I had somewhat decided to end my series on Social Justice Warriors with the last installment on the view of history used by social justice warriors. In a sense, I thought that I’d come full circle as I had covered both the methodology and ideology quite adequately, and once the history was covered to demonstrate how poor methodology applied to cherry picked examples are the engine of the movement, I could consider the series complete. However, then Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted out a question about virtue signalling, and I realized that this was a major gap in my series. Everyone engages in signalling, from the man who through posture and composure signals his status, to the woman who through her painted face and hourglass figure signal health and fertility.
However, the concept of signalling one’s virtue, is a relative new concept, first identified among the religious, where piety was the virtue most signaled, however much of human verbal and non-verbal communication is signalling on some level. Ranging from choices one makes in grooming, clothing, the manner in which one writes or speaks and many others. However, this differs somewhat from the signalling of virtue, as the former are honest signals, the latter may be argued to be dishonest signals.
Social Justice Warriors without virtue signalling are as hunters without weapons or a bank without money, it simply does not work. Virtue signaling to this community is not only a primary means of communicating status, and one’s allegiance to the group, it is also the means by which enemies are designated and then attacked. It forms the core of means, where I have previously covered motive and methodology. Virtue signalling has been a central element of many groups, from religious communes to atheist dictatorships, from Europe to the Americas and Africa, it is a central part of our communication as a species.
What is Signalling?
The term virtue signalling was first used in signalling theory, a body of theoretical work that explores communications between individuals both within a species and across species. A central aspect here was sexual signalling, and the question of whether a signaler should provide honest or dishonest sexual signals to influence mate selection. For instance, those female primates who do not have concealed ovulation signal males that they are in heat through visual sexual signalling. The type of sexual signals that are effective in mating, such as the large tails of male peacocks lead to selection pressures, wherein the peacocks with the best genetics for large tails achieve above average mating success, and thus become better at sexual signalling via their tails.
In a more abstract view, signalling could be said to be a means by which individuals share information relating to social position within a group or between groups. In history the King would be the most well dressed and wear a large crown, which would signal his high status through his style of dress. Each signalling process has sender(s) and receiver(s), and in biology, the signals are traits that have evolved because they change the behavior of the receiver in a way that creates a benefit for the signaler. A signal that only benefits the receiver is called a cue, for instance a monkey warning all the other monkeys that a predator is approaching. This draws attention to the signaler and creates a risk for them, but it benefits all the receivers.
Honest and dishonest signalling come from the fact that there are conflicts of interests in most signal systems. A high volume of dishonest signals can lead to the collapse of the signalling system. An example of this from popular culture is the story of the boy who cried wolf, the villagers at first believed in his signal, however as his false signals were repeated, they stopped doing so. As a higher volume of dishonest signals enter the signalling system the value of signals decrease, and as a result the group fitness declines. For instance in a species where each individual signals the detection of a predator, a high volume of dishonest signals may lead to members of the species not responding to the signals over time and thus, the group becomes less able to protect itself from predators.
Richard Dawkins applied selfish gene theory to signalling systems and argued that signalling was actually an arms race, where the signalers evolved to become better at manipulating receivers and receivers in turn evolved to become more resistant to manipulation. One could draw a parallel to marketing where the marketers are in an arms race with their target demographic, who is steadily becoming more cynical and critical of advertising.
What is Virtue
Virtue from latin “Virtus” and Greek “Arete” are representations of moral excellence. In general a virtue is a trait or quality that is considered morally good and therefore is valued as a foundation of good moral being. History has a a range of examples of virtue from the Platonic virtues of temperance, prudence, courage and justice. The Roman virtues that included among others mercy, dignity, discipline and frugality. Christian virtues that have included faith, hope and love. An interesting example is the Aristotlean virtues from “Nicomachean Ethics” where Aristotle defined virtue as a point between deficiency and excess of a trait. The antonym of a virtue is a vice, and are represented by such concepts as the seven deadly sins within Catholicism.
I’ve spoken of Deontological and Consequentialist ethics on this blog before in multiple essays, but I’ve never touched on virtue ethics. While deonotological ethics decide whether an act or trait is good or evil through the intent behind the act, and consequentialist ethics determines the same through the outcome of the act, virtue ethics are focused on being, rather than doing. Meaning, what a person is, rather than what that person does. Morality thus comes from the identity of the individual rather than being a result of the actions of the individual. The views on morality are a major seed of discord between social justice warriors and others. One could argue that in consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics, virtue is determined by adherence to the rules of the system, whereas in virtue ethics, desirable characteristics (virtues) are identified and a person’s status as virtuous depends on to what extent they embody those virtues.
The major difference between classical philosophical views such as those of Aristotle and Plato on virtue ethics and those of social justice warriors, is that unlike the former, the latter adds a second dimension. While their view on ethics is based in the embodiment of (to them) certain virtuous traits, the factor of historical oppression of the group(s) this person is seen as belonging to is a primary factor that adds or detracts from that person’s virtue.
What is Virtue Signalling
From the introduction and the outline of virtue ethics, one can now arrive at an understanding that “virtue signalling” is a way of transmitting the virtues and degrees of those virtues a person holds to a group or multiple groups to which they belong. The term was first used to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue, particularly piety among those who are religious. Examples of such behaviors could be argued to include adherence to fasting, circumcision, participation in various other rituals, and public condemnation of what is within the framework of the religious doctrine displays of lacking virtue.
