The virtues of virtue signalling

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There has been a lot of sneering lately about the pointlessness and hypocrisy of people “virtue signalling” on social media. To the cynics, this is the act of calling attention to your moral stances or publicly criticizing bad behavior in others.

The BBC has told their journalists to avoid the appearance of it. And some nasty voices on Twitter have accused activist footballer Marcus Rashford of being ‘nothing but a virtue signaller’, for his campaign to feed hungry British children.

But is it really a vice to virtue signal? And is it really pointless?

At first glance, probably: according to a recent study, 94 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of Democrats, and 85 percent of Independents said they would never change their view of an issue based on a Facebook post.

I’ve never seen a Facebook post which had a comment along the lines of: “You’ve made some excellent points. You’ve convinced me to change my mind about this contentious issue.” Have you?

So why do we bother?

Sometimes I think I’m the only damned person in the world willing to change my mind. 

Go ahead and virtue signal to me. I’m convincible. I swear. I just need evidence. Not memes.

Show me studies that indicate that societies with lots of guns have lower crime rates (using like for like statistics) and I will end my support for gun control.

Present me with data indicating how tax cuts for high-earners trickles down to help lift people out of poverty and I will embrace supply-side Reaganomics right here and right now.

And I swear, if you can show me a peer-reviewed article, based on double-blind trials concluding that vaccines cause autism, I’ll never get a flu jab again.

See, I can change my mind.

And you can change yours too. That’s why there is a whole industry out there trying to prevent you from reading primary sources and data, instead sending misinformation and targeted ads to your newsfeeds about these and other hot-button issues. Because they know that you might change your mind too – if you were given real facts.

Do you really think all this money is being spent on misinformation if nobody could ever be convinced of anything?

You’re being targeted for a reason.

One of the very first posts I did for this blog was about how “big data” uses your own social media feeds to brainwash you.  Sure, there are some issues where people’s views will be entirely immovable, but there’ll be others where millions of ads can be used to change thousands of minds -and sometimes that’s enough to swing an election.

You probably think you’re too savvy to be influenced by these clumsy attempts to influence you. Right? But nobody’s looking to turn far-left liberals into staunch conservatives. That’s not the game. Instead, they’re nibbling around the edges of people’s beliefs, looking for an opening. For example, maybe you’re someone who has heard that fracking is bad for the environment. But how do you feel about developing home-grown energy sources so we don’t have to get involved in Middle East conflicts? You support that, don’t you? And what about all the jobs that increasing our energy independence would create? Worded differently, clear-cut issues can become muddy – and that’s where big data does their wallowing.

Think about this… are all of your moral and political stances the exact same as they were fifteen years ago? Have you changed even a little bit on any issue at all? On LGBTQ+ rights? The war in Iraq? Legalizing drugs? If you have moved – even a little – where did that change come from? What exactly was it that changed your mind? Was it an article you read, an ad you saw? A meme? Do you remember the precise moment it happened? Probably not.

Society’s mores aren’t fixed, they shift over time and it’s regular people who create that movement. To pick one obvious example: there were no polls asking people for their opinions on same-sex marriage until the late 1980s. The idea of gay marriage was once so inconceivable, that nobody bothered even asking about it. Today, it’s the law of the land in virtually every western democracy.

Gallup poll on same sex marriage

All revolutions are impossible until they happen, then they become inevitable.

We are all part of these changes. Every time you post something online about politics, religion or morality, you are establishing a new normal. Every Tweet you write is a volley in a never-ending culture war. Your Instagram photos are tribal flags. Your YouTube videos and Tik Toks are propaganda films.

And they matter.

Because if you keep silent about global warming, human rights, poverty and social justice, it doesn’t just leave a void, it creates an opening. And there are many bad actors willing to fill that opening with misinformation, hatred and outright lies. Keep silent for too long and someone else will step up and try to roll back the clock to a time when black people were “coloured,” gay people were closeted and abortions were confined to back alleys.

The needle of public opinion – and public policy – can move in either direction, if we let it. Do you remember when it would have been a rarity to see an American walking down the street with an AR-15 casually slung over their back? Back in the early 1990s, not a single state had “open carry” laws, now there are 31. Can you recall a time, pre-Brexit, when Great Britain proudly thought of itself as a champion of free trade and European cooperation? It wasn’t that long ago. Things can change.

So go ahead signal your virtue. Signals matter. 

As I write this, the 2020 US election is just a few days away and my anxiety is high. I’ve already voted, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I want to do something more, anything. So I go online and I try to engage with people and I post about what’s going on in the world.

Yet every time I post about issues that matter, I can’t help but worry that – at worst – I’m shouting into a void and at best – I’m just preaching to a choir of my friends, most of whom already share my values, and my outrage at what is going on in the world.

But isn’t that what choirs are for: to bring people together?  To give them an opportunity to make their voices louder?

My wife often tells me that “90% of doing the right thing is just showing up.” I’ve always thought that there was wisdom in that. Someone should turn her saying into a meme. I would definitely like it on Facebook and Instagram, maybe I’d even retweet it. It’s an idea that deserves to be amplified and a signal that people should heed.

You can ignore me. You can skip past my online posts. You can disagree with me. You can call me a virtue signaller. And sure, maybe I’m never going to change anybody’s mind, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to show up.

 

 

 

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