Saturday 1 October 2016

Mary Kenny: the cult of virtue signalling

Do we espouse particular viewpoints just to look on-trend?

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

I saw a woman the other day walking down Grafton Street wearing the pink ribbon that denotes support for breast cancer charities. I wondered if she was a victim of breast cancer; or if someone she knew and loved suffered and perhaps died from it. But I also wondered if the pink ribbon fell into a recently-coined category known as "virtue signalling".

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Virtue signalling, which has now entered the Collins standard dictionary, is about publicly proclaiming a view that makes you seem like a nice person. Was Angela Merkel signalling a feel-good sense of virtue when she proclaimed that the doors of Europe should be open to all migrants - even though it would be logistically impossible to give hospitality to everyone who wishes to enter the EU?

When it is observed that Dublin theatre audiences are ever-more inclined to give every performance a standing ovation, is that just virtue signalling? Do these folks just want it to be known that they are nice, warm people, rather than, say, rigorous critics of the performing arts?

When tweeters and Facebook correspondents colour their hashtags and profiles with the rainbow flag of gay liberation, is the exercise basically one of virtue signalling? Look at me - I'm such a liberal, inclusive person!

According to the left-wing New Statesman, "a lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is 'virtue signalling' - showing off to your friends how right-on you are." Celebrities like Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson are commonly in the frame for accusations of this. When they advertise their views on things like Ireland's 8th Amendment, it helps to attract other signallers into a warm feeling of group association with an elite.

When the Government states its resolve to criminalise any parent who smacks a child - rather than, for example, focusing on the scandalously high rate of boozing drivers who escape conviction, or on the ghastly occurrence of rural crime - is it merely indulging in virtue signalling?

I don't know. I only ask. But one of the aspects of virtue signalling is that there is usually no cost to the signaller; and what is proposed may be impossible to implement. How are you going to police every parent in the land in their home when you can't even police the blatant criminals stealing expensive farm machinery in wide-open public spaces?

There's nothing new about this virtue signalling. The idea of socially desirable virtue has been around since the dawn of civilisation. The ancient Greeks were keen on civic virtue, and the Old Testament Jews, who brought us the Ten Commandments, had some very specific ideas about striving for virtue. If you extolled a virtue but didn't practise it, that was sometimes called hypocrisy. But there is a kinder word now for the virtues we uphold but don't practise: aspiration.

We aspire to tell the truth, but often resort to fibs. We aspire to be honest citizens, but may sneakily break the law. We aspire to pay our taxes, but if a valid loophole is available, do we avail of it? We're only human.

Virtue signalling is disparaged as a cousin to political correctness: conforming to all the trendy attitudes, while privately harbouring misgivings. One common example of virtue signalling is protesting publicly about austerity measures while privately thinking there's something to be said for cutting down on extensive welfare benefits.

Yet, maybe, virtue signalling is to be preferred to unkindness in some contexts. Maybe sometimes it's better to say the nice thing, and keep your more honest thoughts to yourself.

In the area of sexuality, virtue signalling has become somewhat bewildering. All sexuality is now said to be "fluid": young people define themselves as "pansexual", and "gender-bending", and you mustn't be judgmental about anyone's "gender fluidity". (The pop singer Miley Cyrus is the acknowledged leader of this trend, having recently defined herself as "pansexual".) Defining any specific orientation is now regarded as archaic - belonging to a "binary" age of male-female constructs.

"Consent" is now subject to a great deal of virtue signalling, which seems a courteous enough idea until you start thinking about the history of seduction. When Shakespeare describes Bassanio saying of Portia: "Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages" - would such ocular communication pass muster under the heading of consent?

Is some virtue signalling just what the Irish used to call rameis? Or what the Americans call grandstanding? Or is it a good thing to bear witness to something you believe in, or think should be said?

You seldom see people sporting a Fáinne or a Pioneer pin these days. These were once symbols of virtue signalling, but they've gone out of fashion. In fact, I joined the Pioneer Association about a year ago - as I don't drink, and I have plenty of reparation to do in that department, I thought "why not?" But I couldn't bring myself to wear the pin. It just seemed too much like virtue signalling.

And yet, virtue signalling must have its uses. The fact that the woman in Grafton Street was wearing the pink ribbon is one of the reasons why the fight against breast cancer has proved so very successful.

@MaryKenny4

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