What a Goodly Outside Falsehood Hath: Of “Virtue Signaling”

Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
— Antonio, Act I, Scene III, The Merchant of Venice

Wolves wear the nicest fleece, and the Devil’s silver tongue refrains not from using the very Word of God. Our internet age has no special reprieve from this reality, and when the potent elixir of political passions mix with the speed and wide-broadcast of social media, this gambit of the great Deceiver takes on new life. The fire-breathing thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a good read no matter what he is writing about or whether you agree with him, pegged this rather prevalent and virulent symptom of our diseased contemporary discourse, and describes it thusly:

“There is no worse vice than one that imitates virtue; worst of all is the one that claims to incarnate virtue: virtue signaling.”

Taleb delivered this thoughtful nugget on January 30th of this year, and 2017, only a month in, has done nothing but to prove his Twitter aphorism. “Virtue signaling,” at least as used by Taleb, is a common accusation thrown about by would-be social media intellectuals, which is to say the great majority of the countless millions who visit such websites (yours truly included). In only the way the internet can manage to do so, the whole fiasco can become quite “meta” as the kids say, with one person's pointing out another’s virtue signaling itself being accused as an instance of virtue signaling.

I know, I know. I, too, sometimes wish the internet could be set on fire somehow!  

But this is no mere peccadillo, no mere small price to pay in order to speak with our friends over long distances. There is something perversely “ever ancient and ever new” about this phenomenon. Dwelling on it is not to be obsessed with some strange hiccup of modern communication, but is indispensable in understanding why contemporary discourse has broken down so fundamentally.

Indeed, if Taleb’s aphorism proves true, what virtue signaling will look a lot like is precisely virtue, and thus anyone who seems to compel action, or accuse someone of vice, or even encourage someone to act a certain way, may very well seem like they are indeed virtue signaling.

Is this article, then, not an instance of virtue signaling itself? And once again we get back to the vexing “meta-questions” involved in the matter, which make many a good person give up speaking of such things (an outcome the devil would not mind at all). But of course, what else would the dark lord invent such a trick for but to poison the well of all good communication?

If the devil aims to muddy waters and blur lines, we must then do the opposite and seek clarity, a rarity in the political climate of today. Because virtue signaling wants to imitate virtue, a definition may be hard to come by in a non-academic treatment such as this. For one who has time to parse the real Aristotle and a self-anointed Twitter imitator of the Stagirite side-by-side, the issue should become clear. But for those with less leisure, let me suggest that the imitation can be identified by it’s effects, or as Our Lord said, “you will know them by their fruits.”

So one way to glean such an effect is to "count the cost" of the statement. In other words, does the person pontificating before you have a social reward of some kind to gain and little to lose from a certain group (from something as small as “approval” to something as pivotal as “authority) if he or she speaks this way or makes this point?  Another way to ask this question: does this statement particularly appeal to a group the person already or wants to belong to without any significant risk or cost in them speaking in such a matter" An affirmative answer to either is a strong indication of virtue signaling, precisely because what is sought after is the effect of the utterance, and not the substance of the speech itself.

A second consideration goes like this: is the statement a replacement for "doing something" regarding the issue the person is talking about. In other words, is the statement in effect a “bumper sticker” that does not seem to require any follow-up action in the real world? For example, if someone says we need to “listen to each other” or some such platitude (not all platitudes are bad, we will get to that in a second), but their statement is tone deaf or subsequent ones vilify another group on the opposite side of the debate, or if the statement itself seems made to self-satisfy rather than call to action, my guess is that an imitation of virtue, and not the real thing, is occurring.

Speaking of platitudes, another criteria (and this is simply another instantiation of Taleb’s concept Skin in the Game from his book Antifragile) is whether or not someone is resistant to pushback or being challenged in their declarations. While we of course most often speak to the groups we identify with, what do we do when questions arise? In fact, this may be the most important consideration of all. 

Look, the choir needs preaching to, but what the choir needs most from (courageous) leaders is sharpening (excuse the horrible musical pun—but as a music teacher told me, 95% of all choirs are flat). As hinted at above, all muddy, easy, and unfocused thinking plays into the hands of the worst among us, who either use such vague statements to browbeat someone with a red herring fallacy, or utilize the ready-made, self-inflicted straw man to undermine other credible positions the choir might have.

On the other hand, the choir will always be better off if there is someone there to pushback and clarify what they are saying. Virtue signaling is saying to a group what they already want to hear in order to obviously belong, and often at the expense of some other detested group. But it is worse than that. It often makes the choir grow fat and lazy by creating an “echo chamber,” a feedback loop of self-satisfying statements, where complacency rules the day (and which social media algorithms seem especially geared to create). With no one to challenge our ideas and strengthen them, the choir is lulled into a sleep that makes them easy targets, ripe fruit for a nimble wolf to come along and pick off one by one.

Thus virtue signaling and the echo chamber are corruptions of two important things: virtue and friendship. The fact that they are distortions of two of the greatest things on earth makes them that much more nefarious, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but because the most perceptive members of the choir will begin to question whether virtue and friendship are possible at all. A herd enthralled by an echo chamber may be an easy target for the enemy, but nothing is easier to hunt down and destroy than a sheep wondering off all alone.

And thus the devil sows the deepest seeds of discord through imitating that which is truly good, making  most souls sleepy and spoiling the good for those more perceptive. What are we to do in an age like ours? We must place our hope in clarity.

Clarity is the chief charity necessitated in our time. It is not exciting or glamorous or romantic, but it is a thankless and humble task easily mocked and derided. Being clear is not a legalism or obsessiveness (although that is a temptation we must always strive to avoid), but a knife cutting away the rotten part of the fruit from that fit for consumption.

So in the face of alarming actions and declarations taken by all sides of the political spectrum, we must avoid crying wolf in the face of barking dogs, or telling folks it’s raining when said dogs are reliving themselves all over our legs. The world yearns for clarity, which only a humble devotion prudence can bring about.  And we must be willing to practice it, even if it makes us no friends on either side.