Virtue Signaling: The Frantic Plea for Social Capital

“Yes, I’m one of you! I swear! I’m not one of them…I’ve always served the cause faithfully! I’m not one of them!”

Micro-aggressions, diversity, safe spaces, privilege, NPC, cisgender, social justice warrior. American society has generated an impressive amount of new terms, some are new inventions and others are merely injected with new meanings. They are all tinged with political significance. Often, terms are developed by one political tribe to subtly or not-so-subtly disparage the opposing faction. The left uses the terms ‘transphobic,’ ‘misogynist’ and ‘hate speech’ to intimidate anyone with differing views from voicing them. The right uses ‘woke,’ ‘NPC’ and ‘welfare’ to mock what they view as the left’s collectivist group think uniformity. Ten years ago, we had the ‘tea-baggers’ and ‘libtard’ monikers. The country’s political vocabulary will never stop evolving, which means Americans can look forward to many more backhanded terms in the future. There’s one phrase that has originated recently and, while some could interpret it to be a veiled insult, it’s a near-perfect label for the phenomenon it designates: virtue-signaling.

Virtue-signaling occurs when a person declares allegiance and/or support to a concept, group, cause or belief that his or her affiliated social networks hold in high esteem. When a person toes the party line, they are rewarded with an injection of social capital. Social capital is an umbrella term that became popular in academia during the 1990s and entered the public lexicon after Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Google’s definition for social capital is:

Obviously, there are many types of social capital but all forms are tangible or intangible resources that allow beneficiaries to advance, or improve his or her standing, in a network of relationships, which are often housed within larger meta-networks. Social capital is a lubricant that greases the ladders of social hierarchies. Put another way, it’s a necessary ingredient for social mobility. Words, whether used publicly or privately, are important variables in the equation that determines an individual’s amount of social capital. Since the dawn of the internet and smartphones, the weight of these variables, relative to other factors in the equation, has increased greatly because every gaffe is immortalized on Facebook and YouTube. People want to impress their bosses, make their friends like them, make their significant others laugh and gain respect from their peers. Actions and words are the only behaviors that can achieve these wishes and, as a consequence, grow social capital.

Virtue-signaling is nothing new and it’s not even a bad thing in moderation. The problem comes during times of social tension, particularly during times of polarized tension. People don’t want to be perceived as being on the wrong side of an argument, even if they have doubts. During Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror in the 1950s, accusations of communism were as professionally destructive back then as accusations of bigotry or sexual misconduct are today. Scared of losing their livelihood and reputation, politicians and everyday Americans didn’t just vehemently deny any charges of communism, they took it one step further and accused other Americans of harboring communist sympathies. Why would they do such a thing? Because, if a person accused someone of being a communist, it signified his or her allegiance to capitalism and American exceptionalism and also that he or she was much more anti-communist than the accused party. Under the shadow of McCarthy’s paranoid witch hunt, the act of false accusation garnered even more social capital than mere public allegiance to the cause of free enterprise. Such antics were all prime examples of virtue-signaling with the aim of individual social advancement or stability.

This environment was so toxic that if anyone pointed out a valid point that communists had or offered constructed criticism of American capitalism, they were chased out of Washington. It’s perfectly possible to firmly oppose communism while simultaneously supporting beneficial social programs and prudent checks on the potentially abusive market. Such reasonable objections were either silenced through fear or consumed by a mob of capitalists desperate to eschew any modicum of communist resemblance. The only criticism that could elicit a stronger response was a criticism of McCarthy’s witch hunt itself. One might as well tattoo a hammer and a sickle into his forehead.

Most Asian governments, particularly in southeast Asia, China, North Korea and the Soviet Union, during the twentieth century witnessed this dynamic. When the price of political disloyalty was a bullet to the head, mid-level leaders and top-tier generals were desperate to make their allegiance to the party in power as clear as possible. Their survival depended on their acquisition of social capital through virtue-signaling.

Leftists are by no means the only practitioners of virtue-signaling; far from it. In America, right-wing Evangelicals loved and continue to love to condemn the immoral actions of adulterers, homosexuals, secularists and abortionists so that their peers and opposition will understand the caliber of their godly character. Midwest and southern conservatives relish demonizing the poor, because to do so implies that they possess the noble character traits that the lazy indigents supposedly lack. Sometimes, virtue-signaling is more about inward self-validation than outward marketing. It’s also prudent to remember that twenty-first century America HAS seen this dynamic in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. George W. Bush’s traumatized FBI managed to convict an innocent middle-Eastern New Yorker for aiding terrorists with almost no evidence. Fortunately, he was exonerated after it was shown that what little evidence there was against him was completely fabricated. Many viewed it as virtuous to discriminate against Middle-Eastern Americans in the interest of public safety. The bi-partisan Patriot Act is a reminder that Americans need to be eternally vigilant of McCarthy-esque scare tactics that masquerade as safety initiatives. I remember seeing Arab women in airports. They felt the need to cover their bodies with pro-U.S. pins and red, white and blue scarfs to show how loyal they were to America. They dressed their children in t-shirts that featured the Statue of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence and JFK’s landmark “Ask not what your country can do for you…” speech. It was pitiful and heartbreaking that American citizens were forced to virtue-signal because of a terrorist attack that they had nothing to do with and were appalled by.

As shown by the McCarthy example, a consequence of fear-induced virtue-signaling is the destruction of civil, rational discourse. I conducted an impromptu experiment on my Twitter handle that I’d like to share with you. There is a feminist Twitter user that is well-known for her ‘gratuitous snark’ and contempt for the patriarchy. While I find most of what she says to be ideological drivel, aimed at condemnation instead of enlightenment, I believe in the value of regular exposure to viewpoints different than my own. She tweeted the message shown below and I just couldn’t stop myself from executing a harmless troll.

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As you might expect, an army of leftist and feminist warriors rallied to educate me on the severity of my own putrescence. Granted, I was trolling so I believe it’s perfectly acceptable for them to tell me to go to hell. It’s not the fact that they rallied to take me down that I find unsettling, it’s the manner in which they did so and the words with which they damned me. Here are some of the tweets below:

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There were more, but I think you get the picture. The original Tweeter was so taken with my comment that she eloquently forwarded the tweet, which catalyzed a whole new string of indictments.

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For the record, the simple observation that someone is virtue-signaling isn’t necessarily a criticism. However, in this case there’s no question that I was throwing some self-gratifying shade at the feminist. The accusations of racism truly baffle me though. I struggle to see how a criticism of a statement that used political correctness as a political weapon is racist or sympathetic to racism. My one word comment pointed out the phenomenon of a Twitter user decrying the alleged rampant racism of others in an attempt to acquire social capital and advance or cement her status. This is an anecdotal example (which admittedly proves nothing) of cultural McCarthyism. Everyone is desperate to prove that they’re tolerant and don’t possess a single iota of bigotry in their minds and hearts that they’ve forgotten how to think. They should be worried. Because if they don’t prove their loyalty to the cause, the moral umpires have a vast arsenal of derogatory terms to label them with.

Stay afraid and continue to amass social capital.

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