Virtue Signaling – Cheap Self Affirmation
We all do it. And we have all seen it done by others. The only question is too what degree we do it. I am, of course, speaking of the latest ‘meme’ to be virally repeated, the accusation that someone else (naturally not me) is virtue signaling.
A popular definition, though most certainly not the last word, is the following pulled from the Interwebby thingy.
“…the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue.”
“Virtue signaling is the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily to enhance their standing within a social group.”
There are other significant and nuanced variations used to define virtue signaling (including the spelling of ‘signalling’) but in my mind the take away of them all is the intellectual, emotional and psychological dishonesty of the virtue signaler. And of those who accept the virtue signaler attestations at face value. Or worse, those who enable, applaud and support the virtue signaler.
For a multitude of reasons, most of us simply don’t recognize many of our own actions as forms of virtue signaling, often because our signaling is expressed in forms other than just verbal. Ever put a bumper sticker or emblem on your vehicle proclaiming your support for ‘The Troops’ or some other political or charitable cause? Wear a designer product because the label is prominently displayed? One upped someone else by signaling your own escalated display?
I think you get the idea. In fact I’m fairly certain if given some thought, several dozen examples would leap to your mind. They have into mine.
But most of our virtue signaling is expressed in the negative, as in “I hate those Nazi’s”, a group everyone loves to hate, thus proving how virtuous we all are. I mean if you love, or even just like, the Nazis, clearly you must be some vile human vermin. Obviously this is sarcasm, just in case it’s not readily evident. Does that make me vile human vermin?
Naturally this behavior isn’t limited to humans, vile or not. Companies and corporations, public and private institutions, charities, governments, even the boy and girl scouts project virtuous signals large and small. I remember helping a little old lady pick up some groceries she dropped in the parking lot and then told my entire class I saved the lady from certain death by an errant vehicle because I’m a boy scout.
I may have exaggerated just a little bit.
The wonderful thing about virtue signaling is it requires all talk and little to no walk, effortless posturing intended to maintain or improve social positioning within a group or even among groups. For ‘We the Obese’, it just doesn’t get any better than that. 50 years ago, it was the inspiration gained from picking up a few stray oranges for that lady that led to lying through my teeth to my classmates in order to pump myself up in their eyes.
And in mine!
The irony is true virtue never needs to be signaled, for it is self evident and obvious to all but the deaf, dumb and blind.
Ultimately this is what virtue signaling is all about; our at times desperate need to be externally affirmed, particularly when our self esteem and confidence has been (recently) disturbed. If along the way we can improve our standing in whatever affinity group or social/political group we belong to, that’s great.
And we might even believe that is the ‘real’ reason we are acting so dishonestly, assuming we have given any thought at all to our behavior. But it’s all about how we feel about ourselves, and how we fear others feel/think about us, that drives much of our signaling.
This isn’t as outlandish as one might think. We live in a consumer culture; one that constantly strives to inflate our feelings of anxiety and insecurity solely so they can sell us their product, which they helpfully claim will magically restore precisely what they just destroyed. The slicker advertisements play off general cultural fears and inadequacies to push their product. Just watch a few ‘manly’ pickup truck commercials if you don’t believe me.
The sole purpose of all advertisement campaigns is to create a ‘consumer’ demand where one doesn’t naturally exist or wouldn’t exist in a quantity sufficient for the product to be produced profitably. Using a wide range of emotional approaches, including leveraging social memes already deeply implanted within the culture, the skilled advertising practitioner uses every psychological trick in the book to lure you in before the trap is sprung.
For the average person who is deeply immersed within the world of ‘media consumption’, which pretty much describes the overwhelming majority of the western population (and increasingly the entire world as everyone is transitioned into a consuming ‘culture’) their cultural persona has been formed and forged by emotionally exploitative manipulators and propagandists.
Let that thought settle in for a bit.
If we are what we eat, then we think what we consume. And based upon my lifelong observations of society and the people who live within our society, what we ‘think’ is an amalgamation of force fed junk memes designed to confuse, conflate, conceal and control. And most of all, to fear……everything and everyone just about all the time.
Rather frightening when you ‘think’ about it.
The very fact most people would think the previous statement is at best an exaggeration, and at worst simply not true, attests to the incredible normalization of these practices and our adaptation to this self degrading social dysfunction.
And it’s not just the consumer product advertisers who are guilty of crass public manipulation. If anything, they learned their basic techniques from politicians who shamelessly play upon the public’s gullibility and naivety when it comes to fully comprehending the depths to which a sociopath will fall to maintain control, or keep control out of the hands of others.
Sherman’s march to the sea pales in comparison to the death and destruction left in the wake of many a politician’s passing.
While all of us old farts pushing past fifty or sixty years of age have witnessed the blooming of the age of disinformation and social manipulation, we are somewhat shielded by fundamental values of personal integrity ingrained within us from an early age.
Notice I said ‘somewhat’, because no one is fully immune from the insidious creep of consumerism and the intellectual and emotional rot that comes with it. The more we are exposed to something, the more we normalize and adapt to it.
Which might just help explain what is presently going on with our kids these days, defined as those presently in college all the way up to those in their 30’s. They appear to be particularly susceptible to the Pied Piper’s magic flute when played to flatter their egos and inflame their need for self affirmation.
We never taught our children to think critically because we have lost much of our ability to do so. We never taught our children to recognize manipulation and distortion because we have succumbed to it ourselves. We never taught our children to be true to themselves and find affirmation within because we have strayed from our teachings to appease our own consumer craving.
We never taught our children how to be mature adults because we wanted to raise friends who would affirm us rather than young adults who would grow strong and leave us to take their place in the world. We failed to say no because all we wanted to hear was yes. We failed them, and they are now in the process of failing us.
As they say, what goes around comes around.
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