The accusation of virtue signaling has become a standard rhetorical device in recent years. There are at least three major problems with this. First, there is not a lot of signaling involved, at least not in the sense that economists and biologists use the concept. Second, there is precious little virtue involved, in the sense that it has usually been understood in moral philosophy. Third, it tends to presume hypocrisy on the part of those allegedly engaged in it, the implication being that people do not believe what they are saying when they are virtue signaling.
When biologists and economists talk of signaling, they mean things that entail real costs, thereby making the signaling effective. The elaborate tattoos of gang members are a classic example: signaling commitment to the gang life. Without the cost, the signal would have little power.
Much of what is labeled virtue signaling involves remarkably little effort or cost. Indeed, it is often about avoiding costs (typically costs from not being seen as properly conforming) rather than incurring them. Talk is, after all, notoriously cheap. Unless there are real costs incurred in undertaking an action, it is better to talk of display than signaling. A lack of incurred cost usually implies a weak signal but can still entail an effective display.
Virtue is usually understood to involve genuine effort, embedded in a continuing pattern of behavior. Much of what is labeled virtue signaling is remarkably easy to do and is often about avoiding incurring the costs of not conforming. Moreover, it is typically much more about adherence to doctrines or public attitudes than behavior. Unless we are talking of persistent patterns of behavior involving genuine effort, it would be better to talk of piety rather than virtue.
In neither case are these hard boundaries. That is not in itself a problem: fuzzy boundaries are a pervasive feature of social categories. The point is not to deny the importance of signaling theory, particularly normative signaling, in explaining much social behavior, but to be more accurate in describing what counts as actual virtue or as serious signaling.
So, if what people are mostly pointing to can be better described as piety display than virtue signaling, how much power does the critique of wrongly imputing disingenuous motives have? Potentially quite a lot, because something can be a piety display without being hypocritical or disingenuous. People may well be showing how much they fit in precisely because they identify with the group they are fitting in with. If that has become central to their sense of self, then their beliefs will adjust to maintain their cognitive identity. They may be piety displaying furiously, yet believe every word they utter. Yes, they are avoiding costs, but they may also genuinely not want to be ejected from the cognitive club they see themselves as members of. This does not rule out hypocrisy, but it is also far from requiring or implying it.
So, if we take the (re-labeled) notion of piety display to presume hypocrisy or disingenuousness, then we will misunderstand what is often going on. But that does not mean that the description itself is misconceived, for people may well be adjusting their beliefs to maintain their cognitive identity. Indeed, the breakdown of such an adjustment is what typically happens when people change their minds. Often, when people, for whatever reason, lose their commitment to their previous cognitive identity they begin to shift their beliefs as a result. Specific facts or events may trigger the change, yet such a change often has consequences for the beliefs people come to adhere to.
The Rhetoric of Slurs
It is worth reflecting on why the notion of virtue signaling has become so salient. Clearly, stigmatization has become a feature of public discourse and particularly of progressive discourse. Consider the ubiquity of the stigmatizing rhetoric which replaces argument with slurs like racist, sexist, misogynist and Islamophobic. To a significant degree, modern education teaches students to slur rather than argue.
If those who disagree with progressive opinions are clearly of such low moral character as to be racist, sexist, Islamophobic etc., the natural implication is that those who denounce such people are of high moral character. The accusation of virtue signaling, of broadcasting one’s positive moral character, follows from this. Yet people are often engaged in what is better described as piety display when they stigmatize others in such ways.
While the scale of this stigmatization might be new, the pattern is not. Argument (to use the term loosely) by stigmatizing has always been a feature of Marxism—consider how the term bourgeois has been used in Marxist rhetoric. As T. Greer points out in his excellent Scholar’s Stage blog:
Marx is not so deterministic as to deny that ideas have an influence on the course of history altogether. However he does seem to maintain that with effort any given set of ideas can be traced back to the material conditions that gave birth to them. Ideas, in the Marxian frame, are not the product of reason, but the instinctive expression of internalized differences in social position. Thus the Marxist’s skeptical disdain for those who appeal to dialogue and reason to resolve disputes. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a blind byproduct of interests. In such a world, argument inevitably reduces down to identity.
