Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Gesture of Moral Rectitude

Ben Sixsmith:

This is one of several qualifications to be made if “virtue signalling” is to become a useful element of the English language. That we use our promotion of our beliefs to emphasise our righteousness need not mean we do not believe them. Bartholomew notes that when people tell you they hate the Daily Mail or UKIP “they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded”. True, but it also likely that they hate the Daily Mail and UKIP. Human motivations contain multitudes, and that which is self-serving can also be sincere.

Mr Bartholomew is a man of the right, as one can tell by his examples. Yet something else that must be said about virtue signalling is that its use is not restricted to particular people. When a Conservative or a libertarian sneers at the Guardian or the Green Party there may well be an extent to which they are signalling that they are admirably right wing, freedom loving or patriotic. When an unaffiliated blogger charges both sides with virtue signalling, he might be signalling that he is intelligent and independent-minded enough to be above the fray. It is universal and differs only in form.

This is a good point. As social animals, it's common for most human activities to be "about" more than their immediate goal or subject. There's nothing necessarily frivolous in this. Inferences and implications are inherent in our value-laden communication. Only a life of extended solitude might guarantee pure motives. We might say that the danger of signaling, then, is the elevation of style over substance with regard to perennially serious issues. I see two main ways in which this happens.

To get any use out of the term "virtue signaling," I would suggest it's best understood as being social media-specific. In the same way that the derisive term "social justice warrior" merely refers to those who re-enact the same old New Left-style identity politics on new technological platforms, "virtue signaling" encapsulates the manner in which being seen to have strong opinions on sociopolitical issues takes precedence over practical activism. Self-expression is what matters; changing minds and producing real-world effects are trifling, secondary concerns. Think of it as a word cloud — virtue signaling is prominently associated with online public shaming, viral consumer boycott campaigns, and Change.org petitions. It might be remembered, if at all, as a cultural marker of the mid-teens of this century. We can borrow Roger Scruton's remarks on Milan Kundera's famous definition of kitsch and alter them for our purposes — virtue signaling is about shifting the focus from the object to the subject. It is not about the thing signaled but the signaler. It is a fantasy of virtue without the real cost of achieving it. It encourages you to think, "Look at me performing this on social media — how nice I am and how lovable."

There are also structural factors about social media to consider. When even the most gifted writer would find it impossible to adequately convey all the nuances of his thought and the complexities of his character in a text-based medium, so much worse for the rest of us, then. Most people are not artists or philosophers; they're not particularly deep thinkers or good writers. But the online world is still largely text-based (even video blogging, to be watchable, requires at least a basic familiarity with the somewhat artificial conventions of public speaking). The finer details of our personalities can't be passively inferred by our friends and acquaintances through proximity, as typically happens in everyday life. We are thus called upon to consciously perform our characters to a large extent. We choose which aspects of ourselves to share, and we often craft those aspects for maximum effect.

But again, given the blunt tools most of us have to work with in that regard, our messages tend to be a bit crude. The natural tendency is to avoid complexity and emphasize the parts of our personalities that translate well to this medium, namely, our unambiguous likes and dislikes. This is intensified by the claustrophobic confines of platforms like Twitter, where reflexive reactions, snarky one-liners and vapid slogans proliferate at the expense of reflective thoughts which would require much more space for proper exposition. (Atrophying attention spans play a role as well.) In this environment, it's only natural that people would be motivated to pack words and images full of as much added significance as they can carry. Why should I bother arguing with you at great length when I can simply call you a fedora-wearing dudebro with a neckbeard and thus dismiss your clearly-deficient character together with your implied reactionary politics?

As for the second factor, Irving Howe wrote an essay in 1965 which is worth quoting from here:

Some of the people involved in that movement show an inclination to make of their radicalism not a politics of common action, which would require the inclusion of saints, sinners, and ordinary folk, but, rather, a gesture of moral rectitude. And the paradox is that they often sincerely regard themselves as committed to politics — but a politics that asserts so unmodulated and total a dismissal of society, while also departing from Marxist expectations of social revolution, that little is left to them but the glory or burden of maintaining a distinct personal style.

…The ‘new leftist’ appears, at times, as a figure embodying a style of speech, dress, work and culture. Often, especially if white, the son of the middle class — and sometimes the son of middle-class parents nursing radical memories — he asserts his rebellion against the deceit and hollowness of American society. Very good; there is plenty to rebel against. But in the course of his rebellion he tends to reject not merely the middle-class ethos but a good many other things he too hastily associates with it: the intellectual heritage of the West, the tradition of liberalism at its most serious, the commitment to democracy as an indispensable part of civilized life. He tends to make style into the very substance of his revolt, and while he may, on one side of himself, engage in valuable activities on behalf of civil rights, student freedom, and so on, he nevertheless tacitly accepts the ‘givenness’ of American society, has little hope or expectation of changing it, and thereby, in effect, settles for a mode of personal differentiation.

For context, keep in mind that in 1965, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was in full effect. Twentieth-century American liberalism was probably at its high-water mark. Belief in the power of good government to shape society for the better through rational planning was at its zenith. And yet Howe was presciently apprehensive. If the planned expansion of the welfare state were to fail — something he admitted was possible — there would be the problem of a lack of viable political outlets for those utopian energies. Lacking an inspired vision of where to go next, of how to genuinely improve things, political issues could devolve into little more than cyclical fashion.

Many post-utopian thinkers in the fifty years since then have reiterated Howe's point. Life in the West, for all its obvious flaws, is still pretty good. There is no evidence of a widespread and growing appetite for revolutionary upheaval. And yet, there is still a fair amount of status granted to people willing to profess a fervent belief in a glorious political future. (Apparently even secular societies retain a soft spot for some form of holy fool.) There will almost certainly come a day when geopolitical currents will shift enough to break up the current logjam of domestic politics in our decadent consumer societies, but until then, there is little for would-be radicals to do except maintain a "distinct personal style" and settle for a "mode of personal differentiation."

If Fukuyama's "End of History" theory is at all useful in describing our current world, the canopy of grand political ideologies has been cleared away, leaving the narcissism of small differences free to flourish. To the barricades — to defend Christmas from a nonexistent army besieging it, to attack the latent reactionary forces assembling within parts of speech and sentence structure. When we're all jaded consumers in a semi-liberal sorta-democracy, it suddenly matters deeply whether your politicians proudly wear flag lapel pins, whether you make it a point to choose books to read in accordance with racial and gender quotas, whether your neighbors wish you Merry Christmas or just Happy Holidays, or whether multinational corporations are open to the idea of hiring gay actors to star in their commercials.

In sum, virtue signaling is what happens when the identity reductionism of social media meets the withering of genuine political possibilities.