Tribal

On the virtue of signalling

Morality, maturity and knowing when to say goodbye 

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Nowadays – at least in my circles of association – it is almost de rigeur to be hyper-critical of the West. You know the drum – horrible Anglo-Europeans (men mostly) are responsible for all the bad stuff and, remarkably, everything Asian, African, tribal and ancient is automatically wiser, healthier and cooler. In my view, this is a narrative of guilt and self-loathing and is, mostly, a diaphanously righteous pose. Whilst it is reasonable to argue that Western military, economic and cultural imperialism has devastated and distorted the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions across the centuries (and often in a repugnantly racist and rapacious fashion), it is surely a misnomer to gloss over the multiple cruelties and prejudices of other civilisations. Our whole species is hierarchic, violent and acquisitive, and the very form of what we call ‘civilisation’ has been inherently unequal since we first began to acquire specialised skills in the aftermath of agriculture and fixed settlement. What’s more, we are all prone to chauvinism against nominated out groups. Thus, for historically wealthy, healthy and leisured Westerners like myself to maintain a fashionable veneer of auto-disgust, whilst simultaneously enjoying the largesse of welfare states, hot showers and the internet, is disingenuous at best – flat out hypocritical and indulgent at worst. It not only represents a serious loss of perspective but smacks of exactly the kind of self-absorbed laziness and arrogance that anti-Western zealots use as justification for their sometimes murderous activities. In this time in the West we are indeed, as my dad likes to say, the winners of history – and whilst we are right to call out injustice, I think it also behoves us to acknowledge the extreme good fortune of our current socio-economic and cultural environment.”

Yours truly. The Pointless Revolution (2019)

Quoting yourself is usually considered bad form. However, I have committed this public lapse of writerly virtue in order to address the ‘vexed’ issue of what we now call virtue signalling. However, while others bristle and point fingers, and engage in the fantasy that they are innocent of such righteous posturing, I am thankful for it.

WTF, I hear you cry. You’re thankful for the plethora of shallow, hypocritical, ideological showboating that appears to be infecting every corner of public discourse? That drips from the internet like holy bile. That has made a number of your friends and colleagues simply intolerable bores.

Well yeah…because the beauty of the virtue signal is that it is, first and foremost, a signal. A signal that lets me know to steer clear, avoid, minimise interaction with. Perhaps even cut adrift.  

Though true that evicting virtue signallers from your circle of association might be regarded as a recipe for loneliness, at 55 I have reached the point where my remaining time is more precious to me than any so-called benefit I might derive from indulging the rants and clicking the links of intemperate, other-blaming ideological warriors and holier than thou pseudo-saints. And anyway, there’s always cats.

At this point, it is probably fair to concede that this piece is also a form of virtuous proclamation – simply me signalling that I am over the self-promoted, socially-posted virtues of others and, moreover, the moral policing and corrosive orthodoxy that can emerge from it. Indeed, I am guilty of advertising my putative virtues in a number of ways.1 I may not drape myself in the flag, pose with the Bible or have a rainbow-coloured profile pic, but like pretty well everyone (of every persuasion, ethnicity and generation) I reflexively signal my worldview, and I do so not to assert superiority or crush rivals, but to court affiliation. There are, and always will be, tribes of belief and preference, and to some extent we all signal membership – or a desire to join – such groups, however vague or loosely defined they may be. Indeed, the only thing new about virtue signalling is the term.

However, even allowing for the fact that VS, like PC, is merely the re-branded contemporary iteration of age-old cognitive and psycho-social norms – inclusion bias and the normative behaviours that flow from this2 – there appears to be something especially virulent about the 2020s version. There are, of course, a number of inputs into this; and whilst the feisty, permanently affronted, micro-aggressors of hyper-partisan dispute would have us believe that ‘others’ are primarily to blame, it is clear that a complex of causes (cultural, economic, technological and circumstantial) have contributed to the current spectacle of radicalised, weaponised, commodified moral theatre.     

One of the most gobsmacking aspects of the furore – aside from the fact that there is such a furore – is that the participants largely agree on one thing. It’s only other folk who virtue signal.

We don’t. No, never! Our principles are far too genuine for that.

