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The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'

Want to be virtuous? Saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.

We British do it, too. But we are more sophisticated, or underhand. Mishal Husain was particularly aggressive to Nigel Farage on the Today programme recently, interrupting him mid-sentence, insinuating that he is racist or that, even if he isn’t, his membership is. She would doubtless like to believe that she was being tough but fair. But another force within her was stronger. Mishal was ‘virtue signalling’ indirectly — indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions, one of which is despising Ukip and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist. When she later goes to a dinner party attended by other members of the media elite, she will be welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views.

There are many ways to advertise your virtue. You can say ‘I hate the Daily Mail!’ to suggest that you care about people who are poor and on welfare benefits. You are saying that you respect them, care about them and do them the honour of believing the vast majority to be honest and in need.

You can declare ‘Page 3 of the Sun was degrading and embarrassing’ if you are a man: this indicates your great respect for women. If, on the other hand, you are a woman, you can say ‘Isn’t Mary Beard marvellous!’ to show that you are way above the shallowness of mere physical appearance.

Virtue signalling crosses the political divide. When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant.


When Osborne says he wants a higher minimum wage, he is saying, ‘I am a good guy who cares about the low-paid and wants them to be better off.’ Never mind the unintended consequences. Just feel the good intentions.

‘I hate 4x4s!’ you declare. This is an assertion that, unlike others, you care about the environment.

It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish. But hatred waits in reserve even with the NHS. ‘The Tories want to privatise the NHS!’ you assert angrily. Gosh, you must be virtuous to be so cross!

Comedians make use of virtue signalling of the vituperative kind. With the right audience they can get laughs scorning the usual suspects: Ukip, the Daily Mail, Eton, bankers and the rest. The audience enjoys the caricaturing of all of these, sneering at them and, in the process, joining together as a congregation of the righteously contemptuous. What a delight to display your virtue, feel confirmed in your views, enjoy a sense of community, let off some anger and have a laugh all at the same time! It is so easy, too!

No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.

In the jargon of economics, the assertion of moral superiority is a ‘positional good’ — a way of differentiating yourself from others. It is worth something to you. But as Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs has observed, one difficulty about positional goods is that others may encroach on your ‘position’. If George Osborne says he wants a higher minimum wage, then to keep your ‘positional good’ as a person who cares more about the low-paid than others, you have to demand a higher minimum wage. So there is a bidding war. If he wants £7, you want £8. If he wants £8, then you up the stakes to £8.50 or — to hell with it! — £10! You will not be outbid when it comes to your kindness.

Virtue-signalling battles can soon take leave of any genuine concern for the low-paid or suffering. Indeed they can become highly damaging. The low-skilled whose abilities simply cannot command an absurdly high minimum wage become unemployable.

Mild forms of virtue bidding wars have entered daily life. People now sometimes say to each other, ‘Have a great evening!’ These people are effortlessly showing themselves more generous and warm-hearted than those who only wish us a ‘good’ evening. I recently got an email wishing me a ‘fantastic’ evening. What next? ‘Ecstatic’? ‘Orgasmic’?

There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin. Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off. For some of us it is both ridiculous and irritating that people who say that they hate Ukip actually believe they are being more virtuous than others who visit the sick, give money to charity or are kind to someone lonely. But the widespread way in which people now proudly boast suggests there is no shame, no reflection. And because of this lack of awareness, it is more common. Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument. Russell Brand is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of modern virtue signalling. He is bursting with anger and outrage. My goodness he must be good!

James Bartholomew’s latest book is The Welfare of Nations. He writes about easy ways to feel good about yourself on p. 18.

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