Four Quick Thoughts on Virtue Signalling
1. Virtue signalling on social media is almost inevitable. I do it. If you’re on Twitter, I’d be willing to bet that you do, too. Much of this is due to the medium itself: an opinion-sharing platform in which actions don’t exist, nobody knows us outside of the views we express, a feedback loop of popularity is provided, and we write what we think specifically to be seen by others. Taken together, these things make us prone to write things in order to have our insights validated by our peers, so that people will think we are better people. Which is pretty much what virtue signalling is.
2. Virtue signalling on social media is often accidental, prompted by the combination of brevity and publicity in each medium. I can take myself as an example: when I tweet about the Bible, I communicate to my audience that I’ve been reading and thinking about the Bible (= virtue). When I tweet about a fascinating article I think people should read, I communicate that I’ve been reading interesting things that they (presumably) haven’t. When I speak out about racial injustice, or poverty, or politics, I imply that I am an engaged, empathetic, caring citizen. When I make good jokes, I imply that I’m witty and human as well. When I talk about my prayer life—probably the kind of thing it is hardest to do without performing acts of righteousness before men—I get kudos from those who think prayer is important (which, with my almost entirely Christian audience, is nearly everybody). When I write articles like this, I demonstrate how self-aware and thoughtful I am. Most of these are largely unintentional; although, given the ongoing fight with sin (and especially, in my case, with pride), more of them are done with mixed motives than I’d like to admit. But the point is: virtue signalling can be accidental, and it often is.
3. Virtue signalling is better than vice signalling. This is a silly point in some ways, but it is prompted by two observations. First, if you have ever encountered misogyny, anti-semitism, racism, threats of violence, white supremacy or the like online, you will know that there is plenty of vice signalling out there as well; even if you have objections to Black Lives Matter, I’m sure you can agree that it’s far, far better than saying Black Lives Don’t Matter. Second, it is worth acknowledging and appreciating the fact that our society, divided as it often is, still regards justice, tolerance, empathy, inclusion, care for the poor and so on as virtues. Many civilisations haven’t (and, as Nietzsche would warn us, it is very possible that after our Christian foundations have eroded a bit further, our civilisation [sic] won’t either). So yes, virtue signalling is irritating. But it is much better than the alternative.
4. The only person who can tell whether or not you are virtue signalling is ... you. I’ve hinted at this already, but it’s worth spelling out here: I could write the same tweet, or post, with two entirely different motives, and one would be motivated by pride, adulation and the praise of man, and the other would be entirely innocent of those things. I could highlight a specific example of racial oppression because a friend of mine was called the n-word in south London and I wanted to defend him, and do whatever I could to make that experience a tiny bit less likely in future; or I could highlight it because I wanted to make people think I am a bit more woke than I am. And here’s the difficulty: nobody reading that tweet would necessarily know which it was. The only person who would know is me. Which in turn prompts two points of application: one, we need to be careful not to assume the motives of others, especially when we are inclined to disagree with them, and two, we need to guard our own hearts, pray before posting, repent of sin regularly, and care more about the temptations to pride and man-pleasing than we do about the fleeting reassurance and endorphin bounce of being shared, retweeted or “thanked for speaking out.” We are called to put off the works of the flesh, even if—especially if!—they are common in our generation.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, in a hundred years time, historians of 21st century Christianity concluded that social media shaped our spirituality more than anything else. If so, it’s worth thinking carefully about all these things. Whether or not anyone notices.