October 20, 2021

Virtue Signalling – what is it?

I’ve started to come across the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ quite a bit in the media. David Squires used it recently in his classic Marcus Rashford sketch.

Rashford has recently argued that the government’s scheme for providing school dinners to poor children should be extended into half-term.

Not everyone has been happy with Rashford’s campaigning. Some have called Rashford’s actions ‘virtue-signalling’ and have demanded that he stop ‘virtue-signalling’.

But what is virtue-signalling? That is a question that Rashford himself posed on Twitter, last week, after a mid-week game against Leipzig.

Does anyone know?

Faisal Islam, was said to have responded with the following:

Seems to mean accusing someone of doing an apparently virtuous thing, with secret aim of being seen as outward reflection of character rather than good in and of itself.

Jim Waterson provides a fuller explanation:

The conservative writer James Bartholomew was standing on an escalator in the Kensington branch of Whole Foods in 2015, trying to think of a phrase for people who, he felt, projected their values publicly rather than quietly putting them into practice. That was when the phrase “virtue signalling” popped into his head.

“I felt there were people who felt very proud of themselves but had done nothing but say ‘racism is awful’, or had voted Labour and thought they were virtuous,” he said, reflecting on the phrase. He said he felt real virtue was represented by a friend who spent five years diligently caring for her ill husband, rather than people who posted about their politics online: “It indicated a certain vanity and boasting.”

Already we see that ‘virtue signalling’ is a metaphor for ‘hypocrisy’ and can be filed along side a number of rightist terms used to mock a caricature of someone on the left, who claims to care about social issues, but actually doesn’t. It can be filed alongside ‘champagne socialist’ or the ‘politically correct’. To the extent that the term is used as a weapon against anyone who attempts to argue for social justice, it is designed and used to create a sense of distrust and disbelief in anyone who campaigns socially, with the wider goal of subduing any faith in socialist politics and societal investment in the welfare state. The purpose of the statement is to suggest that there can be no genuine socialist position; that it is against human nature and in some sense a symptom of some kind of human perversion, with no grounding in reality.

In this way, then, the term ‘virtue signalling’ is a ‘sneer’. Sam Leith, writing in the Spectator:

The term ‘virtue signalling’ is not an argument but a sneer. When you say somebody is ‘virtue signalling’, you’re not bothering to commit yourself to an argument about whether the position they are taking is right or wrong. (Perhaps, indeed, you feel on sticky ground entering that argument.) Rather, you are making a groundless and unfalsifiable presumption about their motive for doing so and using that as the supposed basis to dismiss the whole shebang. It immediately, lazily and arrogantly, frames any assertion of a moral or political principle as an act of narcissism.

That is to say the term is used to ridicule rather than engage, to create enmity between tribes, to divide, to dominate and to shut down any kind of debate or discussion.

The BBC and Virtue Signalling

The term has also become central to the BBC’s new policy to ensure that its employees do not use the platform the BBC provides them with to make statements that compromise their impartiality.

The guidance states employees should “avoid virtue signalling”.

The BBC, and the new Director Tim Davie, claim they are concerned about impartiality, but they are not. In actual fact they are concerned about the people who work for them drawing conclusions about debates.

The Guardian reported that employees would be told not to “express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects”.

They would rather their staff present different sides of a debate, rather than seek to draw conclusions and judgments.

But the act of reaching a judgment is not in and of itself an act of impartiality. In fact, impartiality refers to a person being fair when judging or considering something without allowing your own interest to influence you. Having a political preference or a view does not mean that one is by definition, impartial. In fact, one’s preference or view may have been arrived at after having judged the issues impartially.

The BBC are concerned not about impartiality per se but rather about involvement in politics. That is to say, it is not enough for the BBC to see that their presenters treat the topics they discuss whilst working for the BBC impartially, they simply don’t want them reaching judgments on issues that are regarded as controversial or political.

This is par for the course. BBC news reporting is anodyne and devoid of any significance because in the main it acts as a mouthpiece for the different sides of the political debate, rather than impartially considering the evidence and reaching a judgment on what is actually happening. The BBC thinks they are being impartial by not reaching a judgment, when in actual fact all they are really doing is seeking to avoid criticism.

And that is what is driving the BBC, conflict-avoidance, cowering from those who would castigate it for hiring people who voice political opinions not in line with theirs, not impartiality. They are worried, it would seem, that BBC presenters might come to be seen as being partial and biased, because outside forces seek to categorise them as such.

Tim Davie’s new policy and his use of the alt-right phrase ‘virtue signalling’ demonstrates that the BBC’s ‘new normal’ has been moved to the right of politics, impartiality has been reinvented as a device to stop people from expressing humanitarian, communitarian and socialist values.

The Poppy and Virtue Signalling

The BBC’s campaign against virtue signalling has called into question the practise of its presenters wearing poppies. This is interesting, and relates back to David Squires sketch on Marcus Rashford, who drew parallels between the criticisms made of Rashford for his involvement in politics, and the virtue signalling that Conservative politicians often make when wearing a poppy.

British servicemen and women are lauded by politicians and the British public, but their everyday needs, many of which arise as the consequence of going to war, are neglected, forgotten about and brushed under the carpet. The British charity, Help for Heroes, whose fundraisers can often be seen shaking buckets up and down the country, in stations and on high streets, state (my emphasis):

At Help for Heroes, we believe those who serve our country deserve support when they’re wounded… we continue to put pressure on the Government to do more… we won’t stop until every wounded veteran gets the support they deserve.

There is no better example of virtue signalling than the poppy wearing season. Here whole swathes of society, BBC staff and politicians included, engage in a mass display of virtue signalling – wearing a poppy in an attempt to suggest that they view the soldiers who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the interest of the people and its politicians as heroes, but on the other continually vote in governments that don’t do anything like enough to provide the care needed by those same ‘heroes’. The result: some proportion of those ‘heroes’ find themselves, like so many discarded paper poppies, discarded, decaying and unwanted on the street.

And yet, as Sam Leith points out, it is far too easy to say something is ‘virtue-signalling’ and leave it at that, and end the debate. There is undoubtedly more to be said about the poppy-wearing season, though now is not the time to explore it.