It Shouldn’t Be Called Virtue Signaling

While the phenomena certainly exists, the term for it is empirically false.

By this point we are all familiar with the concept of virtue signaling. You are trying to discuss some topic and instead of engaging in authentic rhetoric your sparring partner starts moral grandstanding in ways which serve only to identify themselves as morally superior by conceptual, symbolic, narrative and/or tribal associations. Yes, this is happening. A whole lot, in fact. It is becoming the greatest obstacle to human rationality since the dark ages. But it is not, by definition, a form of signaling.

In evolutionary biology/psychology signaling is a method which a species may use to increase adaptability and fitness. However to be considered a signal it has to meet two criteria: it has to be honest and costly.

Let’s consider the peacock. It’s feather display is a signal. It honestly tells potential mates how physically and genetically fit the individual is. And to grow such plumage requires a rich diet which involves labor and risk, thus making it costly.

How about something less tangible, like grief. Grief tells those around you that you care about their lives and well being. Since only actually caring leads to the social complexity which creates evolutionary adaptability and fitness, it must be honest to be considered a signal. And since an individual grieving goes through an ordeal that risks their own well-being, it is also costly.

Virtue signals are neither honest, nor costly – and that is the problem. In the phenomena which we call virtue signaling claims are performed to indicate associations. The cost of these performances is often just the energy used typing them. And most of all it is not leading to social cohesion, but rather to division and discord, which decreases our evolutionary adaptability and fitness. Virtue itself is rarely even involved, as the virtue of one’s preferred associations are assumed without being specifically mentioned or tested for consistency.

So let’s replace the term ‘virtue’ with ‘identity’ and the word ‘signaling’ with ‘posturing’ – since that is a more accurate assessment of what is going on here. Individuals engaging in this behavior are performing a posture which they associate as belonging to their tribal identity. And in doing so they are polluting the intellectual environment with semiotically-deranged noise which is causing us to cognitively devolve.

‘Virtue signaling’ is giving credit where none is due. It is elevating a destructive rhetorical pandemic to a beneficial evolutionary tactic, which it is not. Identity posturing is the death knell of critical thinking. It is creating a world in which substance is entirely replaced by symbol, and in which self-delusion, hypocrisy and authoritarianism thrive. Because the content of identity posturing is so irrational and imprecise, in labeling that behavior we need be entirely rational and precise about what is happening. If we are gonna call it out when we see it, let’s call it what it is, and not be part of the problem.

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