The Marxian notion that what we believe is dominated by our class interests is as destructive of rational discourse as the Foucauldian notion that what we believe is dominated by power interests or that layers of oppression dominate relations between groups in Western societies. Such notions all lead naturally to argument by slur (using slurs as a substitute for argument) as a dominant rhetorical technique.
The Demand for Cognitive Status
If a cognitive identity is based on adherence to a set of opinions (that is, publicly expressed or endorsed beliefs) that are felt to generate prestige, to justify a collective and internalized sense of approval and admiration towards their adherents, then opinions which contradict those prestige opinions cannot also generate prestige. They must generate negative prestige. If X generates prestige, then Contrary-X must generate negative prestige and so be subject to the opposite of public admiration (within that cognitive milieu), which is stigmatization. Indeed, avoiding such stigmatization can become a powerful reason to engage in affirming the prestige opinions (or, at least, not openly contradicting them).
Thus, a set of prestige opinions—affirming a cognitive identity of collective, and internalized, moral approval and admiration—must generate a set of contrary, stigmatized opinions. Those affirming those opinions, those inside the cognitive club, share in the prestige and sense of approval. We might call this club, Piety Club or Moral Prestige Club. Those who hold contrary opinions are excluded from the prestige and approval. Indeed, they are subject to stigmatization for their opinions. Prestige opinions thereby generate what economists call a club good: in this case, a moralized prestige that is available to all within the club but from which outsiders are excluded. The moralizing increases the prestige value, because basic to morality is the notion of its being normative trumps: of dominating other considerations. This also gives the stigmatizing exclusions greater intensity.
There might be selection pressures in favor of analyses of the world that generate a cognitive identity expressed via prestige opinions, especially if they also help justify the stigmatization of contrary opinions. So, would the evolution of Marxian notions of a world of class interests lead to notions of the social dominance of relations of power and oppression and then to patterns of prestige and stigmatized opinions? Or would different conceptual framings be selected for, as circumstances change, so as to satisfy a pre-existing demand for opinions that grant prestige, a demand that arises for other reasons?
Given that (1) power and oppression analyses are not inherently intellectually richer or more compelling than Marxism and (2) that there has been a dramatic expansion in the adoption of prestige opinions, with a consequent, and intensifying, pattern of cognitive stigmatization, it is much more plausible that the demand for prestige-granting cognitive identity has expanded, with opinions that provide identity boundaries. It is not hard to identify reasons why.
The first is the consequence of the uncoupling of sex from marriage, itself a consequence of women being able to unilaterally control their own fertility, through the Pill and readily available abortion. The dramatic drop in pregnancy risk meant that marriage was no longer the price of sex (or, at least, the price of pregnancy). In the face of such a shift in basic constraints, long established norms rapidly collapsed. This created a situation of normative flux. As is natural in such circumstances, a process of exploration (finding what works) and normative bidding (advocating new norms and expectations) developed. Since the received benchmarks of behavior no longer resonated, naturally the search was on for new ones, creating a demand for new sets of norms and expectations, with associated cognitive identities.
Second, there was a massive expansion in higher education, especially certificating education tied to career prospects. Large numbers of people moved into social milieus very different from those of their parents, in a situation in which people’s status and careers became wrapped up in their cognitive status. This magnified the search for new norms and expectations, especially ones that appealed to people looking to secure and broadcast their cognitive status.
The information technology revolution created massive increases in available information. This added to the problems of cognitive status. How was one to seem informed in the face of such a flood of information? The information flood created an expanding demand to economize on information. We could not function without such economizing—that is why we have habits, routines, prejudices, etc. But the information flood has greatly increased the pressure to do so.
In such a situation of normative flux, visions of the imagined future naturally gain increased power. In particular, politics based on a moralized vision of the future have an inherent advantage that was greatly magnified. For the problem of the past was not only that it now looked so different, but that the past (being sequences of human striving) is inevitably morally messy. Conversely, the imagined future can be as pure as one wants. So, if one wants opinions that provide some guarantee of cognitive status, those based on the politics of the imagined future have a near unbeatable cachet. Especially as it is easy to confuse moral intensity with moral superiority, and even use the former as a marker of the latter.