An argument put forth is that virtue signalling is a form of dishonest social signal wherein one seeks to establish that one is virtuous through deeds that have little meaning. For instance, instead of donating money to ALS instead of doing the ice bucket challenge, people would merely dump a bucket on their head, and not donate to support the cause. Perhaps the first instance that I remember was the Kony 2012 campaign to elicit action against Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony, that was widely shared and supported on social media, and the media in general, yet was one of the first examples of hashtag “slactivism“. The mere act of sharing and/or liking a hashtag was enough to make people feel as if they had contributed, and appear as virtuous to their peer-group.
In essence, the person signals that they are a holder of virtuous behaviors, in order to increase their in-group status, or secure entry into a group. Within social justice circles for instance, it is perfectly fine to be a racist according to the definition of the word:
A person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another. Oxford Dictionary
So long as one is the correct type of racist, racism is in of it self not a negative trait, however prejudice against the wrong groups is. This is often justified based in “racism is prejudice plus institutional power” or some variation thereof, which is interesting considering the grounding of social justice philosophy in post-modernism that argues that there is no such thing as reality, just subjective interpretations of reality. Therefore, any perception of racist institutional power would merely be a subjective view of reality, and thus, invalid.
The Consequences of Virtue Signalling
One could ask what point is there to a discussion of the consequences of virtue signalling, when it is largely a system with little action behind it. However, as it has been observed in recent years, virtue signalers are engaged in an arms race of sorts, akin to that of male peacocks. Male peacocks grow steadily larger tails in order to achieve mating success, those who grow the largest tails experience the most success. In the same manner, those who exist within virtue signaling echo chambers are slowly moving into the real world. What started as hashtag activism, and changing profile pictures on social media accounts, moved on into real world protests, that are now becoming riots.
As the jungle of signals is becoming increasingly hard to penetrate for the average member, the means by which to increase group status and communicate become increasingly extreme. What started with a twitter flame war, transitions into opinion articles in the mainstream media, which transition into calls for action, which transition into action.
My reasoning behind referring to virtue signalling as dishonest signals, is that they can only be viewed in two ways, a signal to influence the receivers into granting higher social status within the group to the sender. In which case, such status is granted based on beliefs held, not action. They can alternatively be sent as a warning signal to ward off those who hold the wrong virtues and warn others in the group of such people, in which case the overwhelming volume of signals threaten to undermine the system itself.
A second consequence is in some ways a negative one, which is the reaction to people who are perceived as lacking the desired virtues. For instance, the Rotherham case was an example of politicians and law-enforcement, worrying about being called racist, and thus lacking the virtue of “anti-racist” due to concerns about losing their jobs or standing within their community. The consequences of lacking in virtues have always been quite substantial in communities that are centered on this type of ethics, shunning among the Amish, being cast out by the Puritans or punished by the inquisition, a lack of virtue often leads to exclusion at best or death at worst. Considering this, here is no wonder that people attempt at their hardest to be perceived as virtuous among their group.
Summary and Conclusions
The veneration of virtues is a good thing provided that virtues and therefore also vices are the correct ones, in that virtues are positive traits that increase fitness and vices are those traits that decrease fitness. For instance, courage in the face of fear, one of Aristotle’s virtues, would make people face their own fears in defense of the group, and themselves. It would also make them prone to challenge their own limitations, and thus it would increase group fitness. If one defines the virtue as “anti-sexism” and the vice as “sexism” then one is defining the virtue in opposition, meaning that in order to demonstrate virtue, one must have a sexist to demonstrate it towards, thus sexism must exist in order to demonstrate anti-sexism. One cannot demonstrate an asserted cure, without the illness. Had one instead of “anti-sexism” used “egalitarianism” and instead of “sexism” used “anti-egalitarianism“, then one can work to further egalitarianism without requiring an antagonist.
Every good story must have a protagonist and an antagonist, without a solid antagonist the story becomes dull, so when one is constructing a narrative it’s of paramount importance to construct a believable and apparently all-powerful antagonist. After all, if we know the protagonist could easily defeat the antagonist, then there is no suspense. If one does not establish a story of how the protagonist has been victimized by the antagonist, then how does one know who is the good guy? Thus, the protagonist is forged by being victimized, and the role of antagonist is made through his or her creation of victims.
The protagonist embodies all our virtues, the antagonist all our vices. The anti-hero, is the protagonist who suffers from human vices, the tragic antagonist the one who suffers from corrupted virtue. After the creation of these characters have been completed, the group then cast their lot and seek to signal their allegiance to the protagonist or antagonist depending the group to which they belong. To draw a parallel to my Gendernomics series, a beta male seeks to demonstrate his mating value through signalling his rejection of vices, and by negative his allegiance to perceived social virtues in regards to relationships. For instance by rejecting “players“, masculine behavior and acceptance of the female perspective on relationships.
In the same manner a social justice warrior seeks to signal their allegiance to the virtues of their ideology by means of their opposition to what are perceived as vices. In summary, one demonstrates embodiment of virtues through antagonism of those perceived as embodying vices. Within the community status is granted by degree of antagonism, and fervent demonstration of allegiance to the virtues. I’m reminded of East German Stasis tactics, where one demonstrated allegiance to the totalitarian regime through reporting as many people as possible to the secret police, in doing so one both demonstrated one’s loyalty to the regime, and one’s rejection of the opposition to the regime.
I recently made an appearance on the Mark Baxter Podcast discussing among other things social justice warriors, feminism and the red pill. You can find the podcast on his site RealMarkBaxter.com