Virtue signalling is the new political correctness.
According to the NYT, the term was coined a couple of years ago to reflect people loudly demonstrating their concern about a particular issue to prove how much they care. The equivalent of the Gospel Pharisee who prays very loudly and publicly to show how devout he is. They don’t care, they just want to be seen to care.
And certainly such people exist. Blogger Fred Clark calls some of them the anti-kitten burning coalition — people whose passionate sincerity is proof of their own virtue (a more recent example here). But much as political correctness has become a euphemism for “saying/doing something to the left of me that I don’t like” (“This action movie has a female hero! Political correctness!”) so virtue signalling has become a convenient tool for dismissing any sort of liberal position/protest/action — just virtue signalling (case in point). Like “social justice warrior” most of the people on the right who toss out “virtue signaling” as an insult aren’t just saying “you personally are not really virtuous,” they don’t think support for Planned Parenthood, or criticizing neo-Nazis, or worrying about climate change or supporting gay rights is virtuous, even if you’re sincere, even if you actively contribute to and work for the cause. Particularly if you don’t have a dog in the hunt — if you’re not poor or not gay, then you must be lying when you say you care about poor or gay people.
The funny thing is, when virtue signaling comes from their own side, lots of conservatives love it. Tennessee pro-lifer Scott DesJarlais has had multiple affairs, supported his ex-wife’s decision to get two abortions, pushed one of his girlfriends to get one, but he got re-elected. Some voters said they didn’t care about his personal life, just his strong conservative stances. More recently it turned out married legislator and supposedly staunch pro-lifer Tim Murphy had been pushing his mistress to get an abortion. If he hadn’t resigned, could he have won re-election? Maybe.
Of course it’s normal in politics to swallow a legislator’s flaws if he’s going to advance your cause — just look at the Republicans voting for Trump (ignore for the second that many supporters don’t think Trump’s white supremacist, sexist views are a flaw). But since the 1980s, many conservatives have proudly held themselves up as the voice of morality, the Moral Majority, the ones who really are holier than thou (or rather than us). Which is virtue signaling in itself (compare again, the praying Pharisee in the Gospels) but it also makes pragmatically picking candidates more sensitive: aren’t they supposed to support virtue and Godly behavior? So we wind up with pundits explaining that hypocritical conservatives explaining that politicians like Murphy and DesJarlais are still morally superior because they virtue signal — oh, wait, that’s liberals; with conservatives they’re paying tribute to virtue. Murphy acknowledged the moral path (no abortions!) with his words, so even if he didn’t live by them, he’s still superior to a pro-choicer like me. New Gingrich spews the right Christian/right-wing buzzwords so he supports traditional morality regardless that he’s a sleaze who’s divorced three women.
In short, like so many other things, virtue signalling is okay if you’re a Republican.
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