Virtue signalling, a term coined in 2015 has been defined as an attempt to show other people you are a good person by expressing opinions that are acceptable to them, especially on social media.
Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow, uses a similar term “optical allyship”, in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. An optical ally is someone who performs as an ally but does not go beneath the surface to interrogate and change the systems of power that oppress. Both terms point to people who appear to take positions not because they are deeply held or believed but to give the appearance of being good.
It is easy to critique virtue signallers as “jumping on board” to gain approval for a few more likes on their social media, or a few more followers for their profile. If virtue is defined as a trait deemed to be morally good and personal virtues are characteristics valued for promoting the collective as well as individual greatness, then defining individual greatness by a person’s following on social media is a vanity rather than a virtue. A vanity made worse by the fact it is dressed up as selfless conviction.
Yet, it is also true the simple act of calling out someone as a virtue signaller allows the person doing the calling out to claim the higher moral ground. Do we become a signaller of our own virtue by calling out the virtue signalling of others? It is the old scenario, when you point a finger at another person, there are three fingers pointing back to you. The risk with calling out other people’s virtue signalling is that we do not interrogate our own beliefs about a subject. When we believe other people are not genuine and are convinced of our own assessments, we do not critically analyse our own views. This can easily lead to dogmatism.
In a time when our communities are experiencing increasing fundamentalist ideologies, we need less dogmatism and more critical, respectful discussion around ideas to build trust.
As much as we may have reservations about virtue signalling there is an aspect of signalling that performs an important function. The social information that is conveyed through signalling is a powerful force for social change because we look to each other when deciding how to express ourselves. The conformity that often occurs with virtue signalling reflects the ancient aspect of ourselves which desires to be part of something greater. As much as we like to think of ourselves, within Western culture as individuals, we are and always will be a herd species. This is why signalling is important. True, not every one person posting their support on social media for a righteous cause will follow through, however whatever their motives, their collective voices do have a powerful effect on receivers. The Black Lives Matter movement is an example of signalling tapped into the collective outrage that resulted in the groundswell of action.
Virtue signalling gives us all an opportunity to reflect. When we express our outrage what are our motives? Are we concerned with the optics? The optical allyship that will give us more followers or is this something we will stand up about? When we call out virtue signalling, have we interrogated our own views, our own opinions or is it easier to criticise others? One of the things virtue signalling does it heighten our awareness of the number of systemic issues in our community that need to be addressed. While we cannot stand up for every issue, virtue signalling does provide us with information about where we can choose to stand up and add our weight to bring about change and transformation in the community.