A couple of months ago my friend K introduced me to the concept of virtue signalling while we were chatting about politics. It was a new one to add to our growing lexicon of complicated ideas, but it is one that I was particularly drawn to.
Virtue signalling is when you announce the goodness in you loudly; like a white ally, crying white tears and making the issue about your identifying pain. I have been totally guilty of virtue signalling. It is part of the process of acknowledging white privilege and the systemic racism we are part of.
When I think back to the huge deal I made about starting to learn isiXhosa I recognise that I was doing a lot of virtue signalling. I had to be called on it (before there was a definition for it). It was a hard lesson. My virtue signalling goes back a long, long way to my varsity days during the crazy early 80s and the mad and dangerous state of emergency, violence, and real revolution that was starting to play out. Going to Crossroads or Lavender Hill for a UDF meeting was not living in Crossroads or Lavender Hill. Protesting along Rhodes Drive with almost 90% white UCT students was not quite the same as #feesmustfall. My history of (privileged) activism cannot be used as retrospective virtue signalling to gain cred, or political points. I am still learning what virtue signalling is, and what means to be a true ally, and what calling out bullshit in others is. I don’t always get it right. I keep trying.
Virtue signalling is at its worst on social media, where it is easy to have knee jerk responses to things, to have solidarity to half truths and fake news, and where you can signal your ‘virtue’ by ‘liking’ or ‘hearting’ or ‘cry-face-ing’ a thing, with no further action needed. It is also so easy to offend people on Facebook and Twitter (I sure have had a week of it), and I am still trying to decide whether it is useful to offend people, or not.
One of the most ugly and opportunistic and reprehensible spin offs of virtue signalling is crisis advertising, where companies advertise how they are helping in a crisis situation. Take the Knysna fires, for example. Banks and supermarkets and restaurant chains (I am certain with the best Capitalist intentions) seem to have taken advantage of the chance to put their names on the helping hand basket for pure PR purposes. Of course their help is desperately needed, but I do gulp when I hear about this help in paid for ads on the radio. Do you see the irony there? We have to work hard to tell the difference here, but it leaves a really bitter taste in my mouth.
I want to work hard to recognise my own virtue signalling. It is a dangerous distraction from the real work that needs to happen. Who is with me? What do you think? Is this post virtue signalling?