Thursday, 10 October 2019

The real significance of the term “virtue signalling”

I see tweets that are whimsical, funny, adorable, precious, humorous, ironic, attractive, informative, engaging, brilliant, sweet, fantastical, or just plain nice. There are poems, paintings, and diverting memes. There are pictures of birds and sunrises as well as pictures of animals doing mad things. Here, for example, is a photo of someone’s pet lizard wearing a hat. On 21 September Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham put the photo up on Twitter with the following comment, “ALERT my brother and his wife sent Holly a tiny cowboy hat, this is NOT a drill.” Clickbait, but cute.

On the other hand there are other kinds of tweets, and these are the kinds I want to talk about here. We’ll start with a cornucopia of acronyms. Social-justice warriors (SJWs) blame right-wing nutjobs (RWNJs) and men’s-rights activists (MRAs) for using the term “virtue signalling” to belittle them and to degrade their arguments. And it’s not just these categories of people, either. Ordinary citizens and ordinary subjects are often prone to using the same term.

People on the left (the first category named) complain that people on the right (the second category named) use this term (“virtue signalling”) to unfairly denigrate their efforts to change society by dint of their (that is, the people on the left) being on the right side (as they see it) of history. This disease has crept into the mainstream and, like an ulcer that does not heal, infects even our most prominent newspapers with its ripe distemper.

But the culture we have fashioned for ourselves feeds this war and its mutual hatreds, and so guarantees the continued use of the term. On 17 July this year I published my review of Bret Easton Ellis’ brilliant ‘White’. It’s a nonfiction work that came out this year and that examines, in forensic detail, what must be evident to anyone who observes what is going on, who has their ear aimed at the grapevine. I have also written about social media on this blog on many other occasions, notably on 23 August last year in a post titled ‘We need to be kinder to each other on social media’. For me, the main takeaway from Ellis’ book was the humourlessness of the left, its messianic conviction that it is, in all cases it turns its attention to fixing, indubitably correct.

This view results in intolerance in online conversations and so on Twitter the left goes about prosecuting its case using all the rhetorical resources at its command. It is unkind, cruel and aloof, it belittles its opponents, it deliberately insults people, it deploys sarcasm in great quantities, it ignores those it takes a dislike to, it abuses others, and even threatens some with physical violence. The right, for its part, does similar things. No consequences equal no control. And the most extreme views are, diabolically, rewarded with likes, retweets, and replies.

And the left is supposed to be all about human rights. It is supposed to care about the wellbeing of others. It is meant to give a toss about the mental health of people its members come into contact with online. But many on the left do none of these things. You get the feeling sometimes that the virtue they appear to embrace is merely skin-deep. In fact, they very often provide a perfect example of the most condemnable characteristics of the human species, a collection of sins of varying kinds and degrees. Things that we teach our children to distrust when we talk to them about conduct of theirs that we find a need to encourage them to correct. Twitter often resembles nothing as much as a schoolyard. Hence the title of this post.

When RUOK Day rolled around this year I experienced nothing but amazement as people jumped on the bandwagon, voicing their support for the proposition: to reach out and ask someone near them if they were travelling well. What a complete sham, I thought to myself. I thought, “Many of these people who are, on the face of it, pursuing noble goals and who say they care about how other people feel, tomorrow will be doing things the same way they did them yesterday.” The bad behaviour would continue because there is always a new battle to be fought, always a new peak to scale, always new territory to occupy. The SJWs will be going hammer and tongs with the RWNJs and the MRAs again soon, and vice versa. The lizard people, some of them, are cowboys.

So, the real significance of the term “virtue signalling” is that it involves, in many cases, the precise opposite of virtue. It can easily involve evil. In my feed as I was composing this post on 21 September, the following quote from the Roman orator Cicero appeared: “What people do not hate the arrogant, the evil, the cruel, or the thankless?” But it is us who are evil, cruel, and thankless.

Having said all these things, I have spent a lot of time over the past decade on social media and have come into contact with many good people. Some have become friends IRL, including one man, who has since stopped using Twitter, who I meet with from time to time. So it is possible to have positive, meaningful exchanges with people using social media.

And just to avoid misunderstandings, I made a list of some (though not all) of the progressive causes I support (in the Australian context) and although I won’t include it here it had 19 items ranging from rapid transition to the use of renewable energy sources, to stronger labour unions and more unionisation, and from a display acknowledging the frontier wars for the Australian War Memorial, to independence for Tibet and West Papua. No-one can accurately label me a conservative.

There is a lot more awareness now of the problem I am talking about than there was even in the recent past, and you see evidence if this awareness from time to time. For example, on 9 October at 2.55am an account named Megan Amram, a comedian from Los Angeles with over 1.1 million followers, put up a tweet that went, “You can't be nice to everyone because being nice to certain people is inherently cruel to others.” This summed up the point I am trying to make nicely. Amram’s tweet had been retweeted into my timeline by one of the most whimsical and amazing people I follow on Twitter.

Then on the same day at 10.13am a Guardian Australia journalist named Amy Remeikis tweeted, “Just passing on a piece of advice my Oma used to give to me all the time - ‘it’s ok not to like everyone, just don’t be an arse about it’. Seems relevant here, somehow.” “Oma” is German for “grandmother”.

One last thing to add is that other influential people don’t necessarily provide us with a good example for conduct. I was reminded of this when I saw a photo of Swedish student great Thunberg wearing a black T-shirt with “Antifascist All Stars” printed in white on it. Antifa, the movement, uses physical violence to make its points at protests and to counter identical conduct by people on the far right.

In the photo I saw Thunberg is sitting next to a man ironically wearing a yellow T-shirt with the brand name “Motorola” printed on it. I also saw elsewhere a composite image showing Thunberg and her parents all wearing the same black T-shirt. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Thunberg engages in the same kinds of activities as Antifa people do, but wearing this kind of clothing sends an unfortunate signal. When shown examples like this it’s not surprising that ordinary people behave in an extreme fashion. A story that was published on 24 September said that Thunberg had responded to people who had remarked on the T-shirt. The story quoted Thunberg in this regard:
“Yesterday I posted a photo wearing a borrowed T-shirt that says I’m against fascism. That T-shirt can apparently to some be linked to a violent movement,” she tweeted. 
“I don’t support any form of violence and to avoid misunderstandings I’ve deleted the post. And of course I am against fascism,” she said.
On the other hand, the risk to human civilisation that derives from doing nothing about climate change seems, on the basis of all available evidence, to warrant concern. Is it time to panic yet?


roger of bangalow said...

Great post. How do we address the climate crisis (it is beyond a 'debate' now) without resorting to partisan politics? The power of the free press to inform and challenge becomes crucial, in the face of often negative social media and the influence of political demagogues.
On a lighter note, that photo you found of the lizard in a stetson hat is a classic. Reminds me of Ralph Steadman's illustrations for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.

Matthew da Silva said...

I'll be writing later on (this month) about calls from some people in the community to boycott the right wing media. The climate debate is causing people to behave in strange ways. Calls for curbs on free speech from the left just seem to make the right more determined to stay the course. I don't have the answers.