I was thinking about this when I wrote last week’s post on Zero Waste Party Packs. I was pretty sure the “virtue signaling” accusation would be trotted out, so I aimed to cover it this week. Though I deflected it by focusing more on kids’ parties (can you virtue signal to kids?), the tenth or so comment was pretty much on target.
The thing is, I get it. Who likes to be preached at? Who likes to be judged? One of the reasons I titled this blog “A New Shade of Green” is because it is so important for us to develop inclusive and positive attitudes to being environmentally-friendly, and to collectively welcome changes that reduce emissions and help us to adapt to the changing climate. We shouldn’t need to worry about evading or embracing claims of moral superiority.
So I thought I’d hold up this phrase “virtue signaling” to the light so we can examine it. What does it mean, who uses it and why, and what is its impact?
The Brit who popularized the phrase, a writer named James Bartholomew, says that it describes “the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. … One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.” (1) Two psychologists writing in the New York Times say it is “feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.” (2) Wikipedia succinctly defines it as “the conspicuous expression of moral values”. (3)
It might be used, for example, to describe “a smug Los Altos Hills resident (who parks) her Escalade at the Trader Joe's parking lot and pulls out the tote bags ... in smug reassurance that she's fighting the good war against the evil scourge of plastic.” (This and all following quotations in this post are taken from comments in the online forums of this paper, unless otherwise noted.) There is an element of hypocrisy implied, as well as a degree of pretentiousness and possibly even judgment. It is a pejorative and dismissive term.
I want to go through a number of examples showing how this term has been used in the comments of this online paper, so we can think about how it is used and why.
Applied to Palo Alto’s City Council, for various climate-related actions:
- “Virtue signaling seems to be about all this council is capable of.”
- “The problem with Palo Alto politics is the political establishment virtue signaling civility to misdirect the public from their corruption, hidden agendas, and passive aggression.”
- “Go Palo Alto! You're leading the Bay Area in virtue signaling!”
- “The problem is that they are blaming other people and legislating, always virtue signaling and spewing drivel about greenhouse gases and whatnot. This method can't possibly help the environment. No matter how many laws they come up with, it won't stop climate change.”
Applied to the Cool Block initiative:
“That being said, as an exercise in yodeling our moral superiority without actually doing anything beneficial, while wasting taxpayer money and creating much-needed opportunities for graft, it sounds like a winner. And when it comes to pointless virtue-signalling, the comrades of Palo Alto yield to no one.”
Applied to Caltrain riders:
“For the younger set, wanting to virtue-signal green, Caltrain is just a fashion accessory.”
Applied to cyclists:
“You sound like a very affluent Palo Altan that likes to virtue signal by bicycling and condemning the avarice of your somewhat less affluent neighbors who need a car and still have to work for a living.”
Applied to Tesla drivers:
“I agree that Climate Change as a priority is both a distraction and a feel good item for those impressed by virtue signaling. Why not buy everybody a Tesla and support a home town business? Virtue signaling is the top priority for most Palo Altans. The town is becoming overrun by Teslas.”
Applied to recyclers:
“I wonder what it is that drives Palo Altans to engage in such constant and extreme virtue signaling. "Zero waste" is a myth. As long as we live abundant lives we will always generate more waste.”
Applied to Palo Altans in general:
“There seems to be a denial of reality here, where people with an extremely high income and high quality of life engage in forms of virtue signaling to distract from their own abundance.”
The term is used to disparage more than environmental actions. A cursory look found it applied to people saving Buena Vista, renaming schools, complaining about police behavior, and advocating for the homeless, gun control, or minimum wage. It was even used against Stanford, with the claim that the GUP campaign “essentially amounts to virtue signaling aimed at convincing the outside world how good the university is”.
So, what do we make of all this? Is it true that unless you are driving a gas-powered car to get around town, you must be virtue signaling? Is it virtue signaling to buy a veggie burger, use a party pack, or do any pro-environmental action that others can see? We can all agree that people sometimes or even often think about how their actions look to others. But does that mean they are being hypocritical? Judging others? Feeling superior?
