Virtue Signaling and Purity Spiraling

Interesting article from Quillette: Worry About Piety Contests, Not ‘Virtue Signaling’

Classifying virtue signaling is hard.

There are perhaps four forms of virtue signaling:

virtue signaling 1: signaling virtue with the intent of boosting one’s status (such as posting a tweet; re-tweeting)

virtue signaling 2: signaling virtue but without intent of boosting one’s status (same as above, but not caring about status or who sees it)

virtue signaling 3: engaging in virtuous activity but with the intent of boosting one’s status and or legacy (making a large donation to build a legacy and namesake, such as to a university or hospital)

virtue signaling 4: engaging in virtuous activity but without the expectation of recognition (anonymous donation)

#2 & #4 could just be simply ‘virtue’, since there is no intent to boost one’s status.

Although #4 can technically be considered more virtuous than #3, to the recipient, it does not make a difference.

Piety spiraling/purity spiraling: largely concerns #1 but can sometimes involve #2; oppression Olympics; concentric rings of intersectionality; disavowing; one-upmanship to see who can signal the most virtue and solitary with the smallest and most oppressed group. This can get out of control and to outsiders resembles a witch hunt or inquisition.

#3 and #4 seldom spiral because they involve much more work, rather than just tweeting something. Viral social media and the 24-7 news cycle are especially conducive to the formation purity spirals.

Purity spiraling involves multiple people whereas virtue signaling involves just a single individual, but many individuals simultaneously engaging virtue signaling often leads to a spiral when it feeds on itself. A example of this is the #metoo movement, which began as a legitimate grievance against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, both of whom engaged in actual sexual assault, but in recent weeks has become so encompassing that any semi-important man who has ever made an advance at a woman, is now at risk.

A second example of a recent piety/purity spiral was the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, but not so much the march itself, but rather infighting on Twitter between POC-feminists and white feminists. POC-feminists accused white feminists of hijacking the ’cause’ and being deaf to the fact that Trump is a bigger threat to POC than whites, and that whites elected Trump (so even white feminists, who oppose Trump, still bear some collective guilt). White feminists, in order to show solidarity with POC and to atone, began disavowing other white feminists, with increasing hostility. There is a sort of self-destructive element to it, in that members will of the same ‘tribe’ or identity will turn on each other.

As I have argued previously, genuine virtue necessarily begins as posturing. People are not born caring about high ideals. They will, however, start to care about what others think of them, and realize that high ideals are something that people reward you for having. It’s only after a period of posturing that norms and high ideals are internalized, and that acting virtuously becomes habitual and second-nature. Only then can these ideals become a motive force for genuine virtue. This has been understood at least since St. Augustine, who wrote at length about the necessity of cultivating virtuous habits. More recently, C.S. Lewis argued:

Although posturing is an insincere show of virtue, it’s possible to signal virtue without posturing. For example, someone may genuinely want to help the homeless, but at the same time signal his virtuousness by being seen helping. Most of the SJWs on Twitter and Tumblr care about the causes they are promoting, but at the same time they seek status by being seen by their peers as displaying as much virtue as possible.