Political ideology is a powerful motivator. Touting our political action and allegiance publicly is our way of identifying who we are, who we align ourselves with, and how much we value our belief systems. We’ve all been there. Even many politically-unengaged people, particularly in a representative democracy, get fired up about shouting down the other side and shouting up their side once every four years.
We believe not just that our allegiances are right, but that they make us good people – the right kind of people. This sense of moral superiority gets out one way or another. Our yard sign claims that “This house supports the right person.” Our bumper sticker insults the intelligence and virtue of the person behind us. At parties we speak up vocally for the platform we support, hoping that others will notice.
This problem of a desire for notice has only gotten worse with the rise of social media. We’ve all seen or tweeted the viral hashtags, the protest selfies, the
#IMarchedForThatThingISupport #ThatThingISupportMatters #TheOtherSideInThisDebateIsEvilOrIgnorant #MyTeamKnowsBest #MakeMyIdeologyGreatAgain
When accompanied by photos and moral or emotional pleas for the side in question, these kinds of posts serve a second purpose (though some might say it’s the primary one) besides communicating that a certain group of people is helping victims. That second purpose has come to be known as “virtue signaling:”
Virtue Signaling, n. the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
Virtue signaling by activists in our modern world may be posting video evidence of having marched in a popular parade. It may be public “preaching to the choir” pontification on the importance of certain legislation. It may be content in which important people agree with the activists’ position. All of these things may simply be ways of sharing an opinion, but they end up being polarizing to the outside world: “either you’re with me and morally admirable or you’re against me and morally reprehensible ”
There’s something to be said for virtue signaling. If it did not serve a valuable purpose to someone, it’s not likely that it would exist. Some virtue does exist in greater supply in certain camps, and sometimes people suffering at the hands of unvirtuous people need to know who the virtuous people really are. That much can be said for virtue signaling.
What can’t be said for virtue signaling? A good deal. Virtue signaling of the kind we see on Twitter divides the sides of the debate unnecessarily, swells egos, lets people take credit for achievements not their own, and skews incentives toward performing more publicly-noticeable activism rather than more beneficial tasks. It actually slows down real positive social change as a result. Both sides are too self-absorbed in image maintenance.
It turns out that this is not a new problem. And it seems that wise agents of change from millennia ago faced down the same problem.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives this sermon, which acts as a launching point for the introduction of the well-known Lord’s Prayer
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
– Matthew 6:1-4
I admit it. I have a hard time understanding Jesus sometimes. The man was talking to people living 2,000 years ago in an entirely different culture, whose history and circumstances we know only in part. But occasionally some obscure preaching of his bubbles up to the surface right when I need wisdom for what seems to be a uniquely 21st-century problem.
On virtue signaling, Jesus is once again proven to be a stone-cold genius.
What is his answer to the ideologues? If you really believe that what you are doing is good, go and do it. But don’t broadcast it to seek the validation and ego-reward of the people around you. If you have something important or true to say, say it. Don’t make it about establishing that you are a good person and the people around you or wrong. If you actually seek to convince, talk about truth and not evaluations. Do it humbly, and do it with empathy.
A good thing worth doing or saying is worth doing or saying in itself. You will experience God – or, if you will, ultimate reality – more fully when you live focused on the truth and value of your actions before the praise of men.
It’s a radical thing to ask: that we do good in secret. But secrecy has power.
Secret goodness defuses false ego gratification and the tribal posturing of political ideology. Secret goodness renders virtue signaling moot. Secret goodness aligns a person’s incentives toward actually helping people, rather than just satisfying the social expectations of others.
Anything secret has real power and is truly attractive. Even Jesus spent most of his ministry concealing his identity and full purpose, speaking in riddles, doing his most significant acts in private, and strictly commanding secrecy of some of those he helped. And yet the news spread anyway. People judged Jesus by his actions rather than by his own words about his actions.
We would do well to imitate Jesus here.