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Actually, Virtue Signaling Is Good

We could use less celebration of vice and more signaling of virtue.
May 29, 2020
Actually, Virtue Signaling Is Good
Pitcher Hector Santiago #53 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim takes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (Photo by Josh Barber/Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images)

Back in the halcyon beforetimes of Summer 2014, there was an annoying online trend that began materializing in all of our social media feeds, something cultural commentators and jaded social media users alike knew needed to be snuffed out if we were going to preserve our cherished online spaces.

The Ice Bucket Challenge.

Looking back on it now, that might seem to be misplaced angst. After all, there were other emerging online trends that were soon to consume our lives. The white nationalists. The trolls and bots. The foreign actors dividing us rather easily through some pretty crappy memes. A huckster race-baiting vlogger planning to run for president based on his ability to bully his fellow Americans with malignant cruelty.

But all of that lay over the horizon. Life on the internet was good. Even if we didn’t realize it.

So for a brief moment amidst our summer holidays, the big annoyance wasn’t the white-nationalist trolls who were about to take over a major political party, but the gratuitous proto-thirst trap “charity” selfies that were taking over our online lives.

We did not like them.

Not one bit.

One by one our quasi-friends would strip down to show off their beach-ready bodies and dump cold ice onto their tightening muscles in the name of “charity.” Then they’d tag us, and demand that we, in our not-quite-as-beach-ready bodies, join them. You know. For the “cause.”

The gall! The nerve! These jerks were trying to get us to help them raise millions of dollars for people suffering a neurodegenerative disease.

Next thing you knew these performative goody-two-shoes were everywhere. Changing their avatars for breast cancer awareness month. Tweeting out petitions. Demanding that movies have heroes who are not just white men. Talking about being vegan.

The worst.

And thus the “virtue signal” was born.

More than five years later when you look up “virtue signaling” on Wikipedia, the defining image is one of those show-offs with the caption: “A person performing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for charity. The activity has been criticized as virtue-signaling.”

The term might have been new, but social media had merely hung a sign on a complaint that is as old as time. The ancient Greek gentleman Glaucon may have been the original virtue signaler. In Plato’s Republic he tells Socrates that a just man who is thought to be unjust will still be scourged, and thus will “understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just.”

Jesus wasn’t much impressed with those virtue signaling Pharisees in the temple.

And every kid who has ever gone through elementary school has had to deal with their own virtue-signaling Martin Prince.

But somewhere along the way, our Trumpian political culture transformed this complaint about those who want to signal their virtue without doing anything about it into something more sinister.

Rather than merely mocking poseurs who were all talk and no action, people began turning on the very idea of virtue.

Jesus telling the Pharisees that acts were more important than words somehow became Cheeto Jesus telling the Twitterati that acts and words were both bad—LOSERS!—and the righteous man was really the one who had no compunction about his cruelty.

Saying you wanted to save the world was out. Actually trying to save the world was double-out. The only thing people admired anymore was the balls on the guy who wanted to watch the world burn.

For these pernicious twats, there was no act that a president—or at least this president—could undertake that merited public disavowal. As long as the right people were “virtue signaling” their anger—that meant that the act was in-bounds.

Concerned about Americans being jailed for the color of their skin? That’s just virtue signaling, bro.

Sickened at kids being caged at the U.S. border? Oh no. Check out the virtue signal on this doofus. 

You think the president of the United States shouldn’t be retweeting white nationalists? VIRTUE SIGNAL. VIRTUE SIGNAL. VIRTUE SIGNAL.

Still talking about how the president committed serial sexual assault even after he won the election? Nice virtue signal. I hope she sees this.

More upset by the enraging slow-motion murder of an unarmed black man at the hand of police than at those protesting the execution? Virtue. Signal.

For a while this Orwellian Pivot was mostly an annoyance for those of us who waste our days arguing with Trump supporters on the internet. But then the anti-virtue mindset began to expand, with supporters of the president not just mocking virtue signalers, but engaging in an entirely new practice:

Vice signaling.

The term, popularized by Jane Coaston, refers to people who now gleefully portray themselves publicly as amoral or immoral in order to demonstrate some sort of strength or sophistication.

You can see how, once the gate is open, these things tend to spiral out of control.

In the past few weeks, vice signaling has seeped out of Twitter’s virtual borders and into the real world, where there are actual, literal, life-and-death consequences.

