how generous he is, is not being virtuous. He is not displaying his own virtue, rather he is buying the status of being a generous person with his gifts.
These people status-signal by committing acts of virtue for unvirtuous reasons.
We can see this type of status-signalling clearly in corporate charity. A corporation will donate a significant sum to a charity and hold a press conference to get good PR for it, or they’ll create their own charity linking their brand to the charity and themselves to virtue.
Some status-seekers are not honest or virtuous enough to acquire virtue status the honest way. They seek the status without even committing the act that would indicate this status.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
(Acts 4:34-37, 5:1-6 ESV)
Ananias saw that Barnabas received status by his generous gift to the early Christian community and desired that status for himself, but he suffered not just pride, but greed. He was too greedy a man to purchase fully the status he desired, so he lied before man and God about what he was giving the community. He received a just punishment for his deceitful status signalling.
Some status-seekers are too lazy or not deceitful enough to do deceitful status signalling, but are too lacking in virtue to honestly acquire status, so they go for the third form, hollow status signalling. In this form, you virtue signal by offering an easy gesture that you and everybody else knows will accomplish nothing.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-6 ESV)
Ideally, people would practice virtue for virtue’s sake. This is true virtue. Sadly life doesn’t work that way. We are fallen and in love with the praise of man. Everybody wants status and everybody will signal.
Honest signalling is hypocritical but a minor amount is not particularly harmful. Note that Jesus said “they have received their reward”, not that they have committed wrong (the Priest’s folly seems to be pride, rather than signalling). Honest signalling is mostly harmless when done within reason.
On a personal level, you should probably repent impure motives if you catch yourself doing this. On a societal level this is generally harmless, possibly even beneficial, assuming the virtues being signaled are themselves good. If people do good for bad reasons, they’re still doing good. Their soul is between them and God. As well, it is often difficult to tell if someone is being genuinely virtuous or being virtuous for praise.
Generally, people seem to be fairly tolerant of honest signalling as long as it doesn’t get obnoxiously over-the-top or goes too far in its hypocrisy, and that seems the right way to approach it to me.
Deceitful signalling is bald-faced lying. This should be, and as far as I can tell usually is, condemned outright when noticed.
A lot of hollow signalling is neutral or even good. Offering condolences or prayers (rather than just simply praying) after a tragedy, even one having nothing to do with you on the other side of the world is harmless, and in many cases just showing a little bit of support is a positive. Saying “it’s nice to do nice things” is empty signalling, but its harmless and reinforces the value of virtue. Traditionally, hollow virtue signalling has been a nice social lubricant.
The main problem with traditional hollow signalling was that it could be used as a replacement for doing nothing. But those who hollow signaled were likely going to do nothing anyway, and their hollow signalling was only really effecting their immediate social circles, where everybody would and could easily see what they were doing.
The problem is that social media has changed the game. Most people, a select few politicians, talking heads, celebrities, and corporations aside, were limited to hollow signalling to their own limited social circles, where it was usually harmless and often upheld the common values of those circles. Occasional holiness spirals would erupt
But social media has made it a lot easier to hollow signal and a lot more public. This has lead hollow signalling down a dark path.
The first, is that hollow signalling has combined with activism to become something called “raising awareness“. Raising awareness took hold a while back, but it was usually in support of something: a benefits concert, a charity run, a food drive, etc. The activism used to always be in addition to or in support of some form of honest signalling that at least tried to actually accomplish something, but somewhere along the line, when combined with social media, raising awareness became its own independent form of activism. Now raising awareness has infected everywhere and is often used instead of doing anything.
Hollow signalling, in the form of ‘raising awareness’, has to many become its own goal, replacing activism or other types of real action. People are deluding themselves into thinking signalling is a form of action, thinking they’re doing something when doing nothing. #Kony2012 is the ur-example of this.
The second problem is that public hollow signalling is becoming the default. Some forms of hollow signalling have always been expected by default (“my condolences on your loss”), but these have have been private. But now, ideological activists are trying to force it so that it expected that everybody, or at least everybody important/relevant, has to do some hollow signalling. The popular rainbow flags and Brett Favre were examples of this.
Finally, and relatedly, hollow signalling is being weaponized. Rather than being a social lubricant for your social circles, it is becoming politicized. There have always been holiness spirals, but those spirals usually required some action or effort and happened over periods constrained by time and distance. Now spirals are immediate and require no effort. Activists are using this to weaponize signalling, forcing people signal properly, often through the threat of job loss..
Going back to the beginning, the problem with people like Scalzi is that they have so bought into the weaponization of hollow signalling that they think that people who don’t agree with them or even point out that signalling is not action are are evil people engaging in the same type of signalling but for evil.
That’s virtue signalling in a nutshell.