The perennial appeal of socialism feeds on the information-economizing purity advantage of the imagined future. Rarely precisely defined, socialism becomes a righteous catch-all for the aspiration to attain some profoundly better society, without grappling with practical difficulties or past failures along the path.
Normative flux, a dramatic expansion in certificating higher education and the information flood came together to generate a widespread wish for a cognitive identity that provided clear guidelines as to what to think and how to speak, and for a status-guaranteeing discourse of informed moral certainty. The politics of the imagined future had a profound advantage in providing such a cognitive identity. Hence the evolution of a set of prestige opinions held by the club of the morally informed, with the concomitant stigmatized moral opinions held by the cognitively unworthy—the wicked and the ignorant. Who might even be deplorable.
Adhering to this cognitive identity means one becomes a member of the solution people: the people who understand what the proper direction of events are, how to get there and what—and who—blocks the way. Failing to adhere makes one a member of the problem people, the people who are willfully blocking the radiant future. Not only does this provide a cognitive identity, it also offers a powerful sense of cognitive entitlement, of moralized cognitive superiority.
One salient contemporary example unites these patterns. We have people who have never undertaken any serious study of Islam, yet who just know the correct opinions to have on matters Muslim. This brings moralized status, cognitive identity and economizing on information together into a single package.
What is particularly insidious about the moralizing of prestige opinions is that it encourages active hostility to any raising of awkward facts or questions, as they undermine the value of the prestige opinions. Indeed, merely raising such facts or asking such questions tends to put one outside the moral club, outside those who have a shared interest in maintaining the status value of prestige opinions. Hence, the prestige and stigmatization pattern generates the categories of not only wrongthought, but wrongfacts, wrongquestions and wrongconcerns.
For instance, in Britain it is considered OK to implicitly slander Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus by talking of Asian grooming gangs, ignoring their overwhelmingly Muslim membership. In Sydney, it is OK to implicitly slander Maronites by talking of Lebanese gangs, avoiding mention of the gangs’ specifically Muslim membership. But to talk of African—rather than Sudanese—gangs in Melbourne is considered outrageous. Embracing these blatantly contradictory label taboos establishes one’s membership in the progressive club. Questioning such taboos imperils one’s membership, which helps generate opinion conformity—as former British Labour spokesperson Sarah Champion found out when she had to resign her position in the Shadow Cabinet after referring to the rape gangs that have afflicted a string of English towns and cities as Pakistani (which—while not quite right—was more accurate than the Asian labeling).
The demand to ignore awkward facts and blatant inconsistencies is not, however, a weakness but a strength. It defines and maintains cognitive identity, providing a powerful mechanism that separates moral club members from outsiders, a mechanism remarkably similar to the over-the-top, self-abasing flattery common in personality cults, which signals loyalty in situations in which overt loyalty is compulsory. People embrace self-contradiction—or even deliberate unknowing—while affirming their cognitive status as informed and moral. If done intensively enough, this may turn piety display into a signal. Either way, it provides a sorting mechanism, as well as affirming a shared cognitive identity.
Perhaps the most striking result of this dynamic has been to re-conceive racism as a racist concept, to hold racism to be the most grievous of sins, yet one that can only be committed by people with a specific skin tone—a pattern most strikingly obvious in the Sarah Jeong affair, discussed in this magazine here. Language that would be reviled as racist if used against folk without pale skin was justified as a form of performative activism, in which intent should be differentiated by skin color. This idea is based on a reductionist, but greatly information-economizing, notion of social power in which a poorly educated factory worker is assumed to socially dominate a highly educated New York Times editor if the former is male and white and the latter is female and Asian. Racism isn’t racism if the good people do it, if it is a marker of club membership. Thus we have, as geographer Mark Maslin puts it in a different, but related, context, “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
The nature of these patterns of what we might call prestige progressivism is demonstrated by the use of the label of hate speech. It’s a concept Stalinist in its origins, in its war on human nature, and its inherent lack of principled definition, tailor-made for self-serving political activism. Those who are most ardent in their denunciation of hate speech are typically also the most frequent practitioners of the politics of stigmatization, hatred and contempt. Indeed, the accusation of hate speech is itself a part of such politics, as it implies that anyone who seriously disagrees is hateful. The status and exclusion pattern is very clear: the category of hate speech has tended to expand, yet it rarely extends to progressive, in-club speech, no matter how stigmatizing.
