At one time, virtue centered on personal character. Aristotle taught that if you can determine what a society considers good or virtuous, then you can understand the morality of that society’s institutions. Today, virtue is no longer centered on the personal character of those that make up the society, but rather the public sympathy for humanitarian causes. Watch any awards show today and the list of causes is as long as the length of dresses on the red carpet. The moral preening has become so common and blase that today we have a name for it: “Virtue signaling.”
Our moral outlook today is measured by how much one professes sympathy for a cause whether talking about homelessness, poverty, or civil rights. The more publicly ostentatious, the greater the virtue attached to the person by the elite. These elitist attitudes have their roots in the 1960’s. Updated sentiments of The Port Huron Statement dressed up in the language of “tolerance” and “diversity” are the preferred qualities that today define public virtue. Those sentiments are expressed as “self-fulfillment” being the animating pursuit of the common good.
But a social and political outlook based on self-fulfillment all-too-often becomes one of self-indulgence. When a worldview relentlessly focuses on oneself, it is simply narcissism- and a hypocritical narcissism at that. Actually solving a problem becomes less important than the narcissistic approval one receives from the moral preening of the person. Academia over the years has redefined virtue from something regarding the self and made it into a service to humanity. Hence, in policy the action is virtuous if it has a humanitarian goal.
Today’s virtue signaling has its roots in the liberalism of the 1960’s. The New Left attacked not only conservatism, but the moderate voices within the existing Left. Slogans replaced research, analysis and civil debate. The New Left was more about rage than reason and they passed this mindset down to their offspring. Read Slate or Salon and you usually find articles with one of these two formulas: (1) Person A (usually a liberal) Just Schooled Person B (usually a conservative) About (Insert cause/policy here) or, (2) Ten Reasons (insert conservative policy) Is Wrong. Most of the diatribe is devoid of analysis, and research has no place when there is anger to be vented.
The phenomena has permeated into business. Whole Foods displays posters about how they are “bigger than food” because they “champion what’s good.” NO- you are a food store! Google and Facebook were active in the same sex marriage drive. Starbucks had a program called “Race Together” where harried coffee buyers were supposed to engage in a dialog with a “barrista” about race. Virtue signaling by businesses is cheap advertisement and sometimes a great detraction from actual questionable business practices because it is much easier to go after the small, Christian baker of wedding cakes.
Hollywood is another bastion of sanctimonious virtue where someone with the bully pulpit lectures us illiterate rubes on worthy causes. But behind the scenes, there exists the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. These were people exposed as lacking in true virtues like temperance, civility, self-control, decency and moderation. They too are responsible for this erosion and dismissal of personal virtue in favor of a public commitment to society and the world. The traditional understanding of morality has been turned upside down.
The Paris Climate Change Accords is virtue signaling writ large. If every country complied, it would make no difference in the average temperature of the world. But, it was the thought that counts. When 195 countries agree to anything without some rancor, you know that on the practical level there are no consequences.
The Accords also demonstrate that policy is often NOT dictated by what works, but on the good intentions of the policy. It is not based on reason; it is based on a slogan. Show me a politician with a policy based on efficacy and not motive and I will show you a frustrated politician. There used to be reasoned debate albeit not a win for conservatism all the time, but a reasoned debate nonetheless. That is simply impossible today in 140 characters or less, or whatever it is these days.
By now, the average conservative should know that liberals are more virtuous. After all, their relentless haranguing has told us that they are the only ones who care about the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. If not for them, it would be a conservative dystopia. They have the ribbons, pins, marches and Facebook/Twitter postings to prove it. And their virtue has been heightened in this age of Trump. The equality of results agenda justifies their noble ends. Their virtue signaling is an act of affirmation of their liberal value and enhances their reputation of a woke, enlightened, tolerant person.
However, the fact they even need to signal their virtue is proof that liberals and the Democratic Party are devoid of any new ideas. The only thing original about them is the never-ending means to portray conservatives as bigoted, Neanderthal morons. They are incapable of new ideas because they are slaves to their ideology. They subscribe to the view that good policy stems from good intentions which is why their political lifeblood depends on identity politics and an endless parade of victims.
