Monday, 4 December 2017

Virtue-signalling? Seriously?

"Hypocrisy" said Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld "is a tribute vice pays to virtue." Nobody talks about virtue much these days, except for a few media types who never tire of scolding others for the modern sin of "virtue-signalling."

When somebody  complains about virtue-signalling, the odds are quite high that the complainer hasn't got anything very interesting to say, but has simply found a more impressive-sounding way to call somebody else a prig. As David Shariatmadari pointed out last year, the phrase might have a technical, social sciencey sound, but it doesn't amount to much more than saying "I bet you didn't really mean that good thing you just said":
1. Bill is saying something right-on
2. Virtue-signalling is when you say something right-on just to sound good
3. Therefore Bill is virtue-signalling

But 3. is not justified by 1. and 2. You can argue for something that happens to make you look virtuous because you genuinely think it is the best solution. That’s the case, for example, with most religious beliefs. Do we really think the pope is just virtue-signalling?
According to David Shariatmadari, the phrase was first popularised by the Spectator's James Bartholomew in April 2015, so if it ever had any specific meaning, (apart from being a longer, more pretentious way to call somebody a prig), it should have meant something back then.

And maybe it did. In 2015, just before the Brexit-Trump inflecton point, the economic and political elite was still trying to justify its hegemony with token gestures towards equality and diversity,  rather than just appealing to the post-2016 values of zero-sum nationalism and authoritarian xenophobia. In that specific historical context, the idea of empty "virtue-signalling" by an elite that wanted to look inclusive, while jealously guarding its exclusivity did actually make some sense, as this article suggests:
At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy. Protecting the environment meant carbon trading. Promoting home ownership meant subprime loans bundled together and resold as mortgage-backed securities. Equality meant meritocracy.

The reduction of equality to meritocracy was especially fateful. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class. The feminist variant is telling but, sadly, not unique. Focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling,” its principal beneficiaries could only be those already in possession of the requisite social, cultural, and economic capital. Everyone else would be stuck in the basement.
If you'd said that David Cameron was "virtue-signalling", back in 2006, when he had himself photographed cycling to work (while his briefcase was being chauffeured to work in the car behind), you'd have actually made a specific point about token gestures.

But that progressive neoliberal moment is over. When Donald Trump wanted to distract attention from the fact that his much-vaunted tax reforms were going to do squat for the folk on Main Street, while handing him and his billionaire buddies tax breaks on their private jets, he didn't have himself photographed cycling to work, or hugging a husky.

Instead, he retweeted some hateful nonsense being circulated by a bunch of neo-Nazis, so his base were too delighted, and everybody else too horrified, to notice what was really going on.

Apparently, vice no longer sees why it needs to pay virtue anything.