The Urban Dictionary describes it well: Conspicuous but useless action to show how moral you are compared to everyone else.
Rather than dealing with the complexity of a problem, virtue signaling acts like a drug, boosting egos without having to do anything, solve anything, or sacrifice anything.
We have become so used to it that even healthy advocacy starts looking suspicious. Perhaps the timing is right in these days of greater reflection not to see through and judge but see under and grow.
Why do people virtue signal?
Two motives for virtue signaling stand out. One is obvious and the other is much more subtle, perhaps even unknown to the person doing it.
1. Public relations
The obvious motive for virtue signaling is to make oneself look good. Pick a cause everyone is upset about. Complain about it or finger someone responsible. Change your profile picture on social media to express your solidarity. Get likes, follows, shares. What goes viral gets repeated.
The subtle motive for virtue signaling goes deeper. Everyone has a little nagging voice of self-reproach we try to manage one way or another. What do you do with this voice? How do you deal with guilt? How do you respond to those nudges that make us question ourselves: Why did I say that, eat that, buy that? Many people don’t know how to answer Jiminy Cricket when he gets judgmental. Cue virtue signaling.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of virtue signaling is that it hijacks compassion in order to pad one’s own ego. Compassion can be a door out of the dungeon of self, so it’s sad to see it locked from the inside. It goes like this: define someone as a victim and then presume it will help them if you jump on the bandwagon of blame. Result: enjoy a surge of pride that blinds awareness that you used a hurting person as an object—a means to a self-centered end.
Edwin Friedman studied family systems to expose how group identity sometimes turns in this unhealthy direction. It begins with an empathetic reaction to someone’s struggle. Then it seeks to discharge any further pain of struggle by assigning blame to another group. Check out the following principles from his book, A Failure of Nerve:
A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change.
It has been well established that sometimes helping hurts. Quick fixes make people feel better while making you feel better than. But a quick fix that bi-passes the difficulty of lasting change keeps people stuck instead of ennobled.
Contrast this shortcut feel-good approach with my friend Leon, a Haitian pastor leading lasting change in his country. He wakes up each day knowing life’s not fair but works to be for someone rather than against. Real virtue helps people get better rather than getting even. The schools, clinics, and churches he has helped develop are not the result of looking backwards. He helps create better opportunities for families who want something better for their children.
His approach borrows from the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr who said: “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).