Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Virtue Signalling

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?



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  1. Jaqueline Dommisse

    Very interesting article, Megan. Identifying your political and philosophical stance or choice can easily slip into demonstrating them or posturing. The subconscious intention may be “look how good I am”. But it can also be motivated by not wanting to be associated with a group to which you belong by default. I am white, but I don’t want others to think I’m racist. I am a cisgendered heterosexual, but I don’t want others to assume I’m a homophobe. I suppose it is about how loud we are in the exclaiming.

    A straight parent attending a Pride March with his gay kid and then posting about it is signalling something, but is that “virtue signalling”?

  2. Lisa

    Firstly, I want to say how much I totally love it that you are writing every day. I used to check in every few months with your blog and have a little look in. Now I can check in a few times a week and there’s always a little something to chew over. I don’t always agree with you, but that’s part of the fun, né?

    Virtue signalling – such an incisive phrase. Just yesterday I heard a charming spin on it (context of mummy blogs): humblebrag (used I think as an adjective); slightly different angle, similar dynamic. So much to cringe at there. (BTW, have you read Teju Cole on the white industrial saviour complex? I think you’d love him.)

    I do also think the era of social media has ushered in a lot of behaviours that were, until very recently, wildly not-ok. Traditionally – eavesdropping, stalking, obsessing over strangers’ lives, spying on loose acquaintances, coveting, flaunting, bragging, viciously criticising … some of it was in the realm of religiously-proscribed; most of it just kind of socially taboo. Social media seems to have made a lot of this really normal.

    I remember in religious studies (which was for me Jewish studies , but I reckon other religions have equivalents) we spent several lessons being schooled in the specifics of what constituted charity, and the various rungs of charity-giving. The very lowest (fewest gold stars from Hashem, as it were) was charity in which the giver made themselves known to the receiver and the community, and received public recognition or reward. And the highest (gold stars/trumpeting angels etc) was anonymous in both directions, neither flaunted nor rewarded.

    But I think there’s room to be kind here too. I reckon it’s inevitable: we are raised with the imperative to Be Good, and in general humans like approval. So we do tend to stumble around in our little lives trying to gain approval (from ourselves and others) and sometimes flagging these efforts up for others. I think you had to make a big fuss about learning Xhosa because it took a lot of effort, and time and thought, and you needed to stay motivated. And knowing that people knew you were doing it is a way to stay motivated – like Nanowrimo, like writing daily, like lots of stuff. “Virtue signalling” can sometimes be the judgy cut-down of the audience that just isn’t feeling all that generous with a bit of encouragement.

  3. Genevieve the Babe

    Hi @OUTsurance what is the procedure for cancelling insurance with you?


  4. hahahahhahaha! Totally.

  5. Very insightful Meghan. But the very fact that you are aware of the possibility, and you are encouraging others to think it through means that this post is not virtue signaling (IMHO). I also like Lisa’s grades of charity lesson. Nice one!

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