By Charlie Clauss
One of the many terms that seem to have sprung up in our current cultural moment is the pejorative “virtue signaling.” In the mouth of most speakers, it seems to mean a type of speech or action meant to put a person in the best possible light. It is as if they had actually said “I am not like all you bigoted, racist, homophobic, unjust, prejudiced people. I’m better than you.”
This claim is not without merit. I find that when I, as a white male, am speaking with African Americans or women, I really want them to know that I am not like other white males. I’ll lay out what I have read and the workshops I have attended. I’ll quote Martin Luther King Jr. Whatever it takes to try to gain honor and stature in their eyes. I want them to know that I am virtuous!
While it is true that some speech that seeks to make a point about racial, gender, or sexual-orientation injustice is a camouflaged attempt to make the speaker look (and feel) better, this does not apply to all such speech. Sometimes the speaker is just trying to make a point. When this is true, the claim of “virtue signaling” is a version of a logical fallacy, the fallacy of ad hominem: ad hominem attacking the speaker rather than the argument.
Notice that the ad hominem claims the exact opposite of what the speaker would be doing by signaling virtue. I attack you instead of your point by saying you in fact are not virtuous. Almost all the common fallacies are merely a misjudgment in reasoning or use of logic. I might misrepresent your argument (“Strawman”) or claim that what you have said will lead inevitably to something worse (“Slippery slope”). If I attack you, it seems that I have stepped over a line and made it personal. Is it possible that your statement has made me feel uncomfortable? Does the possible truth of the statement put you in a bad light?
What is absolutely amazing is that both the one who virtue-signals and the one who claims virtue signaling have exactly the same problem. Both people are in bondage to the same thing — guilt and shame. Neither can bear it so both use illicit means to cover over that guilt and shame. Neither virtue signaling nor claiming virtue signaling will help anyone make progress in actual virtue.
This phenomenon is analogous to the battle raging in some Christian circles about the idea of systemic racism. Setting aside the voices of African Americans for the moment (yes, I know, what else is new?), one group of white Christians has sided with the view that systemic racism exists, and another group has made the claim that this is just virtue signaling. It is tempting to nuance this to death. It could just be virtue signaling. But how much of this debate is driven by the inability of both sides to acknowledge their bondage to guilt and shame?
Esau McCaulley has written in a recent New York Times essay:
I remain puzzled as to why discussions of racism and injustice stir up so much venom from fellow believers. They do not simply disagree. They are angry. Despite this hysteria, there is simply no theological or historical reason for Christians to hesitate over acknowledging structural racism.
I contend that anger and hysteria (and the fear that drives them) are rooted in our bondage to guilt and shame.
What both the progressive virtue signaler and conservative systemic racism denier both need is to be freed from their guilt and shame. For the Christian, there is no other path to freedom except the path that leads to and from the cross. I am not claiming that this truth will clear up the existence of systemic racism, nor provide an obvious solution to that problem. What I am claiming is that the tenor of the argument will be fundamentally changed. Neither side will have self-justification as a primary purpose , and so they will be free to follow the data wherever it leads. And they will be able to treat their opponents with sympathy and charity. After all, both sides walk a very dangerous path in claiming to know the heart of their opponent.
I close with another passage from McCaulley:
The texts of the Old and New Testaments open up the possibility of introspection and learning. The Psalmist wonders: “Who can discern their own errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). The writer recognizes that there may be parts of themselves that they do not know. Christians should be open to the possibility that they may have hidden racial biases of which they are not aware. This is well documented, for example, in the areas of health care and medical treatment. When someone gives us a chance to finally know ourselves and heal, we should be open to the possibility. Training in potential hidden biases is not indoctrination in every case (admittedly it can be done in unhealthy ways); it can be a chance for growth.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.