Magazine article The Spectator

The Easy Way to Virtue

Magazine article The Spectator

The Easy Way to Virtue

Article excerpt

Why do the right thing when you can simply say the right thing?

Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but -- more precisely -- advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: 'values matter.'

The poster goes on to assert: 'We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food -- one that champions what's good.' This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of 'virtue signalling' -- indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.

We British do it, too. But we are more sophisticated, or underhand. Mishal Husain was particularly aggressive to Nigel Farage on the Today programme recently, interrupting him mid-sentence, insinuating that he is racist or that, even if he isn't, his membership is. She would doubtless like to believe that she was being tough but fair. But another force within her was stronger. Mishal was 'virtue signalling' indirectly -- indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions, one of which is despising Ukip and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist. When she later goes to a dinner party attended by other members of the media elite, she will be welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views.

There are many ways to advertise your virtue. You can say 'I hate the Daily Mail! ' to suggest that you care about people who are poor and on welfare benefits. You are saying that you respect them, care about them and do them the honour of believing the vast majority to be honest and in need.

You can declare 'Page 3 of the Sun was degrading and embarrassing' if you are a man: this indicates your great respect for women. If, on the other hand, you are a woman, you can say 'Isn't Mary Beard marvellous!' to show that you are way above the shallowness of mere physical appearance.

Virtue signalling crosses the political divide. When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself -- as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it -- cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant.

When Osborne says he wants a higher minimum wage, he is saying, 'I am a good guy who cares about the low-paid and wants them to be better off.' Never mind the unintended consequences. Just feel the good intentions.

'I hate 4x4s!' you declare. This is an assertion that, unlike others, you care about the environment.

It's noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, 'I care about the environment more than most people do' or 'I care about the poor more than others', your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word 'belief'. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness -- the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to 'the best' healthcare. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.