Like many others who donate a fair amount of their time to understanding the political world we live in, I have seen my fair share of virtue signalling. But what exactly is virtue signalling? Anton Lavey would’ve probably referred to it as “wearing a good guy badge.” From my own experience, virtue-signallers adopt a holier than thou attitude, and their entire existence seems to be motivated by performing, and conforming, to extreme politically-correct activities. By pointing out the supposed moral imperfection of your perceived “enemies”, you appear to be a more progressive and compassionate person.
But could there be something more sinister at hand?
According to a recent study in the American Psychological Association, individuals who exhibit signs of psychopathy are more likely to engage in virtuous victimhood behaviour. By exaggerating or lying about their personal victimhood, psychopaths were shown to be more likely to exploit the innate human tendency to help those who are suffering. Part of the research involved focusing on those that make a public scene of their suffering, labelling themselves as victims and demanding compensation for their “pain” so as to exploit guilt-ridden people.
Lying about victimhood for self-gain and virtue-signalling to extract wealth and sympathy from others? I feel we’ve been here before: there have been several high-profile cases of individuals in the United States who have claimed to be the victim of a hate crime, only for that claim to be investigated and later discovered to be false. It is known as a “fake hate crime”.
According to FBI data, hate-crimes in the US reached a 16-year high in 2018, when 7,120 were reported. But are these all genuine? In his book, Hate Crime Hoax, Wilfred Reilly, a Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, identified over four hundred hate-crime hoaxes. He concluded that fewer than 1 in 3 of 346 hate-crime allegations are genuine. It is a small sample size, and we shouldn’t detract from the pain caused by those cases which are genuine, but the sheer number of fake claims is remarkable.
People have been able to stage fake hate-crimes to elicit sympathy and support for financial gain. Edawn Coughman a former NFL player, was accused last year of concocting a premeditated plan to vandalise his own property, file an insurance claim citing a hate crime in order to collect a large financial pay out.
The Atlanta police charge that Coughman daubed his own property with racial slurs, swastikas and a “MAGA” sign. He was later arrested for what was described as “a premeditated plan to damage his own property” by the police, although Coughman denies that he carried out the vandalism. The local authorities believe that they have damning evidence to support their claim. But his attorney has said that he is still “presumed innocent like anyone else who is accused of a crime”. We will have to await the result of the trial…
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Given that structure of the human mind has evolved to feel distress when faced with signs of suffering, it is unsurprising that people will feel inclined to help potential or perceived victims of injustice. But this can have serious negative effects. As the report by the American Psychological Association states:
“…the downside of this proclivity is that it can also lead people to be easily persuaded that all victim signals are accurate signals, particularly when they perceive the alleged victim as being a ‘good person.’ When this occurs, well-meaning people might allocate their material and social resources to those who are neither victims not virtuous. Which necessarily diverts resources from those who are legitimately in need.”
In the “Me Too” era, when it comes to victimhood, we have seen how false accusations, driven by political expediency can ensnare totally innocent people and completely ruin their reputation. I refer you to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
This is not just limited to psychopaths, however. Narcissists provide another focus for the study. Due to their self-aggrandising worldview, narcissists also engage in virtue-signalling behaviour. Narcissists manipulate public opinion by faking concern for causes and – in our age – they often do so by adopting a publicly-accepted, politically correct viewpoint. Privately, away from the public eye, these people tend to do nothing.
Virtue signalling isn’t virtuous – it requires no effort, hard work or self-sacrifice. If people spend their time broadcasting emphatically how right on and politically good they are, there’s a very good chance they are not. Actions speak louder than words.
This is not restricted to a particular political ideology, of course. But at the moment this kind of behaviour is predominantly adopted by the left. Whilst it would be wrong and naive to claim that it doesn’t happen on the right, it is far less common. A 2014 report by the Philanthropy Chronicle found that poorer Conservatives are less likely to virtue-signal about making charitable donations than wealthy Democrats. And a 2018 study in the journal environmental psychology found that people who were sceptical about climate change are also those who are most likely to be eco-friendly. People more concerned about it were less likely to buy green products and recycle.
A key battleground for the virtue-signallers is social media and, more precisely, Twitter, where outrage mobs pile on fellow users for daring to engage in wrong-think. In practice, this really means any opinion which deviates from the politically correct “right-on” opinion. Through a process that has become known as “offence archaeology”, twitter mobs unearth, old, outdated and out of context tweets sent by users years ago and then publicly shame them. This behaviour gave birth to the scourge that is cancel culture, which in turn has led to the firing of prominent academics and journalists for simply daring to hold a different opinion to their accusers.
The purpose of virtue-signalling is to incentivise others to recapitulate verbatim far-left platitudes and poorly thought out arguments with which to create vast echo-chambers. As such, virtue-signalling has become a substitute for legitimate rational debate and thinking. Free from any challenge to their views, it provides those who take part in it to inhabit a comfortable ersatz reality. Amplified by collectivised mob outrage it is nothing but mindless groupthink. Challenge at your peril. But challenge it, we must.