Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Virtue and Virtuer

So the new boo-phrase for our whinier opinion hacks seems to be "Virtue Signalling".  Particularly in a social media context, this appears to mean that

- Saying that bad things are bad or  
- Saying that good things are good

...is really only a way of saying that  

- You personally are good.

This terrible behaviour makes you an insufferable prick, although whaddayaknow?  It apparently doesn't tell us anything at all about opinion hacks who spend half their lives condemning things and people on social media*.

So this one seems to have originated from a particularly dull bout of blah at the Spectator (again!) and, as tends to happen with such things, it's now been approximated by every right-wing opinion hack with an axe to grind against people who annoy them on Twitter, i.e. quite a lot of them.

Anyway, the emergence of "Virtue Signalling" as terrible, condemnable behaviour has a direct application to the themes that I've been harping on about here for many long years.  As applied generally to foreign policy, it now means that:

- If you do say that the idea of hurling troops, guns and bombs into other nations is idiotic and counterproductive, you're a despicable apologist for tyrants;

- If you don't regularly state that what's going on in Godforsaken Warzone (x) is terrible, and that the people responsible for it are terrible, then you are shamefully silent about the suffering of the people of Godforsaken Warzone (x), and

- Now, apparently, if you do regularly state that what's going on in Godforsaken Warzone (x) is terrible, you're an insufferable prick, doing nothing more than signalling your immense and throbbing personal virtue.

That's quite an extensive list of forbidden behaviours, and if it ever catches on with anyone apart from highly belligerent opinion columnists and rubbish politicians, it's likely to leave most of the populace in a state of what I can only call original sin.   If we can't approve, disapprove or ignore it, what the hell are we meant to do?

Well, that's a good question in the context of conflicts, because I notice that the only option this would leave us for extirpating our sin would be... Furious demands for lots of wars, followed by fervent prayers for victory.

Here, I think we begin to see why the idea of "Virtue Signalling" as a terrible moral flaw is going great guns with certain opinion hacks**, especially those who have long received former left-wingers' confessions, conversions and epiphanies with loud hosannas, as if they were so many miracles.  It's certainly popular with those whose eyes have been sharpest in the search for blasphemy or heresy, and who are most enthusiastic about excommunication.

All of which ecumenical behaviour is quite surprising to behold, when you consider that so many of them (though maybe not all) would probably describe themselves as secularists.

But to return to a theme that I've been arsing on about recently: let's note that all of this is yet another example of what happens when opinion journalism collides with the public in an age of instant global communication - most often, mutual fear and loathing.

And this is understandable to a certain extent, since a good chunk of the public has little to say to the hacks except fuck you and I hope you die in these graphically-described terms, and quite a few of the hacks are only marginally less offensive.

Still though, it's worth noting that most of the hacks manage to retain a sense of proportion about the many things that people say on the internet, even in the face of extreme provocation, not least because maintaining a sense of proportion is one of the basic requirements of professionalism.

Others, though...


*This one does strike me as particularly odd, since it seems especially targeted at people who - for good or ill - are at least trying to do something decent.  Quite a lot of people don't even bother with that. 

**Also because this applies to e.g. Austerity, or telling refugees to sling their hook.  Oooh, look at you, feeling sympathy for suffering human beings, you horrible little arse, you.

13 comments:

ejh said...

I looked up the author of the Spectator blah. You'll be amazed to learn that among an extensive list of services to society like writing editorials for the Daily Mail, his idea of actual virtuous behaviour isattempting to rid poor people of their social security for their own good.

I imagine people in all ages have felt that they lived at a time of humbug, but by Christ we're doing our best to overtake our forefathers in that respect.

andrew adams said...

Wow, that article is seriously one of the worst things I've ever read. I mean could he or his editor really not see the massive obvious gaping hole in an argument that essentially says

"people who criticise others for doing bad things are only doing so for reasons of self-aggrandisement. This is a bad thing to do."

And it's somewhat ironic to be lectured on "virtue signalling" by a torchbearer of the self-proclaimed "Decent" left.

Still, it's highly amusing to see a big dose of Decent Telepathy, and with a Liberal Dinner Party thrown in for good measure.

andrew adams said...

Oops, got James Bartholomew got mixed up with James Bloodworth, so forget the "torchbearer of the Decent left" bit.

Still, the points about the telepathy and Liberal Dinner Party still stand.

flyingrodent said...

I imagine people in all ages have felt that they lived at a time of humbug, but by Christ we're doing our best to overtake our forefathers in that respect.

"Humbug", probably the appropriate term. There's something fairly Scrooge-like about the general tone and specific comments.

people who criticise others for doing bad things are only doing so for reasons of self-aggrandisement. This is a bad thing to do.

Far be it from me to suggest that this might be projection, and that the columnists are describing their own bad rhetorical habits, on the assumption that others must surely do the same.

All in all though, I'm reminded of all the pissy responses to the #BringBackOurGirls tag re: Boko Haram. Lots of boiling derision, but I notice that not one of the BBOG detractors were hacking their way through the bush and cutting throats, and that not one of them had a better idea what to do apart from complain and mutter about how somebody should send in the army.

