“Virtue Signaling”

My friend Jonathan Mayhew has been on a tear over at his blog Stupid Motivational Tricks these last few months: an astonishing amount of writing – on poetry, criticism, daily life, creative hygiene, social rhetoric, translation, as well as on academia and a ton of other things, all with his characteristically vivid lucidity. It has been thrilling – and also *very* humbling – for me to read.

I had never used this phrase before but it struck me that this is what I don’t like in emails from the provost or chancellor.  I realize that this is part of their job description, but I just automatically delete, after reading the first few words, any message to the entire university community that is intended to verbally signal commitments to certain values. It doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy inside to see these statements, and of course I’m not crazy about times when departments compete with one another to come up with statements of solidarity, pursuit of excellence, and so forth.

When my group of friends meet every week people start by rehearsing bad things Trump has done recently. How he is the worst ever, etc… It’s not that I disagree, but come on, I know this is a social ritual and so does everyone else. And it doesn’t happen to be my favorite ritual either. You won’t find bumper stickers on my car.

Right-wing virtue signaling is the same thing, except the causes are different: “life,” “freedom,” “the troops,” “guns.” Empty patriotic gestures and ritualistic affirmations of support for Israel.

The opposite of virtue signaling is the deliberately transgressive shitting on virtues. That seems refreshing at times, doesn’t it? W.C. Fields style. What makes it refreshing is that we all react against manipulative virtue signaling even as we are doing it. Think of the children!  For anyone not old enough to know, Fields would say things like “Anyone who hates children and animals can’t be all bad.” We all know that the cute commercial with the happy family at McDonald’s is manipulative, as morally bankrupt as the lite beer commercial with bikinis.

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