A common commitment to a cognitive identity based on shared status expressed through prestige opinions is also sufficient to, over time, dominate institutions. All it takes to achieve such institutional domination is herd behavior plus cognitive intolerance (excluding or ejecting people who adhere to, or publicly express, contrary opinions). The prestige from opinions that provide a shared club-good spurs the herd behavior, and the concomitant stigmatization of contrary opinions serves to create and preserve the prestige of the shared opinions.
A conformist “long march through the institutions,” in activist Rudi Dutschke’s phrase, can therefore happen without any central coordination. No organizing conspiracies are required. Or even specific doctrines: it is entirely possible for the prestige opinions to be a moveable feast, though clearly some ways of thinking are more naturally helpful to the pattern than others. Areas in which employment has grown dramatically (university administrations, corporate HR departments, advocacy NGOs, education bureaucracies generally, new areas of academic study) can be expected to be particularly susceptible to this pattern.
An analysis of patterns of political donations by the consultancy Crowdpac shows what convergent political outliers the cultural production and distribution industries have become.
Professions in the US grouped by industry, ranked by their pattern of political donations.
Source: Business Insider, Nov. 4, 2014.
One natural result of conforming to prestige opinions over inconvenient facts is the increased generation of bullshit, as per philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition: statements made for rhetorical effect without regard to their truth. In particular, misrepresentation of opinions that threaten prestige opinions have become rife, as so many people in key institutions have a common interest in protecting the prestige value of those opinions and in blocking or discrediting criticism.
Nor is it surprising that overt rage against racism has grown while the incidence of racism itself has dramatically fallen. Witch hunts are not outbreaks of deviance, they are outbreaks of enforcement. Crying racism has increasingly become an intellectually lazy and self-righteous way of proclaiming your moral club membership. Enforcing club membership norms is particularly attractive to those who are nervous about their own membership status. Performative outrage can be a self-defense device.
Research indicates that people who are not true believers, but are socially or institutionally adjacent to nodes of true believers, and fear the effects of contravening their norms, are likely to adopt the protective strategy of norm enforcement, thus generating conformity cascades. Academic grievance studies departments provide obvious nodes of true believers and form center points of such cascades in academe and in the organizations that grievance studies graduates later enter. This helps explain why theories propagated by grievance study departments are such an obvious factor in the prestige opinions of contemporary progressivism.
Education expands our ability to understand the world. Indoctrination offers go-to answers rather than open enquiry. (In the language of philosophy, indoctrination provides epistemic closure.) A situation of normative flux, with tsunamis of information and consequent pressures to economize on information, increases the wish for the ease indoctrination provides. Grievance studies provide such ease.
We must, however, be careful not to overstate the role of academics. Research indicates that strong engagement with academics by students actually has a moderating effect on student opinions. It is intense involvement in student life, an area in which the role of university administrations is strongest, which has the most powerful conformity effects. University administrations are much more ideologically conformist than academe in general. Many of the on-campus pathologies that have attracted so much attention are centered in university administrations, rather than symptomatic of academia in general.
To deride the notion that socially liberal and diverse campuses need diversity units is to miss the point. If the object is to protect the status that comes from prestige opinions, then universities are the place where loyalty oaths, anti-heresy speech codes and in-house diversity inquisitors and commissars are most useful. Just as Christians took over the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries via the vastly increased bureaucracy of the Dominate, waging war against the pervasive demonic sins of paganism, so networked prestige progressivism is doing much the same in our increasingly bureaucratized societies, hunting down allegedly pervasive sins against diversity.
