Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Spurious signals

One of the pleasures of modern language is the invention of particularly apt, powerfully descriptive phrases such as ‘virtue signalling’. This seems to be a recent one. According to Google Trends it first appeared as a blip in 2009 then rose from obscurity in 2015. In spite of claims by James Bartholomew it probably originated within signalling theory. Google Ngram Viewer isn’t aware of it at all.


Virtue signalling is the expression or promotion of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker. For example, expressing a hatred of the conservative newspaper Daily Mail might be an example of virtue signalling on the British left. The term is chiefly used by commentators to criticize the platitudinous and empty or superficial support of socially progressive views on social media, but has also been used to describe analogous behaviour in other groups, such as pro-gun rights grandstanding among the American right, and by signalling theorists to discuss conspicuous piety among the religious faithful as well as agnostics and atheists.

A real stonker of a phrase, it is extraordinarily powerful as a concise term for vast swathes of unedifying human behaviour. Yet the idea of signalling is hardly new - Strindberg saw it in art.

...for my art was incapable of expressing a single idea; at the most it could represent the body in a position expressing an emotion accompanying a thought—or, in other words, express a thought at third hand. It is like signalling, meaningless to all who cannot read the signals. I only see a red flag, but the soldier sees the word of command: Advance!
August Strindberg – The Red Room (1879)

In which case and given that it is now so obvious that virtue signalling is a vital aspect of human behaviour, what prevented us from describing it in such a powerfully accessible way before? Perhaps it is because, as we well know, forceful phrases soon become overused, lose their vigour and slip off into the land of cliché.

Which would be handy for those who rely on virtue signalling because it cuts so deeply into the social fabric. It exposes the manipulative mechanisms of power, the screen behind which personal interests hide.

Celebrity culture, mainstream journalism, drama, political allegiances, the EU, the UN, major charities, environmental drama, major sporting events and international businesses all lean heavily on virtue signalling. They cannot say so or folk might expect some genuine virtues instead of being caught up in the nonsense themselves. We can’t have that can we?

5 comments:

Paddington said...

Just paint one's behind red like a baboon instead?

A K Haart said...

Paddington - careful, the idea could catch on.

Paddington said...

And? No worse than tattoos, piercings and gauges.

hatfield girl said...

Virtue signalling is a pleasure to watch but when it comes to real communication speaking as you eat is more powerful. Consider

'The last upsurge of left-wing militancy in the 1970s had Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and other formidable socialist thinkers behind it. Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty and Danny Blanchflower looked like their successors. They too have produced formidable work on how to make society fairer. They agreed to help Corbyn, but walked away after discovering that Corbynism is just a sloganising personality cult: an attitude, rather than a programme to reform the country. That attitude is banal in content, conspiracist in essence, utopian in aspiration and vicious in practice.'

That last sentence is a joy to behold.

Sackerson said...

Lovely to hear from you, HG!