Alone in a Sea of Virtue

Did I live in the direction of my ideals today?

There was a moment last year when I realized how bad things had gotten and how lonely it could feel.

It was June 2nd, 2020, you know, that day when everyone suddenly had to show how much they cared about racial issues by showing the world on instagram how “woke” they were by putting up a black square. At the time I had my old personal account. I used it mainly for art/illustration and following people and friends for inspiration. Instagram was a chill place for me and I curated who I followed very carefully. 

But on “Blackout Tuesday” that all changed.  Suddenly instagram became a hell-hole of political signaling. With each new black square my heart sunk. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about the cause, but more the horrible feeling that this wasn’t about the cause anymore. The cause had been usurped by empty vacuous  signaling of moral purity. It reminded me of the Soviet story by Václav Havel. He tells a story of a greengrocer who displays in his shop window “Worker’s of the World Unite” because a failure to display the sign is seen as disloyalty to the party. Because he is forced to display the sign, it becomes no longer a sign of enthusiasm and loyalty, but a symbol of submission and humiliation. This is the essence of virtue signaling.

This greengrocer story that Havel talks about in his book “The Power of the Powerless” helped me to understand my feelings on that day. Rather than feel unity and solidarity with all the others standing up for the righteousness of a cause, I felt defeat and sadness at seeing the forced servitude of people I respected, forced into using their platform out of fear that if they didn’t they would be attacked.

And I watched as they were. I used to follow a fitness account, ironically of a woman who grew up in former Soviet Czechoslovakia. She had decided on that day not to put the black square. Sure enough she was piled on for not using her platform to advance people of colour.  I loved her even more when she stood her ground against the bullies; she knew something about a totalitarian mindset and how it bullies people into acquiescence.  But few have that strength and I watched as others toed the line or crumbled under mob pressure to show their allegiance.

Sadly I lost trust in friends and people that I used to respect. Their signaling put them and I into different groups.

Sadly I also lost trust in friends and people that I used to respect.  Their signaling put them and I into different groups and whether or not they felt pressured to do it, or whether they truly were believers, my sense was that I could not be truly honest with them about my own worries. It made me feel totally alienated and alone. 

So when I get email requests from colleagues (most of whom now put pronouns in their bio but that is another post for another day) I don’t feel aligned with them, I feel suspicious. I wonder about the motives for this gesture. Are they trans? Are they really making sure that they aren’t misgendered? Or are they just doing it to show that they are the good people and that they are aligned with the good cause?

And if there is one thing I learned in this life, it’s to be wary of the people that need to tell you how good they are, especially therapists!

Participating in virtue signaling is allowing moral purity tests to creep into our communities. It divides us into good and bad, it takes away our freedom of privacy, it forces us to see each other as political avatars rather than people and it leads to humiliation, exclusion, alienation and hopelessness.

So What Can We Do Instead?

What can we do against it? Firstly it takes recognizing when and how people signal their virtue. When you start to notice that uneasy feeling, that sense that something isn’t quite honest or authentic, then you know you are in signaling territory. And once you get a good idea of your feeling, you can be more discerning about when you are doing something for the good of your group and how others see you or when you are doing something because you really believe in something.

Discernment and honesty are key. Investigate your motives and even if the pressure is so great from those around you, at least be honest with YOURSELF. This is the first step to having the courage to follow what you really believe.

You can also refuse to bully anyone that does not follow the group. We are going to need to build back communities and a society that allows for plurality and a diversity of different thoughts and opinions. This starts with the courage to ALLOW different thoughts and opinions.  This also means not forcing people to show their allegiance to the group and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

By refusing to virtue signal and refusing to bully anyone who doesn’t, we begin to make it safe and normal to be heterodox individuals again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the groupthink and can’t wait to feel free again.

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