A recent report dividing the US into seven political tribes found progressive activists to be the whitest group, with the highest average income, level of education and opinion conformity. They were also the only group in US society not generally hostile to political correctness; which they use to establish moral prestige club membership and to exclude outsiders from their institutional and social milieus. It is their prime social dominance mechanism.
While prestige progressivism is far from the only manifestation of the search for new cognitive identities based on in-club prestige opinions, it is by far the most important, due to its now institutionalized dominance of the cultural commanding heights.
The Attack on Public Reason
The elevation of a (shifting) set of opinions as granting moral prestige, based on economizing on information (thus creating sets of facts that must be ignored, avoided or denied as part of such moralized economizing), with a concomitant stigmatizing of contrary opinions, is obviously not good for the health of public debate. Opinions that become wrapped up in people’s sense of their cognitive identity and status, which thereby require the stigmatizing of dissent, are toxic to freedom of thought and speech if, as is increasingly the case, such status commitments become increasingly dominant in key institutions. Nor will science be immune, given that anything which undermines prestige opinions must be rejected in order to protect the moralized prestige and cognitive identity that adhering to such opinions generates.
If one’s sense of cognitive identity becomes wrapped up in the holding of prestige opinions, then the use of public reason, facts and logic to seek to explain and persuade in any way that implies that such opinions are contestable must be resisted in an act of cognitive self-defense. Social media provides an excellent mechanism for stigmatizing pile-ones to protect prestige opinions, and thus cognitive identity and status. This pattern of group prestige leads to social dominance behavior.
What gives Twitter mobs power is not only that we are primed to care about social reputation, but that such mobs activate and seek to enforce the line separating moral prestige club members from those excluded. This is particularly powerful if, say, you are a young adult author and librarians (or anyone not spending their own money for personal enjoyment) are key buyers of your genre.
The appeal of club membership creates a danger for members, as enforcing moral superiority via exclusion tends to generate upward purity bids, in order to maintain exclusivity and a sense of moral superiority. Hence those who embrace the cognitive identity may still find themselves targeted object lessons. Any surprise that the process turns on its own is misplaced, as so much of the exercise is about setting and policing moralized status boundaries. Pressure to maintain moral exclusion by intensifying the markers of membership trumps any identification with the cognitive identity by the person targeted as an object lesson. Apologies by those so targeted generally just fuel the sense of being engaged in justified exclusion, thereby giving further energy to a winning social dominance tactic.
These patterns are deeply undermining to democracy. Democracy is not merely a matter of voting. The vote is simply a way of giving people effective social levers. If democracy is to mean anything, it must involve an ongoing pattern of broad social bargaining. But, if a whole range of opinions are stigmatized to preserve the cognitive identity of those dominating key institutions, the process of social bargaining will inevitably be undermined. If those holding contrary opinions are evil and stupid, then clearly one must not bargain with the evil and stupid.
The more intense and systematic the stigmatization, the wider the range of concerns—and people—excluded from the arena of legitimate social bargaining. All the voting in the world will not matter if more and more voters find more and more of their concerns ruled out of the realm of the legitimate by those dominating the culture. A widening ambit of angry and resentful voters will be thereby created.
The use of prestige opinions is a status game. Implicit or explicit denigration of those lacking status is a natural result. This can generate increasingly intense purity spirals. But it also naturally leads to a tendency for the slurs to inflate, for the development of ever wider notions of racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Both the list of categories of transgression and the ambit of individual categories tend to expand: for example, opposition to open borders becomes racist and the legal term illegal alien becomes hate speech. Media based on generating and harvesting moral outrage is a natural, but also an intensifying, development.
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted, morality binds and blinds. If one’s cognitive identity is of being one of the solution people, nothing is ever the fault of you and yours (except possibly not going far enough). If fellow citizens are acting up, that just cements their status as problem people. The pattern is toxic, but the costs are general, diffuse and largely borne by those outside the moral prestige club, outside prestige progressivism. The benefits are personal, shared and self-blinding. Given that the underlying drivers of the demand for prestige opinions that generate and protect status-asserting cognitive identity are not likely to go away soon, the prognosis for the health of freedom of thought, science, public debate and democracy in Western societies, or for the competent functioning of institutions, is not good.