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.)
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.)
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.
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!
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.