On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

trumpI had a few thoughts on the notion of virtue-signalling after watching this first week of the Trump Presidency, the Women’s March, and the March for Life unfold online.

Virtue is a good thing, which is why thinking yourself or being thought to possess virtue is an attractive prospect.

This basic reality funds the critique of what’s recently been termed “virtue-signalling” (though, arguably the concept is as old as Plato’s Republic Bk. 2). In a nutshell, the idea is that in an online age, much of our public talk about justice (tweets, likes, shares, Facebook rants) is just that: public talk. We share the right links, yes, maybe because we care about an issue, but more importantly because we need to be seen to care about it. Indeed, we need to see it in order to assure ourselves.

This is one of the many factors contributing to the regular cycles of social media frenzy about everything from the silly (an insensitive tweet by a celebrity at 3 am) to the serious (President Trump’s executive order). Indeed, social media exacerbates the problem since it’s basically geared towards the practice. There’s now a digital trail of what you have or haven’t said across various formats, which can easily be compared to our peers. Having been online for a while, this seems to be at least part of the problem and a helpful tool for cultural analysis.

I know that in many instances, especially after a tragedy or an outrage, there’s a pressure to tweet or post about it to make sure everybody knows that I too care. I too am saddened, or grieved. I fear that at times when I remain silent, or have found out about something late, I’ll be thought callous for having not said anything.

Of course, with any fancy new word or concept, it can be used cynically. In which case, for those with a more jaded eye, or on the other side of a particular issue, all of the protests, tweets, and so forth are basically just virtue-signalling. This critique tends especially to be leveled by conservatives against progressives whose tribal identification seems to encourage that.

And since Newton’s Third Law generally applies to these sorts of things, I have now seen various progressives complain about the very notion of critiquing public displays of virtue. Why would virtue be anything to critique? Seems worth emulating and encouraging. Indeed, we ought to be cynical about the cynicism and see nothing but self-protection in this.

Jesus on Signalling Virtue

As Christians, it seems wise to look to Jesus at this point. Did he have anything to say about virtue-signalling? Possibly. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-6)

Note that Jesus does not condemn prayer, or giving to the needy, or even giving to the needy in public (which is probably where you have to do it). He condemns “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” It is the hypocrisy, the play-acting at virtue which aims at human praise for the self. It is seeking the reward of being thought virtuous instead of  the reward of having pleased the Father.

So, it seems that being wary of virtue-signalling isn’t simply a 21st Century worry, but a 1st Century one.

But, of course, that’s not the whole of the story. Take this famous image at the beginning of the Sermon:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

It seems that at one level, then, Christians ought to be concerned for others to see their virtue. When we obey, when we display the attitudes and practice the justice that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon, the hope is that we will be shown to be daughters and sons of the good Father. Peter echoes a very similar thought in his first letter to Christian “exiles” living among their pagan neighbors (1 Peter. 2:9-12).

We have, then, these two streams of teaching to set in tension. Christians, at some level, ought to be concerned to display the virtue of God to our neighbors because it is right, and so that God can be glorified. But we should also be quite unconcerned with whether they think we are particularly virtuous. Their approval, their estimation of us as virtuous people should not be what we seek.

I would also add for those who pride themselves on not caring what others think, that our self-conception can fall under this ban as well. Many of us are deeply invested in the project of proving to ourselves that we are quite virtuous. Which is why it’s so exceptional when Paul says he doesn’t even pass judgment on himself, but leaves judgment to the Lord (1 Cor. 4).

As my language has already indicated, we might describe it as the difference between displaying virtue and signalling virtue.

Reflections for the Current Time

I bring this up now because it’s something I think many of us will be wrestling with in days, weeks, and years to come. Knowing how, when, and why to speak will be increasingly difficult in an online context that seems to accelerate every day. The breakneck speed at which we come to find things out, are expected to have researched, processed and rendered a thoughtful judgment, and then subsequently either acted or spoken on it seems unsustainable and unhealthy.

