We know what to say when we seem to be verging out of the broad lanes of acceptable social norms.
A person may say they are fair-minded and not prejudiced, even while some of their behaviors suggest otherwise. A minister may invoke the authority of “God’s law,” but behave cruelly toward others. A bigot may proclaim that some of his best friends are black, even while he has a history of not renting his apartments to African American families.
This rhetorical pattern sometimes carries the label, “virtual signaling,” a critical red flag used to assert that a speaker is ‘covering’ for behaviors of questionable conduct. As with all critical terminologies, an old linguistic principle applies: knowing the term helps us recognize the pattern.
As one colleague accurately noted, “Virtue signaling is, by definition, an expression of virtue over action.” It’s pretty straightforward. We defend ourselves with expressions of positive intentions that conceal non-congruent behaviors and attitudes. In these polarized times its common for victims of discrimination to call out others for what they see as a form of intellectual duplicity.
All of this is a reminder that communication is largely a matter of conveying signs of good character. As Aristotle noted, our good name is perhaps the best asset we have for communication. We know what we can say if what we do is characterized as verging out of the broad lanes of acceptable social norms.
Virtue signaling is itself becoming a marker that denies what it affirms.
So what do we make of the President’s speech and condolences in the face of shootings in El Paso and Dayton? He has persistently attacked African American leaders in Congress, as well as individuals at the southern border seeking to enter the United States. Many Americans are asking if his expressions of compassion can be legitimate, if he has demonized the same groups. For example, presidential candidate and El Paso resident Beto O’Rourke said President Trump had “a lot to do with what happened” in the city, creating “the kind of fear, the kind of reaction that we saw” from the gunman.
Mourning shooting victims obviously signals respect. And expressions of this kind of positive value remain as important parts of civil discourse. But at its worst, virtual signalling essentially tries to have it both ways, which is why its essentially an assertion of the user’s hypocrisy.
Either way, what is now apparent is that identity politics in the United States makes it more likely that attempts to honor core American values will ring hallow to many. It’s an interesting irony that at this moment virtue signaling is itself becoming a marker that denies what it affirms.