In this week’s House of Lords debate about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, Nigel Lawson (Nigella’s dad, Thatcher’s Chancellor) employed a term often used by alt-right trolls incensed by decent people who show compassion or empathy: ‘virtue signaling’.
The term ‘virtue signaling’ is generally used as a lazy debate tactic to attack positions that the person using the term doesn’t like. For example, in the days when former Breitbart hack Milo Yiannopoulos was still allowed on Twitter he might say something atrocious and, when pulled up on it, his followers would use this most pitiful of insults to attack Milo’s critic.
In the House of Lords debate on Wednesday, which led to a massive defeat of the government, Eurosceptic Tory Lord Lawson got down with the 4Chan kids and used the term as coherently as they do. In relation to the Lords amendment designed to protect those who have built lives in the UK, he said: “basically it is virtue signaling, which is all the rage nowadays.”
Using words like ‘virtue’ and ‘liberal’ as derogatory terms is certainly all the rage nowadays, and “rage” is a key word. The UK referendum on membership of the EU, along with Trump’s election campaign, brought a lot of poisonous views and people out from under rocks. These events made them think it’s acceptable to spit venom in every direction.
Given that Trumpism is likely to pass as quickly as wind, and rational voices should steer us to a Brexit-lite deal, we might one day thank Donny and his unglamorous cheerleader Nigel Farage for charming these snakes from under rocks. At least we can more easily keep an eye on the most poisonous, including the far-right extremists.
As for the rest, the keyboard warriors who hang around behind bullies like Milo and agitators like Tommy Robinson, these are more like slow worms pretending to be cobras. They try to copy their idols, and Tory has-beens like Lawson will jump on the bandwagon to get included in the odd sub-headline, and this is fine. If they want to attack decency by calling people who have it ‘virtue signalers’ then we can just point out that they are poison signaling.
When alt-right ‘heroes’ have slithered off into obscurity, their followers can explain to their children, grandchildren and potential employers why they think human decency is such a bad thing.
In this fact-hating, expert-loathing era, it seems unlikely that many who poison signal by chucking the term ‘virtue signaling’ at anyone who expresses decency would have researched the history of the term. The Spectator columnist James Bartholomew used the term in 2015, after many years of it being used by more scholarly authors. He has been beside himself with glee each time others in his right-wing echo chamber have used it but he – amazingly, considering he appears to be counting how often it is used – seems ignorant of the term’s origin.
The term doesn’t come from right-wing commentators at all but from the rather more restrained and thoughtful discipline of evolutionary biology, where it relates to honest communication between organisms. A classic example is the beauty of a peacock’s tail, which is used to signal fitness to reproduce. It is an honest signal, as magnificent tail feathers in a peacock is indicative of good health. Applied to anthropology, activities that take time, discomfort and resources and express allegiance to the community, such as rituals, are properly (in a non-derogatory way) called ‘virtue signaling’.
The first non-specialist outlet I know to use the concept was the LessWrong blog. In a 2009 article entitled Cynical About Cynicism, Eliezer Yudkowsky stated: “I’m especially on guard against cynicism because it seems to be a standard corruption of rationality in particular. If many people are optimists, then true rationalists will occasionally have to say things that sound pessimistic by contrast. If people are trying to signal virtue through their beliefs, then a rationalist may have to advocate contrasting beliefs that don’t signal virtue.”
The term ‘virtue signaling’ was used on the same blog in 2013, this time in a discussion about different types of conservatives. In neither of the examples I have seen on that blog was it used to attack those who oppose racism, misogyny, homophobia or any other expressions of hate and bigotry. The blog is actually about rationality, and therefore it is pretty damn ironic that the term is now used routinely by frothing hard-right ranters who are as likely to research its origins as read this article to the bottom.
This article was originally published at the Huffington Post.