As an example…I was recently given the dubious pleasure of sitting through a tiresome You Tube rant from a right wing ‘commentator’ whose video consisted of him ridiculing the purported virtue signalling excesses of BLM protesters. Fair cop, he highlighted some laughably gauche, Instagram friendly episodes of shameless ethical grandstanding. He was right to suggest that many of the live-streamed, heroic protester selfies that flooded the internet in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder were likely more signal than substance. And yet, for the whole video, he sat in front of a full screen backdrop of…you guessed it, the Stars & Stripes. Why? Because he wanted to signal to us that he was a patriot. He wasn’t one of them. He was one of us. A good ol’ down-home, common sense guy who stood for decency and democracy and yada, yada, yada. The flag prop signified his virtue. Without him uttering a word, we knew he was on our side.

Turns out the moral high ground pulls a pretty diverse crowd these days.

Doubtless, our patriotic pundit’s beliefs and his desire to fight for them were genuine. Same goes for the Woke folk. Though any cohort over a certain size is likely to contain posers and opportunists, it is also true that many of those posting their virtues to Facebook are moved to do so by heartfelt concern; even if their concerns are exaggerated and couched in apocalyptic and/or conspiratorial terms. Indeed, the notion that all signalled virtues are somehow fake or without substance is a blunt ideological assertion. Or rather, simply an insult we like to throw at people we disagree with or don’t like the look of.

If, dear reader, you think I’m dismissing the rolling newsfeed of moral drama as a passing fad or mere banality, you’d be wrong. Though I do not share the sense of outrage or declinist dread of others – and I suffer neither from white guilt nor white fragility – our current tribal war over ethics does raise a few issues for me.

  • A hardening of positions and orthodoxies – and subsequently the increasing distemper of any disputes that arise between ever more entrenched camps of opinion.
  • A drift towards more zealous and intolerant social policing, and the negative impacts of this on the critical and creative capacity of both individuals and society as a whole.

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  • The backlash phenomenon. Strident and extreme positions produce equally virulent opposition and risk a baby/bathwater situation, in which hard-won and broadly beneficial developments3 may be eroded or cast aside.   

Yet, beyond this, the megaphone righteousness of both progressives and conservatives in the contemporary West points at what New York based author Mark Manson has called “the modern maturity crisis.”4

Elsewhere on this site I have used terms like ‘dummy spitting, kindergarten culture’ and written about the juvenile nature of the current socio-political discourse. Indeed, the tone and adversarial nature of politics and the various ‘culture wars’ often remind me of high school, sometimes primary school. You don’t need to be a psycho-analytic genius to observe the self-absorption, entitlement mentality and transactional underpinning of much of the signalling behaviour we now observe.

The signalled virtue is akin to the must-wear sneaker brand in Grade Nine. It is a form of social currency. It not only signifies inclusion (or the desire for it) but is a bargaining chip in the approval-seeking economy of human interaction. If I’m 100% organic at all times, then…

No surprise then, that we see this transactional signalling playing out in the money economy. Think ethical branding. Shop local. Buy Ugandan. Boycott this company. Bid up this formerly shorted stock. 

Unpacking all this, what strikes me is not so much that people’s values are wrong-headed but that the public spectacle of values is immature and frequently self-seeking. As such, this has a distorting effect on both public discourse and personal relationships; because now we’re not dissecting issues and examining alternative models, we’re engaged in a game of virtuous one-upmanship.5

To boil it down further…the issue is not the virtue, but the manner (and the context) of the signal.

Like many of you, I have endured the ethical advertising of friends, colleagues and random strangers; but like I said, I give thanks for their visible purity. It serves as fair warning.

  • I recall being invited to dinner and, once there, being regaled at every turn with the fact that all the ingredients were either gluten free, organic or purchased at great cost from a non-corporate grocery store. Did it make the meal any tastier or enjoyable? No, it fucking well did not. Did the evening turn into a grind from which I could not wait to escape? Yep.
  • Then there was the guy who, so enraged by government COVID policy, tried to convince me (at length) to join him and his band of holy brother warriors in glorious, manly defiance of mask wearing. He assured me that my failure to do so would make me complicit in globalist tyranny and, furthermore, prove to him what a pathetic, ‘pussy-hat wearing’ loser I was. Suffice it to say, his supposedly virile rebellion has thus far amounted to nothing more than blowhard wank, and I now cross the road to avoid being trampled by the onrush of his unmasked crusade.

