Is Disability Virtue Signalling Really A Problem?

Disability virtue signalling?

One day, back in the before times, I was on my way to get my monthly MS blood-work done, and as I slowly rollatored my way to the entrance of the lab, I heard the thumping of feet running on pavement behind me. As I reached for the automatic door opener, a woman dove in front of me at the last second, and, with all her body weight, slammed against the big round button. I wanted to say “Seriously?”, but she was so damned pleased with herself that I felt compelled to dismiss her virtue signalling, and sweetly thank her for literally saving my life. 

I wish I could say that was the only time someone hurled themself in front of an elevator to swoop in and push the button, as if they were taking a bullet for me. I wish I could tell you that the last time someone tried to tie my shoelace was when I was 4. I wish I could tell you that only once has an Uber driver attempted to buckle my seat-belt. I’m not sure what it is about my slow walk that suggests my arms don’t work (they do), but it’s not like these do-gooders have taken the time to think about what I might actually need. Because all of this peacockery isn’t so much to help me, it’s to show me that they care; that they want to help; that they’re one of the good guys. And how can I be mad at that? We need people that care.

And, I’m not mad at it. Well, not exactly. But I’m something.

Because what this behaviour amounts to is Virtue Signalling. And we all do it. All the time. (Okay, maybe not everyone. If you’re one of those man-spreaders on the subway who pretends not to notice that someone needs your seat, this post isn’t for you. Go back to your cave.)

Probably misses his cave.

Virtue Signalling:  a conspicuous but basically useless action or good deed that shows off how awesome you are. Gross, because who wants to be someone else’s good deed. 

As much as I’ve come to recognize virtue signalling for what it is, it’s also something I’m totally guilty of. (Guys, I just told you we all do it.)

Here are some excruciating examples of my own virtue signalling. 

  • Recently, in Mexico, my face hurt from smiling and saying ‘gracias’ so much, because I needed the resort staff to know I don’t think they’re all murderous rapists (but like, where can I score some cocaine?). 
  • I gushed my congratulations when I was reintroduced to Claire, my neighborhood cheese-monger, formerly known as Hugh.
  • Back when burkas were a federal-election issue, I considered wearing a head-scarf when my Muslim girlfriend was being continually harassed. 
  • I always over-tip our housekeeper and pointedly ask about her son by name, which is a big fucking deal, because I have family members whose names I can’t remember (Is it Sidney or Sydney? I DON’T KNOW). 

I cringe writing all of this. I would way rather confess to peeing my pants at the mall than admit to any of this way more embarrassing behaviour, but here we are.

Just kidding about the cocaine, guys. Don’t do cocaine.

I did all of these trashy ass things because on some level I wanted people to know I’m an ally. I’m on your side. I support diversity, and religious freedom and LGBTQ communities. Just like that misguided COVID celebrity sing-a-long, the last thing I wanted was to inadvertently condescend to anyone who doesn’t enjoy the privileges I do. Like Will Ferrell’s confusing af performance of Imagine, I tried! 

Also like Will Ferrell, I haven’t showered or brushed my hair in a minute.

My heart was in the right place. Right? 

Sure. But who cares? Virtue signalling is basically showing off, and nobody likes a show-off, Kanye. But it’s hard to call out virtue signalling because it seems harmless, and intentions matter; and, in all of these examples the intentions were good. There is, however, a reason we should care about this kind of virtue signalling. 

When these less-than-helpful kindnesses happen to me, I realize they don’t make me feel better or supported. They just make me feel different. And never in a good way. Just as I’m sure all the people I gave a misguided fist-bump of support to, more likely felt othered than included. 

Yes, these are teeny tiny slights. The price we pay to live in a society where we’re all still figuring out how to process our differences. But these kinds of microaggressions are like mosquito bites. If you only get one a year, you’re not going to dwell on it, let alone get malaria. But if you get mosquito bites every time you leave the house, you might start flailing your arms in defence anytime someone new gets near you.

Virtue signalling isn’t about the causes we support. It’s about our own egos and identities. Telling people we’re on their side in these useless ways, doesn’t actually do anything to affect change (#iamcharlie but I can’t remember why). But, just because you’re virtue signalling doesn’t mean you don’t care. In fact, you probably do care (terrorism = bad, satire = good).

Most people, I think, are decent, but with so many causes that deserve our attention, it’s hard to care about the ones that don’t directly affect us. It can take all our resources just to look out for ourselves and the people we love. The path to being a true ally involves getting to know someone who’s different, either IRL, or through quality story-telling. 

Whether it’s directed toward persons with MS, some other disability, or any other  marginalized person or group, virtue signalling is basically about being weird. The good news is that most of us have got each other’s backs. We’re getting better at this whole being human thing. . It’s about knowing better and doing better.

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18 thoughts on “Is Disability Virtue Signalling Really A Problem?

  1. I disagree about saying ‘thank you’ and asking about the housekeeper’s son. That’s just having manners, and many people could use a good lesson about manners! I do agree about virtue signaling. My question is, how can we educate people about this? I think that most of them do it out of ignorance. They want to do the right thing but can’t wrap their head around the fact that doing nothing is actually the right thing! I have MS and I have an uncle with MS. He struggles a bit getting around and looks like he might fall over at every step. We had a family reunion a couple years ago and my whole family (except me) was on edge every time he stood up! These are all of his siblings. I was able to talk with a few of them about knocking it off, but old habits die hard. I just need to know a diplomatic way to tell people that those of us with different abilities are not in need, or want, of a bunch of heroes!