IMO there is an element of nastiness and judgment in the accusation of virtue signaling. When Alice accuses Bob of virtue signaling, she is expressing not only mistrust but scorn, interpreting his motivations as manipulative and disingenuous. But is it Alice or Bob who is being more judgmental? (4) Of course you can’t reverse climate change by washing your laundry in cold water, or get to zero waste just by using reusable dishware at a picnic. But is it wrong or hypocritical to do so? Moving towards a sustainable planet will take both big and small actions, and small does not preclude big. (5)
What makes this shaming particularly problematic is that social norms have a big influence on people. When people see and hear their neighbors, friends, or co-workers taking action for the environment, they are more likely to take similar actions. But accusations of eco-posturing can negate this. As someone commented in a post here: “All the virtuous people doing the right thing simply creates a backlash against "political correctness" and allows the clueless to continue their profligate ways.” Fear of appearing judgmental can be a powerful disincentive. As another commenter noted: “I typically don't mention it (the efficiency work I’ve done on my house) because the global impact is minimal and I don't want to engage in virtue signaling.” Argh. You should not feel embarrassed to share that you drive an EV, enjoy eating veggie burgers, turn down your thermostat in the winter, or bike to work!
Geoffrey Miller, an environmental psychology professor at the University of Mexico, has written a book on virtue signaling. (6) He distinguishes two kinds, one being “cheap talk” (as we’ve been discussing) and the other being a genuine reflection of underlying values. He writes: “What distinguishes good virtue signaling from bad virtue signaling isn’t just the reliability of the signal. It’s the actual real-world effects on sentient beings, societies and civilizations. When the instincts to virtue signal are combined with curiosity about science, open-mindedness about values and viewpoints, rationality about priorities and policies, and strategic savvy about ways and means, then wonderful things can happen. These more enlightened forms of virtue signaling have sparked the Protestant Reformation, American Revolution, abolitionist movement, anti-vivisection movement, women’s suffrage movement, free speech movement, and Effective Altruism movement.”
That is a lot to digest, but the point is that many big cultural revolutions are precipitated by early visible (viral?) trends in social norms. And that is what we need to reduce our emissions and blunt the impact of climate change.
Fortunately there are other ways to drive trends in social norms beyond individuals speaking up and sharing. Gregg Sparkman, a post-doc in psychology at Stanford, ran an interesting experiment last year at on-campus eatery The Axe & Palm. (7) He placed a note on the menu, and a card in the restaurant, indicating simply that more customers have been choosing the meatless dishes. Even though The Axe & Palm is a burger-and-shakes place, where people go to eat meat, the signs worked. During the 17-day test period, 1.7% of diners (about 180 people) switched to a vegetarian option, a statistically significant result. I love this idea, which Sparkman refers to as “fostering social change through dynamic norms”. It bypasses issues with perceived preaching or posturing while having a similar impact. Have you seen it deployed anywhere? (Hint: Did you read the previous blog post?) What about at your workplace? At stores you frequent? I’d love to hear.
As to the verbal gunslingers parrying the accusation of “virtue signaling”, I want to end with this quotation from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in the current issue of The Atlantic (8): “Cynicism is cowardice…. Cynicism fosters a distrust of reality. It is nothing less than a form of surrender. It provokes a suspicion that hidden malign forces are at play. It instills a sense of victimhood. It may be psychically gratifying in the moment, but it solves nothing.” Consider that people may be aiming, in however small a way, to improve our future. Their actions may not be perfect, but what they are doing is a start. Use your energy instead to take it on yourself and lead by example.
Notes and References
1. This 2015 article in the Spectator by James Bartholomew talks about why he adopted the phrase “virtue signaling” in April 2015. (He claims to have coined it, but it was in use earlier.)
2. This 2019 NY Times article describes some work by two psychologists to better understand when and why people might virtue signal.
3. Do you really need a link to Wikipedia?
4. David Shariatmadari wrote a nice opinion piece on this for The Guardian in 2016, observing that “What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It’s too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments. In fact, it’s becoming indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority.”
5. Some people will say that small can in fact preclude big, because people will use the small to excuse the big. For example, someone might rationalize purchasing a new BMW M5 because they switched their home lights to LEDs. I’ll have to do a separate post on emissions rationalization.
6. The book, published just a few months ago, is here. You can find an excerpt on Quillette.
7. There is a very interesting article about Sparkman’s work by Sophie Yeo in Pacific Standard (August 2018). It is worth a read.
8. James Mattis writes in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic about his concern that we are not putting in the work needed to maintain our democracy. But his point about cynicism (and some of his other points) applies equally well to the work needed to maintain our planet.
Current Climate Data (September/October 2019)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines, or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.