As the COVID-19 pandemic became subsumed by the black hole that is our Trumpian culture war, the president went out of his way to make certain that people began to see even commonsense health precautions as another front in his grand struggle.

The result has been the purest distillation of the virtue signal divide imaginable: The Mask Wars.

Most daily health choices can be made invisibly. Unless you post it to your Instagram, nobody has to know you worked out, or ate a salad, or took a multivitamin.

But wearing a mask cannot help but be visible. And unless someone in a leadership position—say, the president of the United States—goes out of his way to make wearing a mask a normal part of everyday life (like wearing a seatbelt when you drive or helmet when you bike) then it cannot help but become a signal.

President Trump went out of his way to do the opposite. He didn’t even remain neutral or silent on the question of masks. Instead, he made a show of his positive refusal to wear one.

He was sending a vice signal to his people and they got the message: It’s more important to look “strong” and trigger the libs than it is to slow the spread of a deadly virus.

And thus the battle lines were drawn.

For Trump fans, individual and societal safety is now secondary to signaling which team you’re on. In Charlotte, an ESPN radio personality was called “sissy,” “snowflake,” and “sheep” for wearing a mask. In Elgin, Texas, a bar-owner banned masks, saying he wanted customers “that aren’t pussies, that aren’t sheep.” Same story in Kentucky. The owner of a campground in Wisconsin seemed to threaten mask wearers on her property with deadly force.

In Nashville, Roseanne Cash’s daughter was called a “liberal pussy” for wearing a mask in a grocery store. Her heckler was, one assumes, unaware that this woman had nearly died from the H1N1 virus and so has a high mortality risk if she contracts COVID-19.

And it’s not just the randos.

For Trump’s enablers in Conservatism Inc., the mask wars have been an irresistible call to own the libs. The Federalist wrote about how George Washington wouldn’t have worn a mask (wut?) in one piece and in another talked about how it’s “time to choose your side” in the election year of the mask. Dan Crenshaw has chosen his, tweeting that Democrats are “scared” and showing “cowardice” because they want to implement proxy voting rather than have people fly from all around the country to vote. On Fox, Laura Ingraham’s effete sidekick Raymond Arroyo claimed that when Joe Biden wore a mask to a cemetery he was “projecting an image of trepidation.” Fox regular Brit Hume tweeted about the same event asking “what was the mask for, other than to virtue signal.”

And there it is again. Virtue signaling.

As Hume’s tweet indicates, the people who now own the conservative movement believe that an aspiring president modeling behavior recommended by the cucks at the Center for Disease Control in an attempt to show solidarity during a time of national crisis is something to be derided. That taking reasonable safety precautions amidst six-figure death counts makes you a fraidy cat.

We’ve come a long way from Ronald Reagan, haven’t we?

In this warped worldview, the president should be signaling some contorted quasi-manliness associated with risking someone else’s life rather than showing the nation that we’re all in this together.

How did we get here? Because of the corrupting influence of Trumpism.

If we were talking about President Mitt Romney, there is no way—none, at all—that Brit Hume would be working overtime to vice signal. He would be rightly praising the president’s model behavior and discretion. We know this to be true. Instead we have a Republican president who is—just objectively—a man of utterly irredeemable personal character. And so, in order to justify their continued enabling of him, people such as Hume begin to not just ignore virtue, but bow toward vice.

Which brings us back to the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I don’t know about you, but I’m currently feeling pretty guilty about having been anti-Ice Bucket.

When you look back on the ghosts of virtues signaled past, it sure looks like even though they were occasionally grating or hypocritical, on balance they provided a modicum of communal uplift and a sense of unity, not to mention a tangible financial impact for those trying to ameliorate a disease.

These days, when signaling virtue might convince a few more Americans to act in a way that helps contain a deadly contagion, the concept starts to sound downright appealing. And when 100,000 people have suffered from painful and lonely deaths from a disease that leaves no ability for shared grieving, amdist an enraging rash of vigilante executions against black men, online efforts to try to recognize and memorialize and signal collective support for those who have lost loved ones sounds not just like a good thing, but something our country deeply needs.

So, in short, I guess what I’m saying is: Yeah, it’s five years out of date. But I see it now. Virtue signaling is actually good.

Somebody go find me a damn ice bucket.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.