Virtue signalling in a general sense refers to any kind of signal, true or false, that someone or something has some good qualities. However, the term is often used more narrowly, in a derogatory sense that refers to someone who signals support for a (politically correct) view in order to gain personally from this, rather than due to having a strong, genuine belief.
The term tend to more rarely be applied to expressing support for politically incorrect views, since expressing support for such views is not seen as a politically correct virtue, tends to be harmful rather than beneficial for the individual expressing such views, and consequently expressing support for such views tends to be due to genuine beliefs.
Typically, the virtue signalling is seen as costing little and having large potential advantages for the signalling individual personally. However, the critics using the term often argue that the signalling may have negative effects for others and/or society in general, such as by contributing to harmful policies being implemented.
Examples of “virtue signalling” may include making a politically correct statement, sending politically corrects tweets, signing politically correct online petitions, or wearing a physical sign expressing support for a politically correct cause. It may also be involved in the Bradley effect, voters telling pollsters that they will vote more politically correct than they then actually do.
A particularly problematic variant is when influential individuals, such as politicians, as a form of virtue signalling support politically correct policies such as mass immigration, which may have a positive effect for the politicians personally, but that may have devastating effects for a society in general.
Virtue signaling one explanation for expressed White guilt by Whites. Such Whites actually feel little or no guilt, but publicly express such views as a form of virtue signaling. In effect, they claim that Whites in general are bad, but that they personally are virtuous exceptions due to their condemning of other Whites.
A purity spiral is a related concept, where views and actions become increasingly extreme, possibly in part because of virtue signalling, when those signalling compete with one another and try to appear as the most virtuous by sending increasingly extreme signals. This may include demands for and actions causing censorship and other forms of repression of those stating less extreme views, causing increasingly “pure” and extreme stated views and actions.
Virtue signalling is the public expression of a perceived moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating one’s own self-perceived good character.
According to The Guardian, the term has been used since at least 2004 and appeared in religious academic works in 2011 and 2010. However, an earlier, indirect usage, in which the meaning is nevertheless clear, may be found in David Foster Wallace‘s essay “Tense Present,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 2001: “PCE [Politically Correct English] functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker …”
According to an article in The Spectator in 2015, British journalist James Bartholomew is often credited with originating the term. Bartholomew claimed credit for its creation in later articles. Merriam-Webster editor Emily Brewster describes virtue signalling as an academic-sounding counterpart to the term humblebrag, a term coined by Harris Wittels in 2010.
Psychologists Jillian Jordan and David Rand argued that virtue signalling is separable from genuine outrage towards a particular belief, but that in most cases, individuals who are virtue signalling are, in fact, simultaneously experiencing genuine outrage. Linguist David Shariatmadari argued in The Guardian that the very act of accusing someone of virtue signalling is an act of virtue signalling in itself and that its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword. The Conversation‘s Karen Stollznow said that the term is often used as “a sneering insult by those on the right against progressives to dismiss their statements.” Zoe Williams, also writing for The Guardian, suggested the phrase was the “sequel insult to champagne socialist“.
Virtue signalling may incorporate some or all elements found in political correctness, self-righteousness, and moral superiority. Bartholomew’s original article describes virtue signalling as a public act with minimal associated cost intended to inform others of one’s socially acceptable alignment on an issue.
Angela Nagle, in her book Kill All Normies, described the internet reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video as “what we might now call ‘virtue signaling'”, and that “the usual cycles of public displays of outrage online began as expected with inevitable competitive virtue signaling” in the aftermath of the killing of Harambe. B. D. McClay wrote in The Hedgehog Review that signalling particularly flourished in online communities. It was unavoidable in digital interactions because they lacked the qualities of offline life, such as spontaneity. When one filled out a list of one’s favourite books for Facebook, one was usually aware of what that list said about oneself.
Blackout Tuesday, a collective action that was ostensibly intended to combat racism and police brutality that was carried out on June 2, 2020, mainly by businesses and celebrities through social media in response to the killings of several black people by police officers, was criticized as a form of virtue signalling for the initiative’s “lack of clarity and direction”.
In addition to individuals, companies have also been accused of virtue signalling in marketing, public relations and brand communication. Conspicuous consumption has been described as a form of consumer virtue signalling, and the social desirability bias of survey respondents may complicate business data gathering.
Greg Gutfeld, reflecting on why he loves cinema but hates the Academy Awards, bemoaned the fact that the American film industry had abandoned “cinematic escape” and “shared human experience” in favour of virtue signalling through such award shows: “Traditional story lines are so old—as old as humanity. Which is why they worked. Movies used to be about entertaining us—all of us. Yet the Oscars recast the industry as an engine for the new religion of identity politics.” Sean Spicer wrote similarly that, “while virtue-signaling celebrities and movies with a ‘message’ dominate the award shows, they seldom dominate the box office”. He added that “mainstream Hollywood critics” help facilitate this trend with the overwhelming support of films like Knock Down the House and dislike of films such as Sticks & Stones, contrary to public audience approval as shown by the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Bill Maher, in a monologue on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, accused “Hollywood liberals” of virtue signalling by exclusively nominating “depressing” movies in the category of Best Picture for the 93rd Academy Awards (2021). “Academy nominations used to say, ‘What great movies we make’. Now they say, ‘Look what good people we are,'” Maher said, lamenting the feeling that “Hollywood used to know how to make a movie that was about something, a movie for adults that was also entertaining and not just depressing”, attributing liberals’ preference for such sad movies to the possibility that “being sad allows you to feel like you’re doing something about a problem without actually having to do anything”.