Feminist Book Club blog contributors are working together to create posts as an “Educate & Activate” series. We will define a term or movement, provide historical context, and give you additional resources to learn more. We believe that an educated populace can be better activists, accomplices and co-conspirators. It is important to note that these are meant to be brief descriptions and not inclusive or exhaustive of all resources. We urge you to continue being curious, and continue learning more.
Virtue signaling is the act of expressing one’s opinions in a public forum so as to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. It often takes the form of public outrage… a performative sense of righteousness and condemnation intended to make one appear superior and, well, virtuous.
Related terms include outrage culture, cancel culture, performative activism, optical allyship, performative allyship, etc.
While journalist James Bartholomew claims he coined the term “virtue signaling” in an article of his that was published on The Spectator on April 18, 2015, the fact of the matter is that he only popularized it. The phrase had actually been spotted before then.
For example, a comment on a 2014 news article reads, “Let’s be clear about what this faux outrage is. It’s Moral Preening, Virtue Signaling, Competitive Pearl-Clutching, Flashing Tribal Signs — call it what you will — it’s a Superior Dance beyond the Church Lady’s wildest imagination. Screaming ‘racist’ and hitting the fainting couch — PUBLICLY! of course — demonstrates how very sensitive you are, that you’re so far from being a racist that you can sense racism where mere mortals cannot.”
The comment continues on like this in all of its indignant gloriousness for another few paragraphs. You can head on over and read it if you’d like.
But perhaps what’s most amusing is that, by expressing outrage about people who express outrage, this person was also engaging in a form of virtue signaling. Which we’ll get to in a bit…
The concept of “signaling virtue” was explored in various contexts before the aforementioned internet comment from 2014. Several academic papers published between 2009 and 2014 referred to “signaling virtue,” though the phrase meant something different then.
For example, an academic paper on voluntary accountability programs among nonprofit organizations, published in 2009, delved into “signaling theory” — the study of how people communicate information to each other — and explored how signaling might ensure higher standards of compliance. When you consider the ways in which expressions of online activism can spread, in some cases inspiring actual change, this evolution of the phrase begins to make sense.
These days, however, people tend to throw around the phrase “virtue signaling” as a form of disparagement. The general sentiment is that those who engage in it are being disingenuous, expressing outrage over something not as a means of effecting positive change but, rather, to place themselves in a positive, virtuous light. When someone accuses someone else of virtue signaling, they are, in effect, dismissing them, and dismissing the validity of what they’re saying.
But as Aeon points out, accusing others of virtue signaling might in itself constitute virtue signaling. That person is just signaling to a different audience.
“Whether it should be counted as virtue signalling or not,” writes Neil Levy, “the accusation does exactly what it accuses others of: it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it.”
In this way, he explains, it effectively shuts down all discourse around the topic at hand.
But might the accusation be valid?
There are those who believe that virtue signaling can be simultaneously grounded in genuine feelings and beliefs and motivated by self-interest.
And as Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara write for Time magazine, even empty outrage has the potential to lead to something positive.
“Like radio waves,” they write, “the signals they send are received by someone, and those receivers matter, too.”
They go on to write about how people look to others for cues as to how they should act or think.
“This clarifies why signaling is so important,” they write. “Not every person tweeting their support of a righteous cause will follow through. But no matter their motives, when many people speak out, their voices have a powerful effect on receivers.”
Resources for Further Education
To learn more about virtue signaling, you should check out the following:
Get Out (the film) for its depictions of gaslighting, cultural appropriation, and — ding! ding! ding! — virtue signaling