Tag Archives: rhetorical coverings

Virtue Signaling

                   Presidential Targets in Congress

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.


Qualifiers are sometimes just qualifiers, but they become ‘markers’ if their effect is to covertly invite others to share prejudicial attitudes.

In verbal analysis, “markers” are unnecessary terms added to a description, frequently pointing to a bias within the writer or speaker. They masquerade as innocent modifiers, but can also have the effect of passing off a taboo attitude that cannot be plainly announced.  A journalist that repeatedly refers to a criminal proceeding as involving “the black suspect” may giving away a predisposition that reveals embedded racism. The same might be said of rhetoric that describes “those Jewish bankers,” “the Sikh Attorney General,” “the lady surgeon,” or the “gay shop-owner.”  Why not just “shop owner” or “surgeon?”  To be sure, there are times when a qualifier may be useful.  But irrelevant adjectives and nouns covertly raise an eyebrow of doubt. I had a relative who added markers only when she wanted to remind us of her displeasure with some ‘out’ group in 50s white America:  perhaps “the Catholic family” down the street, or “the Jew who runs the butcher shop.”  The added descriptors were not completely innocent.  Signals had been sent and received, though not always in intended ways. Markers made her anti-semitism obvious.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge.

This is the same process when people complain of politicians using “dog whistles,” which are essentially terms that signal support for a discredited bias, but with a certain deniability. “I didn’t mean anything by the reference” is usually the disingenuous defense.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge, though not all are about race.  We hear about “the failing New York Times,” the “Amazon Washington Post,” “Crooked Hillary,” or “the Mexican judge” (Gonzalo P. Curiel, an American judge who ruled against Trump University in 2016).  Negative judgmental language is a signature of his public rhetoric, serving as bait for core followers lost in the weeds of resentment and fantasized slights.

Can it be any surprise that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States? The frequent observation that Trump has triggered a wave racial animosity in his rhetoric can be partly attributed to this habit.  Not only is it dishonest to use a marker as a backdoor for communicating prejudice, it’s also signals a certain linguistic cowardice.  Owning a stale attitude about any category of individuals is bad enough.  Hiding it under the thin rhetorical veneer of a supposedly innocent qualifier is the mischief of a practiced demagogue.