Dissecting Virtue Signalling

In the wake of #BlackOutTuesday, a global social media effort involving uploading a black square to your profile, questions have been raised surrounding the sincerity of some efforts. Enter Virtue Signalling: the action of posting about relevant social justice movements in a bid to prove that you are concerned, when you really aren’t, or otherwise do not make any other concerted efforts at addressing the problem.

From the context in which this term has been used, it seems that it has taken root in a dislike for oversharing: sharing all the details in your life that people don’t need to know about. I also believe it is an offspring of the current culture against posting prentious content on your social media: presenting onself as a globe-trotting worry free individual, even when the reality is different.

I also can’t resist analysing it’s intersections with the current ‘huscle culture’ mantra: tell nobody about your goals but work on them. This isn’t only a huscle culture mantra though. Confucious can be quoted as saying ‘A seed grows with no sound but a tree falls with a huge noise. Destruction has noise, but creation is quiet. This is the power of silence…’

With this being said, I have a problem with accusing other people of virtue signalling, especially if we don’t know the accused as people.

It is often contested that the advent of technology has disseminated knowledge and given a sort of ‘power to the people’: anybody can start a social movement from their couch, in the same way that anybody can start a business from their couch, in the same way that anybody can complete a certificate or degree from their couch. Such an advent is supposed to decentralise power: anybody with access to a decent internet-connected device holds in their hands a multitude of possibilities (even though, due to disparities in access, the reality is different).

That being said, if people are using their social media profiles to spread awareness about a cause, say by using a hashtag or ‘tagging ten’, is it worthwhile villifying people if their actions end up spreading awareness? Another question is that of context: if the person constantly uploads to their profile during times of upheaval, are they constant virtue signallers, or are they constantly trying to create awareness?

Especially with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, there is the growing desire from people that individuals should do more. Posting on your story is not enough if you tolerate or perpetuate the subtle or overt racism prevalent in society, and possibly emanated by yourself or your close circles. However, the way in which questions have been asked of those posting social media statuses makes it sound as if the act of posting about such a movement is irrelevant in the first place. Calls for people to do ‘better’, while often valid in the context of certain individuals, to the masses belittle the act of raising awareness.

However, we can not deny the simple reality that hashtags have so far not been enough to call attention to this pervasive problem. It thus makes sense to encourage people to go beyond posting a social media message, because that has not resulted in tangible results in the past. But as easy as it is to repost and upload without changing our entrenched ways of thinking, have these hashtags and posts so far failed solely because those who post them have not been doing enough, or have they so far failed due to a combination of not doing enough and those in power not listening to those whose interests they should be representing?

Especially with movements against police brutality, it is becoming a common epiphany that even in modern day democracies, structures of power, no matter how benevolent, seem to perpetuate forms of systematic discrimination (such as racism) which has resulted in the death of George Floyd (and many others) in the US, as well as Collins Khosa (and many others) in South Africa.

Of course, it does nothing to sit back and say that people should not be told to do more because the problem is actually those who govern them, and that nothing should be done but sit back and point a finger. But I still think it is worthwile to observe that despite the decentralisation of the voice of the people through creations such as social media, change still does not come about without additional action. Voting is one thing, but protesting despite being tear-gassed is another thing. Uprisings that are violently silenced should not be happening regardless of the candidate in power: it’s a simple rule of democracy.

I also wonder: what counts as virtue signalling?

If I post a post that encourages people to do more, am I trying to virtue signal that I am different because I won’t tell you about just the problem, but how to fix it? Even though, behind my screen, I might not be commited to fixing it myself?

And if we are to argue that the antidote to virtue signalling is doing the deeper work instead of posting on social media, are we asking social media users to exist in political vacuums in their spaces of interaction?

Of course the reality is that we are asking people to raise awareness, but not without engaging in modes of introspection to decipher how they have contributed to the problem. However, accusing people of virtue signalling, and especially in cases where we don’t know the accused personally, runs the risk of criminalising even the simple act of telling our neighbours.

Image taken from the Financial Times.

Your neighbourhood physician-politician. 2nd year medicine. Instagram: @asandevilane

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