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The Newfound Art of Virtue Signaling in the 21st Century

The pursuit of the moral highground

By Burn BookPublished 7 months ago 7 min read
The Newfound Art of Virtue Signaling in the 21st Century
Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

In today's society, it's not uncommon to encounter individuals who go out of their way to showcase their moral superiority. 

They engage in virtue signalling, a phenomenon where people speak or behave in a manner that aims to demonstrate their good moral values. However, behind the facade of virtuousness lies a complex web of social dynamics, cultural influences, and personal motivations. 

To truly understand this phenomenon, we'll take a thorough look into the depths of virtue signalling, exploring its origins, implications, and the underlying reasons why people engage in this behavior.

The Anatomy of Virtue Signalling

To truly understand virtue signalling, we must first dissect its components. At its core, virtue signalling is a form of signaling, a concept widely used in psychology, economics, and biology. 

Signaling involves one party communicating information to another, whether it be an individual communicating with another individual or a company signaling to a group of individuals. 

The credibility of a signal is often determined by the costs associated with it and the potential penalty for presenting a disingenuous signal. 

In simpler terms, the more effort and risk involved, the more believable the signal appears to others.

What sets virtue signalling apart from other types of signaling is its primary goal of showcasing one's good moral values. While the term is often used pejoratively to refer to disingenuous behavior, it's important to note that virtue signalling can stem from genuine feelings and beliefs. Even if the main motivation behind the behavior is to signal virtue to others, it is still possible for meaningful positive outcomes to result from these actions.

So, why do people engage in virtue signalling? 

The answer lies in the desire to demonstrate one's good moral values, both to others and to oneself. There are two main types of virtue signalling motivations: other-oriented and self-oriented.

Other-oriented virtue signalling is driven by extrinsic reasons, with individuals seeking to improve the way others view them. 

This type of virtue signalling often involves individuals wanting to appear as good people in the eyes of others. 

On the other hand, self-oriented virtue signalling is driven by intrinsic reasons, with individuals seeking to improve their own self-perception. They engage in virtue signalling to prove to themselves that they are good people.

It's important to note that not all virtue signalling is disingenuous or lacking in meaningful impact. 

There are situations where individuals genuinely believe in what they are saying or doing, even if their main motivation is to signal their virtue to others. 

Additionally, some individuals may engage in virtue signalling despite not genuinely believing in their actions because they know that creating a costly signal can increase the perceived reliability of their virtue signalling.

While virtue signalling may seem harmless on the surface, it has broader implications for society. One significant consequence is the perpetuation of a value-action gap, where individuals express their moral values without taking meaningful action to address the issues at hand. This gap between words and actions can hinder progress and prevent genuine positive change from occurring.

As you may have already concluded, virtue signalling can in turn lead to the oversimplification of complex social issues. 

By framing problems as originating solely from individual prejudices rather than structural issues, virtue signallers avoid addressing the underlying systemic problems. This can result in a lack of meaningful progress and a failure to address the root causes of societal issues.

Furthermore, virtue signalling can create hierarchies of civilization versus backwardness, with certain issues being given more attention and funding based on their perceived alignment with progressive values. This can lead to the instrumentalization of certain issues, as they are presented as questions of tolerance and humanity rather than deep-seated structural problems.

The term 'virtue signalling' has not escaped criticism.

While the concept itself is generally accepted, the misuse and misapplication of the term have led to valid concerns. Critics argue that the term is often misused and applied in situations where it is not relevant. 

Accusing someone of virtue signalling without properly addressing the issues associated with their behavior can hinder meaningful discourse and dismiss valid arguments.

Additionally, virtue signalling is sometimes used as a form of hypocritical virtue signalling in itself. Those who accuse others of virtue signalling may do so to paint themselves in a positive light or to dismiss opposing views without engaging in substantive discussion. 

This further exacerbates the problem of disingenuous discourse and prevents genuine progress from being made.

Now that we have explored virtue signalling from various angles, it is essential to unveil the hidden motives that drive this behavior. 

While virtue signalling may present itself as a selfless act, it often serves personal interests and reinforces existing power dynamics. By showcasing moral superiority, individuals can elevate their social status and gain recognition as 'progressive' or 'enlightened' individuals.

Virtue signalling also allows individuals to align themselves with prevailing ideologies and cultural norms. 

By adopting the language and values associated with virtue signalling, individuals can gain acceptance and validation from their social circles. This validation reinforces their sense of belonging to a refined social class, further perpetuating the cycle of moral grandstanding.

Moreover, virtue signalling can be a form of self-colonization, particularly in semi-peripheral regions. These regions, historically positioned as incidental background settings to a supposedly universal world history, have internalized the values and hierarchies of colonizing powers. 

They strive to 'catch up' with the economic and cultural centers, leading to self-colonizing narratives that either embrace Westernization or nativism. 

Virtue signalling, in this context, becomes a means to align with the progressive agendas of economic core countries, further reinforcing the cultural supremacism of these regions.

The context in which virtue signalling occurs plays a crucial role in shaping its manifestations. 

In the semi-periphery, virtue signalling takes on unique characteristics influenced by historical and cultural specificities. The rhetoric and actions of virtue signallers in these regions often reflect a disconnect from local issues and a reliance on global activist toolkits that prioritize Western values and agendas.

This disconnect from the local context can hinder meaningful engagement with societal challenges and perpetuate dichotomies between progressivism and isolationist nationalism. 

The uncritical adoption of Western universalism as the solution to societal issues further marginalizes the semi-periphery and fails to address the structural problems unique to these regions.

Beyond the individual motivations and cultural dynamics, virtue signalling has broader consequences for society. 

By Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

It can reinforce the value-action gap, hinder genuine progress, and perpetuate oversimplified narratives of complex social issues. Moreover, the instrumentalization of certain issues for virtue signalling purposes can divert attention and resources away from addressing the root causes of societal problems.

The criticism surrounding virtue signalling should not be dismissed entirely. While the term is sometimes misused, it also serves as a reminder to engage in meaningful discourse, address the issues at hand, and take genuine action to effect positive change. 

By recognizing the hidden motives behind virtue signalling, we can strive for authenticity, empathy, and a deeper understanding of the complex social dynamics at play.

As we navigate the complexities of virtue signalling, it is essential to move forward with authenticity and introspection. 

Rather than engaging in performative acts of moral grandstanding, we should strive for genuine empathy, humility, and a willingness to listen to diverse perspectives. 

By recognizing the structural issues that underlie societal problems and taking meaningful action to address them, we can create a more inclusive and equitable world.

It is crucial to remember that virtue signalling is not inherently negative. It can serve as a catalyst for positive change when driven by genuine beliefs and a commitment to meaningful action. 

By critically examining our own motives and engaging in authentic discourse, we can dismantle the facade of virtue signalling and work towards a more just and compassionate society.


Ultimately, virtue signalling is a complex phenomenon with deep-rooted motivations and far-reaching implications. 

By peeling back the layers of performative moral grandstanding, we can uncover the hidden dynamics at play and strive for authenticity in our actions and interactions. 

Let us move forward with empathy, humility, and a commitment to genuine progress, leaving behind the facade of virtue signalling in favor of meaningful engagement and positive change.



About the Creator

Burn Book

Die-hard cynic and sarcasm aficionado. Home of long form shower thoughts and unmedicated psychosis. Enjoy.

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