Virtue signaling is a phrase you have probably heard far too much. Whenever I find myself in the thick of a heated political topic such as the debate surrounding this phrase, I try to cut through the weeds by asking two questions: what is the definition of this phrase, and why is it good or bad?
Virtue signaling, in its popular use, is intentionally broadcasting to other people your efforts toward what you believe is good. For instance, one might say, “Sorry I’m late, I just got back from my volunteering gig at the dog shelter,” or, “no, thanks, I don’t need a plastic straw.” Virtue signals can come from individuals as well as organizations, and both tend to avoid a direct statement of the virtuous action. Critics of virtue signalers say they are not truly supporting the cause they champion and are trying to disguise that fact.
However, the signaling of virtue is often a part of accomplishing the positive action itself. For instance, when you make a social media post in support of transgender rights, a transgender person who follows you may feel marginally more validated, and others will feel an increase in social pressure and be marginally less likely to harass them. Multiply these marginal effects by the tens of thousands of people taking similar actions, and genuine positive change arises. When Nike ran an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, his message of racial injustice drew the attention of an audience that wasn’t normally reached. Yes, Nike’s stock soared in the process, but the whole idea of capitalism is that positive results come from cynical, profit-based motives. While critics of virtue signaling may be correct that the motives are impure, we can consider that on balance with the amount of good it does.
Last year, Sisterhood at Kenyon faced intolerable conditions in their theme housing and, after attempting and failing to meet with administrators, sent an email to the student body for broader support. When Kenyon’s student organizations copied and pasted the email into their own in solidarity, they may have been looking to gain some social clout or simply feared going against the grain. But they also gave Kenyon’s administration evidence of the consensus among the student body that the issue needed urgent addressing, which prompted them to meet with Sisterhood, find a better housing arrangement and put it into writing. “While it is unfortunate that it had to come to this,” Sisterhood wrote in an email after the meeting, “the noise you made helped amplify our voices. Clearly your response has had as much of an impact on the College as it had on us.”
A tweet about climate change can’t offset your carbon footprint. But virtue signaling and virtue practicing are intertwined, and sometimes it makes no sense to try to separate them. In fact, many who accuse others of virtue signaling intend to let everyone know that they themselves are more genuinely invested or well-informed about the issue, yet have no plans to take their own, more effective action—sound familiar?
Put simply, if you had a problem and needed help, which would you prefer: someone who helps you due to shallow motivations, or someone who doesn’t help?