[As a side-note, I find it impossible that any, let alone most, of us are competent enough to have informed opinions on all the issues that matter in our world today (excepting rare insomniac journalists). It’s beyond ludicrous that we should all need to make them public.]

Returning to the issue of virtue-signalling, one thing we’ll have to wrestle with is how much we allow shame to be a motivator for our action. I can’t tell you how often I have see others putting public pressure on people to speak to an issue, to “use their voice”, etc. Now, in some cases, it may be warranted. Some may be refraining from speech out of fear, cowardice, or self-protective vanity. This is not good. God’s children are told to risk prophetic speech at the proper times.

And yet others do so out of care, a circumspect nature, a desire to not add another ill-informed voice to a conversation about which they know very little, or a wariness about getting sucked into the reactivity of the internet. Some are just busy working a job, caring for children, and the regular cares of everyday life.  In these cases, shaming someone into action can end up provoking guilty silence, cynicism, or the sort of breathless exhaustion which causes people to give up speech altogether.

Another point we ought to be wary of is the way tribal identification can play into this. We don’t just signal virtue broadly to the world, but virtues connected to shared identities within particular tribes and sub-cultures. I had one progressive friend share support for the March for Life this week, only to quickly caveat that she couldn’t be that excited since so many involved were also vocal supporters of torture. (To which my initial thought was, “Well, I’m pretty sure the dead infants didn’t support it.”) The point is that you can’t simply work for a good cause tout court, but you have carefully signal that you’re doing it in ways that align with the virtues your tribe shares.

Of course, similar examples can be dredged up the on the right.

Indeed, here I think tribal loyalties can stop us from speaking out when our conscience tells us we should. Precisely because we don’t want to be seen as the sort of person who virtue-signals about popular issues like race and sex, or participates in the “media freakout” over Trump, we curb our tongues. Ironically enough, one can signal the right sort of critical distance from the fray by refusing to signal. But this is not wise taming of the tongue that pleases the Father (Jas. 3:1-12), but posturing for a crowd.

I suppose the point I’m circling back around to is one I made recently about our work for justice in racial reconciliation. When we work for justice, we do so not for the approval of the most vocal advocates, but because we are children of God. In the current moment, we ought to speak, then, not to signal our virtue, but to display the goodness of God at work in transforming us. If this is our fundamental posture, I think that ought to change things for some of us.

Some of us will be relieved of the pressure to speak about anything and everything. Others of us will be freed from needing to make sure all of our speech conforms to the trends of our favored social group. And still others may be energized and given voice to speak freely at all.

As Christians, it should also change not only whether we speak, but how we speak. Signalling our virtue to our particular tribe doesn’t typically help us cultivate wise voices, but sharp, toxic tongues attuned to the art of the soundbite and the take-down. Of course, the take-down is appropriate from time to time (see Matthew 23). My point is that when our identities aren’t at stake every post on every issue, grace can more easily pervade our speech, even in disagreement.

Finally, some of us might be moved to do more than just speak. If we’re less concerned about displaying than signalling virtue, we’ll allows ourselves to step away from a screen long enough to do something tangible about those issues that trouble our world.

Purified Speech and Prayer

For all of this, I think Christians will need to be particularly attentive to their prayer lives. In reading Sarah Coakley’s stimulating work, God, Sexuality, and the Self, I’ve become convicted that I haven’t payed enough attention to the disciplines of contemplation and prayer in my theological studies. These disciplines shape and form us, make us attentive to the Spirit, and pliable to hear the voice of the Lord in the Word.

How much more do I need that for my online engagement, where I am bombarding with manifestly unholy voices?

It seems now more than ever, for those of us who live much of our lives online, we need to take a disciplined step back and engage in practices that will purify our souls. To curb the influence of the toxic, frenetic voices, as well as protect us from becoming cynical and jaded.

We come around again to Jesus’ injunction, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” It is he who is our reward, and it is only by spending time with him that we will learn to become sons and daughters who display virtue, without merely signalling it.

Soli Deo Gloria