‘Virtue signaling’ is a term you typically hear brandished at leftists, accusing them of empty displays of support for a cause without doing anything meaningful. It means they only care about appearances, not actual change. I’m a leftist and I love to show my support for my causes. My preferred venue is in the streets, but I will post things online (like these articles) too. While I wholeheartedly believe in my causes — I do nothing just for show — I worry I’m not actually making the necessary changes in my own life that my beliefs require. Perhaps I do a little more virtue signaling than I care to admit.
I worry about virtue signaling in two ways. I worry that many of us think showing support online or in other ways is enough. Making change in the world comes down to each of us making changes in our lives. And, I worry we are more interested in sharing the beliefs of our group than in building coalitions across groups that can achieve lasting change.
Although the term is used mostly to discredit people, I actually want my people to call me out on virtue signaling when I do it. Sometimes I need my feet held to the fire. We need to talk with our allies about what we are ready to do to support our chosen causes. Our current way of life may not be compatible with the future we say we want.
Take racial equality for example. How many who support it are ready to move into a neighborhood that is predominantly of a different race? The exact same house in a Black neighborhood is worth $46,000 less in the U.S. because the larger population of white homebuyers doesn’t want to move there. This preference, whether conscious or not, prevents Black communities from participating in the increase in home values that comprise most of the average American’s wealth. No amount of posting on social media will change this.
Similarly, are we ready to make the difficult decisions about what we have to do for the environment? How many of us are ready to change our diets, cut back on flights, reduce our water and energy use to what will be sustainable in the future? When I took a flight to Australia, a friend told me it was the equivalent of eating 4,000 Big Macs. I didn’t want to admit it then, but I needed to hear that. Holding our friends accountable is a good thing, and we can do it with love and kindness.
I’m worried too that we are more concerned with expressing allegiance to our chosen side - conservative, liberal, whatever - than coming together to work towards progress. Whether our side is “right” or “wrong” matters far less than taking concrete steps that we know are important. Imagine if we spent as much time trying to work with people as we do arguing with them?
I’m guilty of pushing my side too strongly on people who disagree, and it always leaves me feeling dissatisfied. I used to think I wasn’t convincing enough, but the problem is that I’m trying to convince in the first place. I feel totally different when I approach a conversation with curiosity, asking things like “What do you think we should do about poverty?” I usually find places of agreement and leave the conversation feeling more connected and inspired.
I don’t know how to use social media in this way (not my strong suit), but I think this curiosity is what’s missing. When we are curious, we aren’t already attached to our group’s position. We are open to new ideas and new connections. These are the ingredients for invention, innovation, progress. With a little more curiosity, and holding ourselves and each other accountable, we can start to bring that change to life.
Let me end by emphasizing that we absolutely should express our support for our causes, in every way. We should be out there wearing shirts emblazoned with the right message, posting it everywhere and joyfully showing our support publicly. At the same time, we should be asking ourselves, and each other, what we actually need to do differently to back up our beliefs. And we should be curious about what others groups think should be done, so we can find ways to work together. This way our words won’t remain mere words, but become real change.