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Virtue signalling, or just virtue?


Recently, Marcus Rashford tweeted 'But seriously, what is virtue signalling?' That's an excellent question, Marcus. I had a similar thought. It apparently originated around 20 years ago and was intended to describe someone who feigns outrage at a view, or situation in order to demonstrate their own worthiness. Over time the meaning has subtly changed to be pretty-much synonymous with 'do-gooder.' (May heaven protect us from those who do good!) Now virtue signalling is apparently an insidious societal evil. All over the place, people are doing worthy things and admitting them in public. At least one Sunday paper has taken exception to Rashford's efforts, likening his behaviour to a childhood tantrum. Millennials, eh! If it isn't Rashford addressing disadvantage it's tennis players speaking out about gender equality or pop stars (even Princes) talking about mental health.

Now, I have no doubt that there are Instagram-influencers and media superstars out there who gild their reputation with a little over-stated altruism. 'Twas always thus... 'I don't like to talk about the tremendous work I do for charity!', as the 90's catchphrase went. But is it fair to condemn every effort to empathise with and support others in need? Last time I checked, I'm pretty sure empathy was a good thing. So, what's going on here? For what it's worth, this is my take. Many of us are brought up to believe it is our duty (and maybe right) to be in control of our world. The truth is, however, that the world is uncertain and each of us has very little influence over our present or future. Experiencing frustration at our inability to control our own lives and witnessing the suffering of others often leads to feelings of shame. We are failing in our purpose. Shame is often closely allied to anger. We become angry with ourselves for this failure.


All of that's a lot to bear, so it's not surprising if we unconsciously look for someone else to be angry at instead. Either for disrupting our certainties or for doing something about the situation that we are powerless to influence. This is particularly acute if the person displaying worthiness is younger than us. After all, we shouldn't be looking to those younger than us to make a difference, should we? It's a convenient stance to criticise anyone who identifies with people facing difficulty. It shifts the focus of shame away from those who outwardly display indifference and contempt and towards those showing consideration and compassion. It makes it ok to hold our head up high as we pass by the needy, because we are being 'real'. Those who stop to help are 'Virtue signalling.' Maybe Marcus gained some kudos from his campaign for free school holiday meals. Does that diminish his achievement? If he did get something out of it, I think I'll allow him a bit of leeway. None of us are without fault, but I'd rather listen to people who signal their virtues than those who celebrate their vices.

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