Whether correcting my speech or accusing me of wanting to correct theirs, the trap setting, point scoring, conversion seeking behaviours of those fattened by their own virtue and wisdom is, frankly, dull at best, borderline abusive at worst. And when they pounce on you – a-ha, gotcha, watch this video – they are sending a very clear signal. Namely…oh, look, is that the time? Better be off now. Bye.

So yeah, a big thanks to all the awakened, free speaking, anti-everyone else rebels out there for letting me see how ideologically pure you are. Good luck with the jihad. Let me know how it goes…Actually, on second thoughts, maybe don’t.

A now…a confession:

It could be said that by posting this piece I too am waging a moral campaign, or seeking to convince, convert, etcetera. Indeed, anyone going to the effort of creating an op ed or writing a book like the one I quoted from at the top, is to some degree seeking to massage or alter the views of others. Clearly, I have a worldview and a value-set I deem worthy of the time and intellectual effort needed to shape them into something I hope is coherent and thought provoking. However, what even the most ardently aggrieved of you will recognise is that I have not flooded your feed, ambushed you at a party or accused you of genocide, tyranny or trampling on my sacred rights to do or say whatever I please. If, on the other hand, you are offended or sickened by this egregious display of self-proclaimed virtue, feel free to delete me.

And a final thought:

Reading through the above and pondering the problem of public virtue, I wonder if some of our disquiet about the ethical display of others is rooted in a sense that we ourselves are somehow not that ‘good’, not really all that ‘nice’. To be honest, no matter how I rationalise it, there lurks within me a vague notion of not being essentially moral. I know how to act ethically, and I understand the many reasons why such action is beneficial to me and others. Moreover, the core reward of such is that it feels good to act good. To borrow from Manson and Kant, it is an end in itself. Yet, if I dig deep enough I am compelled by the evidence to acknowledge that I am relentlessly self-seeking and not entirely averse to the tactical use or visceral thrill of wanton cruelty. I understand this does not necessarily make me a Hitler in hiding, and I remain confident I am not about to engage in an extremist atrocity exhibition – and so this is not a full blown moral crisis. Nonetheless, I suspect that at least part of my issue with the signalled virtue of others is that, somewhere inside, there is a real or perceived deficit of genuine care for my fellow humans. I suspect I may not be alone in this.     

1: As an example, what is my faded Joy Division t-shirt but a form of signal to others that I’m the kind of guy who is smart/cool/old enough to like the band, or at least buy the shirt? Point being, as members of a social and highly tribalised species, we seek various forms of group affiliation. Whilst nationalist, religious, political and other identity-based ideologies are the noisiest and most visible expressions of our penchant for tribal demarcation, the proliferation of sub-cultural groups and other ‘communities of shared interest’ points to the ubiquity of the human desire to seek and express belonging. Our putative virtues are yet another mechanism in this space.    

2: To be clear, inclusion bias operates at an unconscious and emotional level, regardless of the intellectual positions we take. It is an evolved proclivity, and not an invention of Cultural Marxists or the Murdoch media.

3: I speak here specifically of the evolution of both legal and cultural attitudes that have engendered a more plural, less violent, more open, more inventive and enabling society. Amongst these I would cite developments in the areas of political/economic participation, labour rights, social guarantees (pensions, universal healthcare, etc), gender and sexuality, and environment. Though clear that we do not live in a perfectly just world, neither do we live a morally bankrupt dystopia, and I think it would be prudent for more of us to remember that and be a little more thankful for the benefits we have derived from the struggles of those who came before us. Fast broadband, running water and the ability to walk down the street without a high likelihood of being raped, murdered or hauled off to a slave camp or salt mine are not to be sneezed at. Nor should they be considered a divinely ordained and automatic corollary of modernity.                       

4: In his 2019 book Everything Is Fucked, Manson suggests that we have a largely adolescent moral culture. He does so by building upon (and, he admits, simplifying) the work of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson and others to arrive at the idea that the contemporary West is deeply immature, emotionally and, as a consequence, morally.

5: Some will perhaps upbraid me for my micro-aggressive use of the ‘man’ syllable in one-upmanship. Let me be clear…these are the kind of people I am busily distancing. So, if this offends you, feel free to unfollow, unfriend and find more virtuous bedfellows.  

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