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OnWords: Virtue Signalling

Virtue signaling is a term describing people publicly declaring their positions on various issues of the day, using print, speech, or social media to align themselves, often with progressive causes or points of view.

For the more cynical among us, virtue signaling seems self-aggrandizing, the attempt by the signalers to bring the glory of goodness upon themselves by declaring just which side of history they are on. Whether it’s white folks hashtagging Black Lives Matter or straight people retweeting articles on LGBT issues, it’s hard not to see virtue signaling as more about the person doing it than the cause being promoted.

Virtue signaling also smacks of a sort of false courage, a coming out by people who have no need for coming out, directed at an audience that already agrees. Repeating a progressive talking point takes little effort, even less now that our public declarations can be electronically replicated.

Yet virtue signaling has existed for as long as people have communicated: a speech in an ancient Greek forum, a manifesto distributed among mid-century industrial workers.

Virtue signaling, as a speech act, indicates where the signaler stands in troubled times. And though we may criticize tribalism, at a time when public debates have turned into very real violence, people may use virtue signaling to find their tribe, gaining a sense of safety. When push comes to shove, or devolves into gunfire, it’s good to know just who is on your side.                                                                                                                        

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.