He’s quadraphonic, he’s a, he’s got more channels… ‘Virtue Signalling’ is a useful concept

The worst sort of political analysis currently in circulation: ‘You use the phrase [X] to mean A, but the phrase originated with this group that you hate to mean not-A.  Therefore, you are wrong.’

It’s an analysis that ignores contemporary usage in favour of some demented form of originalism.  Who cares if the phrase was first used by the Convention for Freedom for Whales in 1918 or by the Association for Libertine Porpoises in 1932?  Who cares?

And yet we see this analysis wheeled out with such regularity.  ‘Politically Correct’ actually means the opposite of what you think it means!  ‘Neo-liberalism’ was invented twelve different times to mean fifteen different things!  Whoooooo caaaaaaares?

There are a few analyses of this kind which are worth undertaking.  The first is how profit motives incentivise changes in meaning.  It is worth tracking how concepts like ‘freedom’, for example, take on distinctly pro-market interpretations.  Concepts which maximise profit for vested interests are the ones which proliferate.  This is also true for counter-market narratives.  Consider, for example, Katy Perry’s new song, Chained to the Rhythm, which is all about how too many people are just going along with the trends, a narrative which is itself a trend and a kind of identity that can be purchased on iTunes.

This all gets me to the concept of ‘virtue signalling’.

We are all busy people.  We’re tired and exhausted.  There’s always so much to do and not enough time to do it in and we procrastinate from our responsibilities by blogging.  We don’t have the energy to go through all of our arguments and check that they all make sense.  And, for that reason, we use shortcuts.

I am not an expert in banking policy and yet it is a hot topic at the moment.  Do I think we should have a Royal Commission into the banking sector?  I don’t know.  I don’t care enough to research it.  But I often find people who have really, really strong opinions on the question even though they know as little as I do.  Why do they care so much?  Because parts of the debate (appear to) align with their moral intuitions and the people whose opinions they rate highly are saying it’s a good or bad idea.

It’s a pretty good shortcut for reasoning: it seems to align with my interests and people I trust are making this argument, therefore I should (pending additional information) make the same argument.

And nobody can be too high and mighty about this either.  There are basic intuitions about our legal system that 90% of the population accepts as ‘commonsense’ without, even slightly, understanding the argument.  I even get lawyers telling me that human rights are not an ideological construct.

But is also where ‘virtue signalling’ as a concept becomes helpful.  As a pejorative bandied about in the mainstream media, it refers to people who falsely assert support for some policy because they want others to see their performance of morality.  ‘You don’t really support this policy, but you want to be seen to support the policy!’

Outside of the context of the media, it is helpful to distinguish those arguments that are based on a performance of identity rather than on an understanding of the issue.  Again, following the above, there is nothing inherently wrong in making an argument based on the performance of identity — nearly all of us do it, especially those of us interested in virtue ethics — but it means that we are operating in a different kind of policy space.

Asylum seeker policy is where I encounter this the most.  People want to be good and they want Australia to be good.  Good people do not imprison innocent people seeking asylum in torture camps in the Pacific.  Therefore, we do not support Australia’s asylum seeker policy.

Engaging with people who advance this kind of reasoning with cold, cerebral policy analysis is a mistake.  They aren’t actually interested in policy analysis; they want their emotional needs met.

Where things get murky is the confusion they make between their virtue signalling and factual analysis.  For them, it is an objective fact that Australia is imprisoning innocent people seeking asylum in torture camps in the Pacific.  Anybody who disagrees is lying, racist, or evil.

This causes problems on both sides of the argument.  First, it means that asylum seeker advocates are making very little progress on engaging the majority of the electorate who disagrees with them.  Asylum seeker advocacy has been a conspicuous failure in Australia.  They are louder than ever, and yet Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers are worse than they were 15 years ago.  Second, it means that there are few incentives for people on the other side of the asylum seeker policy discussion to shift in more civilised directions.  No matter what concessions are made, the virtue signalling means that it is going to be insufficient.

There is a risk that the above suggests that this concept of ‘virtue signalling’ is a left wing/progressive problem.  We see the same with discussions about halal certifications, banning burqas, and are now into our third generation of ‘feminazi’ discussion.  It all fits around the same model of virtue signalling and it all results in the same kind of discussion dynamic.  In the curious case of climate change, both sides engage in it.

Identifying where these performances of identity are taking place helps us to craft better policy discussions.  If we want constructive engagement, there is no point having two people debate a policy where one is virtue signalling and the other is an expert.  There are no constructive overlaps for that debate to take place.  The expert looks like an inhuman monster who is detached from their human spirit; the virtue signaller looks like unhinged.  Neither of them comes off well.  On the other hand, two people engaging in virtue signalling makes for a fine discussion — what sort of person do we want to be and what policy would that person support?  Similarly, two experts who disagree makes for a fine discussion — experts can disagree and so can you.

Further, it helps us to identify where people are framing arguments specifically to suit particular identities.  The framing of the burqa ban as a security measure, for example, was done to avoid the confrontation with its racist reality.  Current debates about gender fit well into this space, with bizarre arguments being advanced in order to skirt allegations of transphobia and whorephobia.

The concept of ‘virtue signalling’ is therefore helpful in some contexts, and we should ensure that it doesn’t just become little more than another meaningless term of abuse slung about the tabloid columns.

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