randombio.com | commentary
Saturday, April 22, 2017

What really causes virtue signaling?

Not only narcissism, but also fear, and fear of fear itself, I fear


E ven after conservatives have taken control of the White House, the Senate, the House, and most of the state governorships, old habits die hard. Their worst one is their tendency to surrender. As the saying goes, they surrender so fast you get hit by the shrapnel.

Here's an example: an article that turned up recently in The Federalist is stuffed to the gills with the postmodernist language of the left. Even the title: “Celebrating Transgender Diversity Requires Solid Gender Roles”, whether intended sarcastically or not, is a masterpiece of how the left encodes its values in the language. Behaviors are ‘required.’ Transgender diversity is something to be ‘celebrated.’ ‘Gender roles’ is a meaningful phrase, and they must be ‘solid.’

We expect this sort of thing from leftists. But conservatives increasingly adopt the same language and its encoded values, premises and definitions, granting full legitimacy to their adversaries' point of view.

In the so-called culture wars, in which the battle is over whose point of view is preferable, this is a form of surrender. Discussing the departure of Bill O'Reilly from Fox News virtually demands obeisance to ‘strong and assertive women‘ as a way of inoculating oneself from, let's be honest here, getting bitched at for being sexist and misogynistic (which, I might add, are two of my best qualities).

Elsewhere, major conservative magazines—I'm not going to name and shame, because I'm scared of them—routinely call members of the alt-right ‘racist.’

It's a disturbing trend. Let's ignore for the moment the question of whether ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, at least as the left defines them, are meaningful terms, or whether the characterizations are fair. Using it against potential allies is counterproductive. If we have a disagreement, and some members of our tribe stray into dangerous territory, instead of saying ‘Off the cliff with you!’, shouldn't we be gently herding them back to the flock? Calling people racist and trying to destroy their livelihoods isn't the conservative way.

Yet anyone daring to discuss the opinions of the alt-right is faced with the necessity of signaling their virtue before continuing, lest their own side—commentators they know and respect—attack them. It is demoralizing to be attacked by your own side, and that's a big clue about why it's done.

When an article starts out by saying “I don't agree with this, but ...” or ”Let me start by saying I'm not racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever”, the writer is signaling virtue. It would be silly to start an article about algae by saying ”I'm not a species of algae myself; I hardly ever secrete neurotoxic dinoflagellate toxins. In fact I disagree vehemently with everything that algae stand for!” Yet in effect that's what we're doing.

Virtue-signaling is sometimes thought of as a tactic, as a way of expressing group solidarity, as a way of feigning faux outrage in attacking one's political adversaries, or as an expression of narcissism. As one Guardian commentator put it, it is “making a statement because you reckon it will garner approval, rather than because you actually believe it.”

It's become a lazy putdown, he says. In other words, we libs have been caught out. Get rid of that dreadful right-wing expression so we can start doing it again!

This may be why libs tend to call everything that moves a racist. But behind many, if not most, of their exercises in political Tourette's is fear. Not, as FDR might say, fear of fear, or fear of being thought of as fearful, I fear, but fear of being thrown under the bus by their comrades.

When we tiptoe around the subject, whether it's from fear of being called anti-semitic, anti-black, or anti-whatever, when we declare that we're not like those bad people, we're signaling our virtue, just as the libs do. The only way our fellow cons can respond is with more virtue signaling of their own. It forces them to retreat from the defense of our former allies, throwing them under the bus.

Doesn't this make us just a tiny bit hypocritical? Is it so hard to believe that libs are just as worried about being called racists as we are? Maybe even more so; after all, libs are living in the middle of their own self-created proto-fascist maelstrom. (True, they created that hell and they own it, so there's not much room for sympathy, but that's beside the point.)

When we throw each other under the bus like this, it reveals our fear. And it's harmful to the cause: eventually we will run out of people to betray.


Created apr 22 2017; last edited apr 22 2017, 8:04 am

See Also

The five stages of language grief
Our adversaries are trying to win arguments by baking politics into the language.

The war over fake definitions
Fake definitions aren't just intellectual sophistries any more.


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