Oxford (Google search) defines ‘virtue-signalling’ as: The public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness or one’s position on a particular issue. Cambridge simplifies it further: An attempt to show other people that you are a good person.
After 70 years of worldwide self-esteem movement that originated in post WWII Europe and USA, what was already shallow, has surpassed its own shallowness and is now floating up through the ‘act of displaying’. Flash goodness/virtue to others on a regular basis and feel privileged – is the unsaid message. In this age of social media, that boils down to joining a trending hashtags, or changing the frame of your profile picture to resonate the latest fad; and if you happen to be one among the many millions in that club, you can literally hear your dopamine surge with each of those Facebook ‘likes’.
Stephen Covey put this succinctly many decades ago while explaining what he called Personality Tactics. Personality Tactics is the act of putting up a show – a show to impress others. You don’t need to be genuine; just make your act convincing. Put on a tie, practice looking sincere or mouthing ‘power phrases’ – whichever works. [Suggested read: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People].
In essence, what first began by brushing the silent, serious, and sweaty stuff of character development under the carpet, now finds itself hinging on costless actions for social brownie points. So when the German football team makes a show of covering their mouth, the England team ‘takes the knee’, or our very own BCCI has this urge ‘to belong’ to the hipster club so it gets its cricket team to do the same, and when you see armbands of all colors adorning players of different teams, you have a fair idea of how decades of thriving in shallowness looks like. Hence, my question ‘do these people live what they say they stand for?’ gets silent ‘does it really matter?’ reply.
It is irrelevant whether you are genuine. The tremendous rate of acceptance of virtue-signalling suggests that people have taken to it like fish to water. For starters, it is easy. Putting up a hashtag doesn’t cost anything, neither does putting a frame to a profile picture. Then there is the factor of validation-driven dopamine. The underlying pull of postmodern liberalism lurks around that narcissistic corner of the mind that keeps whispering how awesome you are and how big an idiot anyone who disagrees with you is [suggested read: Frank Furedi’s books and essays]. And when social media trends present that chance to these people to demonstrate that same hipness, they jump in.
For the select few – ‘influencers’, as they are called these days – there is a lot of money to be made. Back when the self-esteem movement was catching steam, the preachers and the managers that sold the idea that ‘you are God’s gift to mankind’ made millions in the process. That trend continues. The big brands and transnational organizations, forever on the lookout for names and faces with some pull remain ever ready to use them to boost their volume. And even that is legit money. Under the current social-media-fever that grips the world, there is a lot of money in crowdfunding. The BLM co-founder and LGBT-rights queen, Patrice Cullors Khan owns a $6 million mansion, and a Indian journalist named Rana Ayyub, who is one of the cornerstones of an organized hate-campaign under the guise of liberalism, against the budding Indic nationalist thought, is being investigated for embezzling around INR 10-12 crores. These are the names that have gained some traction. There could be many more.
Even if we overlook my silent question ‘does it really matter?’, most of us do not know whether these sportsmen do it just for the money, or because they believe flashing is fundamental to societal progress. A lot of us just silently lament the complete extinction of apolitical spaces (sports, family, and friends) in the world. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when Qatar announced that they would not allow LGBTQ posturing. A sport without politics is an impossibility these days, but there was a faint hope of FIFA 2022 being that one-off case. Or so we thought.
Qatar compensated, by supplanting the Islamist preacher and ISIS-sympathizer Zakir Naik for preaching and converting hapless football tourists. They also clarified that they have specific issues only with LGBTQ posturing because the ideas behind that movement don’t concur with their religion. The teams were free to virtue-signal about most other things – BLM or Sanction-Russia, or whatever the latest trend is. The liberal world heaved a collective sigh of relief as players went back to kneeling down or waving the Palestinian flag. The odd girl, who thought of protesting against the hijab in solidarity with the Iranians that are suffering in the hands of Iranian law enforcement, was promptly taken off the stand (we haven’t heard of her since). Thus, in a repeat display of what is now known as coffee-table activism, BLM stayed. Palestine and anti-Zionism did too. Islamic proselytization joined hands in all its enthusiasm. What got rejected from the menu were Iranian women’s protests, drinking, and LGBTQ.
To be honest, there were certain pockets within the liberal fringe suffering from my-virtue-signal-is-better-than-yours syndrome that began raising points about migrant workers’ death, and Qatar’s bribing FIFA to host the World Cup, or how cruel it is to disallow smoking and drinking while watching matches. FIFA president Gianni Infantino tried to put a stop to it by flashing some more: “For what we have been doing for the last 3000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3000 years before giving moral lessons.” Probably the Johnny Hart quote “whoever has the gold makes the rule” would have been more real. In a world where there is no dearth of causes, it is the patron that decides what he fancies.
The issue with virtue-signalling is that truth escapes often, and it looks quite ugly then. Consider these two cases: Multiple FIFA winners Germany played like your local neighborhood amateurs and crashed out in the group stage. Their being sufficiently ‘woke’ earned them brownie points, but that wasn’t enough to move up the table (FIFA hasn’t yet reached the wag-the-dog stage. When it does, I am sure the best peacock will win). The other one is that of Michael Oliver and Antonio Miguel Lahoz – two referees, one from England and one from Spain – who tried their best to stamp two non-European nations out from contention.
All Lives Matter, sure. But hashtags on social media don’t usually hide the inherent racism in real-life behaviour. And for the millions of cogent minds over the world who can see through the scam, virtue-signallers continue remaining those posers at the shallow-end of the pool.
“All you need is a push”, as the Joker would say.
[Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.]
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.