Which brings me to the recent sanctimonious virtue signaling on the Right. Have we as conservatives become devoid of new ideas, or are we now so morally bankrupt of virtue that we must resort to the signaling in which the Left engages? No amount of groveling, cringing, hand-wringing, pontificating, or pearl clutching will win the hearts and minds of those on the Left.
A perfect example was the reaction by many on the Right to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past year. Let us put this in perspective. One collection of miscreants had fights with another group of miscreants. But, somehow, somewhere along the line, the goals, if not tactics, of one group of miscreants was somehow more noble. Without any facts gathered, the rush by conservatives to condemn the violence as if it was perpetrated by only one side signaled their virtue. Yet, where were these conservative voices when Obama, Loretta Lynch, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic leaders failed or refused to call out the violence by groups like Black Lives Matter or the antifa? A BLM official was welcomed by Obama into the White House. We heard a few Republican/conservative protests, but nothing like those expressed after Charlottesville, but most were cowering behind sanctimonious social media postings.
Spare me the accusations of “whataboutism.” Simply, this was about a consistent standard based on a consistent principle- that of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Or has conservatism become so jaded and beaten down that we have abandoned first principles for the greater good through even the thought of censoring “some hate speech.” The accusations of “whataboutism” against those who bring up these inconsistencies are just people hiding behind their double standards and that is no virtue.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Pat Buchanan penned an article titled “If We Erase Our History, Who Are We?” This brought out a sanctimonious response from the senior editor of the American Conservative, Rod Dreher. In language direct from the talking points of the Left, he called Buchanan’s view “disgusting, racist, indefensible.” He took it a step further and expressed his faux courage by declaring, “If this is where the Right is going, it can go off that racist cliff without me.” In short, Dreher’s response registered a 10 on the SSS- the Sasse Sanctimony Scale. [NOTE: For the record, I like Ben Sasse and generally disagree with the paleoconservatism of Pat Buchanan]
This trend of signaling one’s virtue has encroached upon the conservative elite. In their zeal to show their intentions are good, they have piled on in their condemnations of just about anything involving Trump, the latest lightning rod of the Left and Conservatism, Inc. alike. Instead of adopting the phoniness of the Left, this writer finds it shameful and frustrating that conservatism cannot find the higher moral ground without resorting to their tactics. Conservative policies are proven not only to work better, but they are morally superior.
The Democratic Left relies on cliches and false narratives to shame the Right and Republicans into the pursuit of the Leftist agenda. To be sure, it is a slow, piecemeal process, but one moving forward nevertheless. Before one knows it, they are spouting the talking points of the Left gussied up in the language of conservatism. There are too many supposed conservatives and too many elected Republicans lacking in intellectual integrity and dignity.
Today, while the Left and the deranged on the Right chase the ghosts of collusion to rig the 2016 election, they ignore an actual case of rigging the nomination for Hillary Clinton. That is not whataboutism- it is objective fact and spare me the “but she didn’t win” excuse. Because she didn’t win does that make the rigging any less morally bankrupt?
The media lectures us on the importance of being pro-choice and that a billion dollar entity- Planned Parenthood- provides vital services to the poor while they engage in selling baby parts. But, Project Veritas, which revealed the practice, uses “questionable journalistic” methods. Yep- nobody put those words in the mouths of Planned Parenthood officials. Because they use “questionable journalistic methods,” does that make even the contemplation of selling baby parts any less morally bankrupt?
Trump is a misogynist while Hollywood awards a known rapist (Roman Polanski). Meanwhile, Democrats take millions from a serial rapist/groper/harasser. Trump may have cheated on his wives in well-publicized divorces and said some crude things, but is that any more morally bankrupt than the private, swept under the rug reality of Hollywood?
We can chalk up this virtue signaling as rank hypocrisy, but that would be an insult to hypocrites and the problem goes deeper than hypocrisy. Over the past 300 years, Western culture has changed the traditional notion of virtue and established a new, fake morality. Perhaps this is a by-product of the Enlightenment or our drift into a secular society where traditional notions of virtue and morality- namely, religion- have been replaced by the elite talking heads in academia and the media. That is, by the Left.
Whatever the cause and whatever the effect, the most despicable byproduct is the conservative acting and talking like a liberal. Simply, if you feel the need to signal your virtue, then you lack virtue in the first place.