  2. I get the same reaction from people who encounter me with my canes or a walker. I would be happier to be invisible, but such is life. Occasionally I want to say thank you for the help but if you REALLY want to help me, please, the next time your city council tries to raise money to make your city more accessible to everyone, please support their efforts and don’t complain about the $2.00 increase in your taxes. That way I can go everywhere I want and spend time with those I love.

  3. I think this is the first post I’ve read i don’t agree with, ’bout time 🙂 I think there is so much meanness and nastiness out there nowadays, maybe you’ve forgetten that some people are, well, just nice. I hate having to hurry if someone holds the door open for me, because, lazy…but i know they hold the door open for everyone. So from others expect the worst but hope for the best, be glad people are not mean because there is enough of that happening, know your privilege, yada yada . Cheers,

  4. I will get the door and my own water, ice, coffee cup sleeve etc We are in a pandemic (so sorry but you can suffer and die too ya know).

  5. I am on the fence about this article. I have invisible illnesses and struggle many days. I don’t necessarily need assistance most days, but some days I wish I could could get some help. On the other hand when I’m feeling ok I want to help others in case they need aid. Plus it’s my personality to be a helper. I understand how it can be demeaning though, nobody wants to be condescended to. I’m going to keep helping, not to virtue signal, but to be a kind human being.

  6. Virtual Signaling, forgive my ignorance but does this include the woman that is speaking so loudly to her child explaining why people carry canes or use wheelchairs to show you what a “good mother” she is educating her child and everyone else in the store?
    This is a huge pet peeve of mine and I’ve never had a word for it.
    I understand the over salacious behavior being covered and am appreciative of the words for it.
    I’d love to lump in the overly attentive mother, boyfriend, girlfriend and whom ever else annoys the piss out of me by showing me how great they are!

    1. Preach.
      I think sometimes my husband does stuff publicly that he wouldn’t do privately (bc he knows better) bc he doesn’t want to be judged by others for not helping.

  7. i am happy for people to help with doors etc even if i don’t need the help, i would rather this than people watch me struggle. If it makes people feel they are doing good then it is win-win for everybody. Years before i had MS i opened a door for someone in a wheelchair who was very rude and shouted that they didn’t need help – this reaction made me question helping anyone in future. So smile and say thank you so you don’t discourage the person from helping someone who really need/appreciates help.

    1. I’m happy to have doors opened for me, of course, but I don’t need buttons pushed or shoes tied. I’m sorry that person yelled at you. Not cool. I think sometimes it can be upsetting to lose independence and we still want to do what we can as we are able.

  8. A friend has a bad stammer. When I first met her I used to complete words she was struggling with, in the mistaken belief that I was helping her. Since then I have learnt that it’s better to let her complete her word. She might be struggling with a different word or a different tense of the word. However it’s still hard to keep my eyes fixed on her without expression, while she tries to say something.

  9. I actually do need my shoes tied and someone to press buttons for me. I’m in a scooter and have limited ability with my arms and hands. I actually love it when somebody comes up and jumps in front of me to open the door. I appreciate the kindness and it also makes things a lot easier for me. Strangers don’t understand what your abilities are. I appreciate people being kind and considerate. Even if it makes them feel good to help me, so be it, there are other things to bitch about in this world. I thought you were going to say that the woman was running in front of you so she didn’t have to wait behind you. Which has happened to me. That’s something to bitch about.

  10. Yes so much to this! My own experience of this now that I often use a walking stick is also opening my eyes to my own behaviour and making me so much more aware of that “yes but I’m a good person, see!” attitude within, and think about how I need to re-evaluate. Recently (pre-virus) I was in a meeting with a colleague and our boss, I reached for the water jug to get myself some water but my colleague jumped in, grabbed the jug and poured me a glass. She looked so smug with herself, but it made me feel so infantilised and pathetic -I honestly just wanted to knock it over and pour myself another one, but I smiled politely and thanked her…..??

    1. So glad you brought this up lady!!
      I know what you mean and do you know what?
      The effort involved in being calm and magnanimous has put me off goin out now
      The pitying looks, slow loud talking, and unasked for help ( not to mention the gargantuan effort involved in getting ready to go out, then the focus involved in achieving what I have gone out to achieve…gak the patience required….)make it hard for me to not scream ( and cause instant offence)
      ‘if I wanted any help, I’d ask for it?! leave me (the fcuk) alone to focus – you aren’t helping, youre interfering – durr’ ( its happened ! I felt awful) .. hence why I don’t bother with the effort of going out anymore – it’s safer all round

  11. I realize that I’m a little late to the game on this post, but reading it I know exactly how you feel. I typically use a cane in public, and I’m always surprised when I get an overly zealous ‘helper’ to hold a door for me. I thought you’d laugh though at the exact opposite reaction we got when we were waiting in line to go through the TSA check. As you can imagine, it’s herd mentality, and as we were standing (not moving) someone came flying up to get into the front of the line and KICKED my cane out from under me. Naturally, I had almost all of my weight on the cane, and fell into quite a spectacle. He looked back and didn’t even apologize… to be honest, I kinda liked the fact that I was treated (rudely) just like everyone else in line. To quote Gilda Radner: “It’s always something.”

    Thank you so very much for the inspiration that you give to all of us in the MS community!!!

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