It is, I think, just a way of loudly signalling your contempt for entire sections of the populace, that you've never met and don't know as anything more than a social media icon, behind a thin veneer of concern.

I'm hardly innocent of that type of behaviour myself, but that is all a bit ironic.

ejh said...

Ah, bad rhetorical habits. That takes me back.

flyingrodent said...

Can't say I've ever been able to improve upon that post, although I think you miss the role that "Taking joy in being pricks about it" plays.

Whatever did happen to the proprietor of that blog, by the way? Last I saw of him, he was taking a series of (well deserved) pops at the Scientologists.

dsquared said...

If I were them, I'd have put "virtue signaling" on the back burner for a couple of weeks while we were still milking the "how dare he disrespect our Queen" story. You could still have published it in October and had a clear few weeks before Help For Heroes season and poppy-spotting began.

Anonymous said...

Virtue signalling - There's a lot of it about and it's an old and complex subject. It's an important theme in an ancient and famous TV programme "The Blood Donor". Hancock; "I mean we are do-gooders, we should get something for it." And then there's Lord Ashcroft giving away £ 8 million to the Tories, out of the goodness of his heart, and being miffed that he is not made foreign secretary.

So have I got this right? If I talk about the War on terror it's because I suffer from irrational anti-Americanism. If I talk about climate change it's because I want the government to interfere in people's lives. If I talk about the several million people displaced by our wars living just beyond the last holiday resort in Turkey it's self-aggrandisement.

Guano

Organic cheeseboard said...

I might post more later but I just followed a few links from here and arrived at the Don paskini blog, only to find the following from our old chum Ben, in 2008:

Cos it's people like me in charge of the party, who are progressive columnists, who are setting the agenda.

Not you.

This is something you just have to learn to live with.


Hehe

Neil said...

Just trying to get the measure of this virtue signalling thing, I did a search.

I guess running a Twitter account just so you can bellow "I'm libertarian, look how rotten the lefties are, look how libertarian I am, the state is evil, did I mention I'm libertarian? Look I know all the latest buzz phrases!" in public must be something slightly different?

Ken said...

I miss the author of 'Splintered Sunrise' and 'Soviet Goon Boy' a lot. He seems to have vanished even from Twitter. After intricate, expert anatomising of Irish politics, Catholicism and the SWP, he seems to have run into the sand with Scientology. Perhaps he at last found a subject where there is nothing good to say; no room for 'more in sorrow than in anger', or an allowance made for good intentions or an impressive body of thought or some useful work done. Scientology really is the pits: perhaps the only system of ideas that consists of nothing but dross, and system of power that consists of nothing but abuse.

organic cheeseboard said...

If I talk about the War on terror it's because I suffer from irrational anti-Americanism. If I talk about climate change it's because I want the government to interfere in people's lives. If I talk about the several million people displaced by our wars living just beyond the last holiday resort in Turkey it's self-aggrandisement.

That's pretty much it. Bonus points, too, for those who criticise others for 'virtue-signalling' and who also criticise others for e.g. failing to sign online petitions, as per Nick Cohen on Owen Jones last year. Also bonus points for writers whose previous writings were far more hardline than the people they now criticise, e.g. Nick's good old 'why it is right to be anti-American' piece.

In the end, though, nothing would ever be good enough to demonstrate actual virtue, because if you are on the Enemies List (which in practice tends to mean, if you've called out a Decent for their obvious bullshit) then you're on there forever. I'm most clearly reminded of how H***** P**** treated Mehdi Hasan here - their hostility to him coincidentally escalated wildly once he'd called out some bullshit or other from that Brett Lock bloke.

This Spectator piece reminded me of the one which berated kids' TV for being too lefty and for encouraging children to do such odious things as, er, share with each other, decline from boasting too much, and disapprove of pollution. Seeing these Tory 'British values' being put into action at primary schools would result in some odd punishment and reward systems being introduced...

@Calicoville said...

I'm a bit out of the loop so when I saw the title of this blog post I assumed it would be about the notion of bombing as 'virtue signalling', i.e. a clever critique of the "we must do something so let's drop some heavy ordnance somewhere even if it makes things worse because then no-one can say we just stood by" crowd.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be something as stupid as this. The Spectator piece is almost a clever exercise in literary postmodernism. You can imagine it coming out of a creative writing class: write 500 words that perfectly encapsulate the very thing they are critiquing. ("For some of us it is both ridiculous and irritating that people who say that they hate Ukip actually believe they are being more virtuous than others who visit the sick, give money to charity or are kind to someone lonely [LIKE ME THE VIRTUOUS COLUMNIST JAMES BARTHOLOMEW I DO ALL OF THOSE THINGS AND LOOK AT THE THANKS I GET PEOPLE STILL DISAGREE WITH ME ON TWITTER ALL THE TIME]. ")

I guess we can file 'virtue signalling' alongside 'paranoid style' and 'conspiracy theory' as terms that, while ostensibly meaningful or even useful, are in practice only used by people who mysteriously only think they should be applied to the people they already disagree with.