Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Virtue Signaling and Identity Politics: Or How to Misuse A New Phrase You Barely Understand…


My husband is a great guy but, honestly, he has a hard time keeping up on the latest from popular culture and emerging trends. Take, for example, new phrases. Over the past few months,
Vegan Street has been hit with a bunch of terms on our various social media platforms (but especially Instagram) that have left John with a proverbial cartoon thought balloon containing a big, red question mark over his head and two phrases are appearing most often. It usually goes like this: We post a meme about cruelty to animals and we’re accused of virtue signaling. We make a statement against the oppression of other humans and suddenly, we’re accused of engaging in identity politics.

Let’s dissect these phrases, shall we?

What is Virtue Signaling?

Is a person anti-racist to the extent that he or she is working to eradicate white supremacy or is someone anti-racist in that he or she will post a Martin Luther King meme on the third Monday of each January? If it’s the latter, that person may just be virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling is sharing thoughts on important issues for the sake of being seen as a good person without doing the actual work to create a better world. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, virtue signaling is “an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media: Virtue signaling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas or cultural happenings.” Coined by British journalist and author James Bartholomew, virtue signaling skillfully describes the spectacle on social media of people posting disingenuous and largely anodyne sentiments about important matters, often in the realm of social justice, for the main purpose of trying to be seen as virtuous. It is an increasingly common feature of our daily lives. The phrase “virtue signaling” is very handy in describing something that didn’t have a term for it until social media forged in into being but you wish you’d had it in your vocabulary long ago.

What is Identity Politics?

Identity politics has some similar aspects to virtue signaling. Developed as a term to describe
a personal, political and ideological focus on the issues relevant to various groups that are defined by a wide array of shared characteristics, for example, race, sexual orientation and religion, “identity politics” is more of a neutral term than virtue signaling, which is always derogatory, as it’s one that has both positive and negative connotations. At its best, identity politics helps to serve, elevate and amplify the needs of often-ignored groups and at its worst, identity politics is a blunt instrument that encourages conformity, suppression of individual voices and hyper-focuses on division and separation. I think that both interpretations can be true. In the hands of someone who scarcely understands the expression, though, identity politics becomes, like virtue signaling, just another self-conscious way to show off.

There is truth to
the criticisms; there are people who are prone to bland, self-centered “activism” and certainly social media lends itself to the garish pageantry of this. However, rather than a thoughtful critique, I am seeing the terms used as a knee-jerk and reactive cynical response more and more these days. Rather than examining why they themselves aren’t more engaged with creating a more just world, those who invoke the terms often seem like they would just be content if we’d all admit that no one really cares and that those who are trying to make the world a better place are grandiose, attention-seeking hypocrites. I have noticed a cold, cynical nihilism at the root of much of this accusation of phoniness rather than a thoughtful analysis.

I know we love our new expressions, especially ones with a bit of a zing, but slapping them on with a broad brush whenever we think it might apply tends to neutralize terms that are actually useful and helpful to understand. To adapt an idiom, when your shiniest, newest phrase is a hammer, all of the sudden, everything and everyone become a nail.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with a newbie’s guide to these two new phrases.

On Virtue Signaling…

Sample quote: “Pardon me, your shoe is untied.”
Instead of: “Hey, cool. Thanks.”
Might Try: “What makes you think you’re so la-dee-dah heroic? Show off. You virtue signalers are so annoying.”

Sample quote: “Excuse me, your gas cap isn’t on.”  

Instead of: “Oh, thanks so much!”
Newbies Might Try: “So now I guess you think you’re like the best person in the world for that, huh?
Awesome virtue signaling.”

Sample quote: “Hi, I found your dog running in the street and have him at my house for you to pick up.”
Instead off: “I am so grateful! I didn’t realize our back gate was open and I’ve been looking for him for an hour. Oh, thank you! I am so happy!”
Newbies Might Try: “What do you want, a virtue signaling cookie?”

Sample situation: Taking a public position on abuse, harassment, oppression, bigotry, misogyny, tyranny, etc. [fill-in-the-blank].
Instead of, “Thank you for -”
Newbies Might Try: “Oh, my god, enough with your virtue signaling, okay? I guess you think you’re so superior and all that?”

On Identity Politics…

Sample quote: “I am a feminist.”
Instead of saying: “That’s great to hear. Political, social and economic equality of the sexes should be a given.”

Newbies Might Try: “Ugh, people and their labels! Some of us are too mature for narrow-minded identity politics.”

Sample quote: “I think speaking up against racism is kind of the least I can do.”
Instead of saying, “I agree. We should be doing everything we can to reverse white supremacy and ending systemic racism.”
Newbies Might Try: “Well, whoopety doo, you’re against racism. What about reverse racism? I had to work for everything I have. I am so tired of everyone’s damn identity politics.”

Sample quote: “As a gay person and business owner, I like to support businesses that are on the record for supporting LBGTQ causes and withdraw my support from those who don’t.”
Instead of: “Showing support of businesses that stand for LBGTQ rights is a great way to use your dollars to reward those whose values you appreciate and withdraw support from those you don’t.”
Newbies Might Try: “Oh my god, what’s next? This is like Nazism. Enough with the identity politics.”

Sample quote: “As a vegan, I take a position against the oppression of all beings. Whether we’re talking racism, sexism or any other form of bigotry, aligning with discrimination is in conflict with my vegan convictions.”
Instead of: “Yes, that makes sense. I mean, you’re opposed to suffering and cruelty, right?”

Newbies Might Try: “Ugh, how about you take your damn identity politics out of your veganism? Not every vegan is a SJW libtard.”

Or, you know, maybe we shouldn’t bust out new phrases whenever we feel threatened or reactive but look within at our responses instead. It’s your call, virtue signaler.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.