“Virtue signaling” is a right-wing smear. When someone checks to make sure they’re using a person’s preferred pronouns, when someone declines a plastic straw in a restaurant,* when someone wears a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt, that’s — according to the right wing — virtue signaling. The right uses that term to imply that the concern behind those sorts of actions is fake. You don’t really want to address global warming. Your Prius is just a form of “virtue signaling.” This sneer is similar to the right-wing’s use of “political correctness” and “woke.” (Of course, the right engages in lots of performative/identity behaviors. Open carrying, MAGA hats, driving big trucks . . . name your favorites in comments.)
Sadly, lately, some on the left have begun to use “virtue signaling” in an insulting way, as well. I recently read a post by a left-wing writer and activist who snarled that people who intend to continue to wear face masks are just “virtue signaling.” Not only do I disagree with her point, but I also think it’s a mistake for us to adopt this right-wing smear.
You know, even if the only thing someone does for a given cause is to “virtue signal,” there’s nothing wrong with that. Sending the message that, of course we believe that “black lives matter” — that’s a good thing. That’s true even if all you do is wear a t-shirt and you don’t participate in marches or write letters to your local officials. Eating responsibly-sourced food is a good thing. That’s true even if all you do is read labels and buy accordingly and you never grow your own vegetables or teach permaculture classes. Sure, we hope that people will add some activist oomph to their “virtue signaling,” but there are limits to what any of us can do. I may not have time left over from getting out the vote and working for passage of the ERA to do much for unhoused people, but that’s no reason why I shouldn’t use the term they prefer.
We shouldn’t dismiss the impact that signals can have on the wider society. If people make a point of bringing their own reusable container to conferences instead of using lots of disposable cups, it encourages others to do the same. Over time, not using disposable cups becomes the norm. A neighborhood with lots of yard signs that say “All Are Welcome Here” sends a message about what kind of behaviors are expected. Doing the right thing because it’s cool is still doing the right thing. And some people may go on from putting a bumper sticker on their car to taking even more actions.
Finally, there’s nothing for us to gain in looking down on virtue. The right wing wants to make it shameful to be politically correct or to signal virtue so that their bad behavior is more acceptable. We shouldn’t adopt their terms or play on their field.
*Obviously, some people need straws and straws should be available for those people.