Of all the dismissals of protest and outrage that we’ve heard from conservatives over the past two years I think the one that makes me the craziest is the accusation of “virtue signaling.”
Expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality. In response, there have been criticisms of expressions of outrage as mere “virtue signaling” — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.
Clearly, feigned righteousness exists. We can all think of cases where people simulated or exaggerated feelings of outrage because they had a strategic reason to do so. Politicians on the campaign trail, for example, are frequent offenders.
So it may seem reasonable to ask, whenever someone is expressing indignation, “Is she genuinely outraged or just virtue signaling?”
I thought about this over the usual two-protest summer weekend, and following a work discussion about audiences for stories, because it’s really easy to accuse someone of showing off when you don’t understand why what they’re doing is important.
Or when you’re used to not being opposed.
Trump was supposed to win the argument, right? He was supposed to be the ultimate fuck-you, the ultimate OH YEAH HOW DO YOU LIKE THIS THEN? It was the ultimate defeat for us dastardly liberals and our terrible identity politics, for people who talk about bathrooms and pronouns, about segregation and sexual assault.
We were supposed to be so humiliated and sad and scared and ashamed of losing that we’d never show our faces again.
Yet here we are. Singing.
And that pisses them off so much. They accuse us of showing off because they’re mad we’re still here.
Too bad, assholes.
The accusation of “virtue signaling” implies that we shouldn’t live our lives in public, that we shouldn’t show what we believe.
Living your life in a way that honors American values when no one is rewarded (and no, Twitter likes are not rewards, I don’t care what the hashtag-resistance says) for doing so is a radical fucking act. Do you know how much money the right throws around? Ben Shapiro has a whole media empire for being a halfbright douche when friends of mine are dying broke and broken for writing about unjust wars and cowardly politics, don’t you dare act like there’s something in this for us. I’m as mad about the #NeverTrump rebranding as you are but few people getting book deals while the rest of us hook for ho-hos is not a system that rewards people for speaking out and speaking up.
In defense, let us remember always, of such controversial ideas as “it is legal to seek asylum in the richest country in the world” and “maybe let’s not take babies away from their mothers.” It’s not immaterial WHAT virtues we are demonstrating. It matters what the gesture IS.
So we’re just “virtue signaling,” Republicans? OKAY. I’m pretty okay with signaling the virtue that all men are created equal and so were the founding fathers whose legs you hump, not that you can even spell their names.
Is it useless to stand in a circle beneath a memorial to the War to End All Wars, one hundred years and seven wars later, with candles in our hands and inadequate words in our mouths? No one’s liberated from the camps and no one’s given asylum and no one’s safe because a few people in a few places lit candles and sang. No one’s free because of the light.
That we know of.
But no one’s imprisoned because of the light. No one’s separated and no one’s tortured and no one’s poorer or hungrier because of the light.
And maybe someone inside the walls of a prison somewhere heard the singing outside.
At a time when we’re being told not to believe what we can see, at a time when we’re being told we’re not Real Americans and don’t live in the Real World, signals are how we get to one another. How we let one another know what’s happening, who needs help, how to find them. I have it tattooed on my left goddamn arm, the line from Serenity: Can’t stop the signal.
Is that enough by itself? Of course not, but I don’t know anyone at a protest on the weekends who isn’t working during the week to make this better in a thousand small ways from calling Congress to helping their neighbors to volunteering at a food pantry to just goddamn not voting for monsters.
You take every chance to stand up because never in this world are you ever going to know for sure which one is going to be the one that makes the change.
And literally nobody posting a cute protest selfie on Instagram or buying a Ruth Bader Ginsburg pin is making the world worse, unlike Mike Pence, the creature. So if you can do nothing else, signal.