A few months ago, I was standing outside a friend’s house, having a conversation, as several of their neighbors passed by. Nothing about this conversation was abnormal, at least I didn’t think it was. Later, that friend texted me to tell me that one of their neighbors had texted them asking “What was with Alex’s virtue signaling?” Apparently my wearing a mask during the conversation was offensive to this neighbor. Putting aside this neighbor’s improper use of the term, it got me thinking about how we had gotten to a place where virtue signaling was seemingly more important than virtue itself.
This term, “virtue signaling” is one that has only really begun to be used in the last fifteen years, its rise coupled with the rise in social media platforms. It is defined as the conspicuous and disingenuous expression of moral values with the intent to enhance one’s own image. As it has become easier to show “support” for a cause by simply hitting “post”, it seems that more emphasis has been placed on the act of publicizing the support than on the support in the first place.
However just because the term didn’t begin to pop up until the early aughts, doesn’t mean that virtue signaling hasn’t been around for a long time. In 1973, the Nobel Laureate Physicist Richard Feynman observed the humans often use words or proper names for concepts that they don’t understand. He is known for the concept that knowing and using the name of something doesn’t mean that you understand it. And yet, it hasn’t stopped people from showing their support for causes or people that they clearly don’t understand when you ask something as simple as why they support that particular cause or politician.
Even earlier, the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides noted that the highest form of charity is that which is done anonymously, without any expectation of credit, as this is a good act done solely for the sake of the act. In today’s world, where if you haven’t posted about it on social media, people ask whether it really happened, even acts of charity are used as a way to show off how genuine your beliefs are. It has become more and more rare to leaf through a pamphlet at a charity event and find “Anonymous Donor” listed in the highest giving categories.
In today’s society, there is so much going on, that it often seems overwhelming to follow along with all of the stories, and all of the movements. The most common refrain when you explain your passion for one thing appears to be “But, what about [insert different, totally unrelated cause]?” But I would posit that in a society that values the post more than the action itself, caring alone has become an empty act.
Virtue signaling in the absence of virtue is extremely dangerous. It’s easy to say you care about something, while much harder to actually do something about it. It has become far more common for people to vote down party lines, rather than actually researching candidates. How many of us know someone who posted online about a cause we had never heard them talk about in years of knowing them in the real (offline) world?
We must find a way back to virtue itself. Towards truly (and honestly) caring about causes and each other more than about getting credit for pretending to care about them, or worse – caring only about winning instead of about actually bettering the world. While I am pessimistic that the online universe that has been created for us has any interest in this, it is true virtue that will help to heal the divisiveness that has plagued us over the last few years. In the coming days, weeks, or months – give an anonymous donation, add money to a parking meter you see is about to expire, give a better tip to the valet or the server at the takeout counter than you normally would. But do it in such a way that you don’t get any recognition for your generosity. I guarantee you will feel better about yourself, and the world.