“Virtue signaling”: The hypothetical horror, and when it’s real

by Penny Robo

Penny Robo

Memories came flooding when I heard the accusation against a certain piece of media that it was “virtue signaling” through its diversity. The show isn’t important, as almost anything will get accused of that when it features a cast that doesn’t conform to an 80/20 split of men to women or whites to people of color, etc., etc., but what was important was the sudden recollection I had of an acquaintance that fit their imaginary bill. He was an intelligent, honorable, gentle man, who nonetheless had an insurmountable need to be better.

Not better than he was, but better than others. And not better than the average, mind you, in case you got the idea in your head that his desire was simply a rejection of what was considered normal to be insufficiently just or anything like that… he had to be better than me, better than you, better than everyone. Being woke wasn’t a matter of challenging himself to make for an improved world, it was a contest that he was determined to win. He sought a form of ideological purity that made no concessions for situation or circumstance – ideology trumped survival in every case – and it was absolutely infuriating to try carrying on a conversation with him.

Imagine saying something as simple as “a common point of reference is necessary for two people to have a meaningful dialogue” being challenged. Two people needing to have some common ground to build a framework for a conversation is a pretty tame concept, I thought to myself. That they might have vastly different concepts of what is and isn’t moral isn’t as important to a debate about morality as that they both have a concept of morals, right? I thought so, but evidently it was quite imperialistic of me to assume that.

In a strange moment I became re-acquainted with the knowledge that these hypothetical people actually do exist. There are people who espouse progressive ideologies to win an ethical dick measurement contest. I got so used to seeing it from the other side (how many “pro-life” politicians have been discovered to have paid for a mistress’s abortion now?) that my awareness of the same discrepancies on my end of the spectrum slid to the wayside.

But I still cannot help but feel that there is a large gulf between the two ends of the spectrum, primarily in the response from their own and how public knowledge of failures to adhere to their stated ethics leads to ostracization on one side yet denials and defense on the other.

If my virtue signaling friend had been found out as not living up to his morals he would slink away in shame and not dare return unless he had actually managed to improve himself (or had convinced others that he had) while if he was on the right instead, and had violated those traditional family values he screeched about, those transgressions would be written off as youthful recklessness or momentary lapses in character or denied any measure of validity, and the behavior would simply be excused. Repercussion or accountability would be left on the side of the road.

Ideological purity taken to an extreme is troubling, to say the least. That someone needs to be held to an unyielding standard for which there are no allowances or forgiveness is totally unsustainable. It is our own sickness, and an area in which we need to improve. It is unfortunate that we’ve veered so close to this line, but the good news is that we can easily step away from it. Our crime is that of unreasonable strictness… those rules of conduct can be relaxed to permit mistakes, to permit learning, to permit redemption. But on the other end, where no behavior can be held to account, there’s nowhere to go. Everyone over there has given their permission for such things to occur on the condition that such tacit support will be rewarded. And you cannot back away from such a position without acknowledging failures that will poison the well.

The party of tolerance can survive admitting they’ve been overzealous in purging members. The party of superior morality can’t survive admitting they’ve been openly supporting evil to increase their influence.

Support Gender Analysis on Patreon

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *