From cancel culture to Karen and Stan, if you want to engage in, or at least follow along with, the dialogue on social media or at the dinner table, you need to keep up with the ever-evolving language. This time, you were scrolling through Twitter and came across a phrase you haven’t seen before: virtue signaling. Is it good? Bad? Something in between? Here, we explain what virtue signaling is and three examples to help you pinpoint it.
Is Virtue Signaling Good or Bad? 3 Examples That Help Explain
What is virtue signaling?
The term “virtue signaling” has had a couple of lives. It has academic roots in the fields of evolutionary psychology and religion, which are super interesting, but unless you’re writing a doctoral thesis on signaling theory or morality, is probably not why you’re here. The second is the pejorative term that’s all over social media. Popularized in the 2016 U.S. election, the basic definition of virtue signaling is when people flaunt (or signal) their convictions to look good to a group of people they want to appeal to.
So is virtue signaling bad or good?
It’s complicated. On one hand, broadcasting ideals and values is good, right? But it becomes “bad” when that broadcasting becomes a permanent placeholder for things that need actionable solutions, especially from people in power, like politicians, celebrities and corporations.
Break this down a bit more. Why is that problematic?
In the digital world and 24/7 news cycle, virtue signaling becomes problematic as it’s extremely easy to just say or post one thing to appease a certain group without taking any substantive action. So, most likely, when you see someone being called out for virtue signaling, it’s because they’re performing (or signaling) said virtue, and probably benefiting somehow from showcasing said virtue, without actually doing any real-life work to stand up for it.
What are some examples of virtue signaling?
Here are some recent examples of virtue signaling we’ve seen.
1. Posting a Black Square on Instagram for Black Lives Matter
Remember on June 2, 2020 when everyone was posting black squares on Instagram? Well, the controversy behind that was that people were posting in support of #BlackOutTuesday without actually knowing what they were supporting and actually drowning out the real story—#TheShowMustBePaused—which is that of two Black women, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, who are working to hold the music industry accountable for profiting off of Black musicians. Yeah, the story goes way deeper than a black box on your grid. Does this mean you’re a bad person if you posted a black box? Of course not. But it illustrates how easy it is to make it seem and feel like you’re doing something virtuous, when really it barely holds water.
2. Lady Antebellum’s Name Change Debacle
The country band recently changed their name from Lady Antebellum to Lady A, because, as this GQ article points out they’d been critiqued for, “[its] associations with romanticized ideas of the pre-war, slavery-ridden American South.” The problem? The name “Lady A” is taken by a Black woman artist who has been going by that name for 20 years and the band is suing her over it. Karen Hunter sums it up best with her Tweet, “Let me understand...they changed their name from Lady Antebellum because they didn't want to associate with the racist past to a name that a BLACK woman in the music biz was already using...now they are suing HER for not wanting to relinquish the name?” This is a textbook example of virtue signaling at its worst: A powerful group of people signaling their virtue on paper, but in action are continuing to disenfranchise the same people they changed their name for in the first place.
3. Basically All Corporate Marketing
From J.P. Morgan to the NFL, it seems like nearly every major corporation has been producing content to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Is this bad? No. In fact, there are probably lots of positive implications from this type of widespread tone shift. Remember: It was only a few years ago that Colin Kaepernick kneeled and was essentially kicked out of the league for peacefully protesting police brutality. On the flip side, when it comes to real-life, everyday practices and the real people who are affected, are these companies living up to their words and promises of equity? According to the Associated Press, no. But, if you only consume the heartfelt commercials and retweet the hashtags, this continues to perpetuate the problem.