In society in general, as well as — perhaps especially? — F/SF fandom, there has been a lot of talk about “virtue signaling,” lately. For those readers who have been living somewhere in the planetary asthenosphere, “virtue signaling” usually means that a person wants to draw attention to the rightness of their cause, their general belief system, or just themselves.
Now, there’s no problem with signaling that one believes in what is virtuous. It’s a natural and healthy human desire to believe that one is on the the side of righteousness and to oppose evil. In that sense, it’s what every good person should do: stand up to be counted for what is right. Where would we be without patriots, or abolitionists, or even the spirit of political opposition that says, “what is popular and easy is not what is right?” This kind of virtue signaling is important, and can be laudable, and even courageous.
Of course, what follows from that is that the more your virtue signaling is lauded, the more likes and approval that is showered on you for doing it, the less courageous, the less laudable, it is. Oh, you may still be on the side of virtue, but it’s easy virtue. It was easy to be anti-Nazi in Germany in 1950. It was not so easy in 1933. It was easy to be against the Vietnam War in 1968. We forget that it was not so easy in 1964.
Humans are tribal. So we like to signal that we are a part of our tribes. At least most of us do. I seem to be very weird that way, because cheerleading for the tribe bores me to tears, and is probably the reason I don’t really have one. But I’m not entirely immune: I like easy praise as much as the next person.
So a lot of what we’re seeing here isn’t really virtue signaling, as such. It’s tribal signaling. “Look at me, I am one of you. Accept me. I belong to this tribe, and I want to love whom I love, and hate whom I hate. And I have power to do so because my tribe is strong, and will protect me, and we shall have the victory.” It’s not particularly evil, but it’s not particularly virtuous. It’s just very human.
But the real problem here isn’t when tribal signaling masquerades as virtue signaling, because that’s just a coded message to the like-minded. It sounds better than literally shouting “Rah-rah-rah, my group is the best, suck it, you outcasts.” No, the real problem is what I’m calling “virtue spoofing.”
Spoofing is an electronic warfare technique in which signals or drones are sent to simulate a radar contact that isn’t really there. It’s used to make the enemy fire at nothing or to make them run away if they believe you have a force you don’t. And virtue spoofing is used the same way: to make it appear that you have a virtue that you don’t. So unlike tribal signaling, virtue spoofing is a lie. It’s a lie that we tell others, and worse, it’s a lie we tell ourselves.
I am not speaking here of the lies that real predators tell, such as the pastor who preaches fidelity while having affairs with the women in his congregation, nor the media icon who stands up for “feminism” while sexually harassing women in his profession. Those are problems, as we have ample cause to know, but more capable writers than I have said more than I could add to about that sort of hypocrisy.
No, the virtue spoofing I wish to discuss is that kind where we try to pretend, to ourselves and others, that if we just talk enough in the right ways about all the right things, then that must make us virtuous people. But that’s not what virtue is, and it has never been what virtue is. Instead, the narratives that we see constructed are essentially magic spells designed to create the illusion that we are good people. But when we do this, we inevitably place ourselves in the role of judges: Anyone who does not signal the way I do is bad. Only those who signal the way I do are good.
This is a very different thing than what is truly virtuous, which is to treat people as fully human, flawed, fallible, and nonetheless as worthy of love and respect as we ourselves. It is popular to spoof virtue, because loving our neighbor in spite of his evil, in spite of his sin, and in spite of his apathy is hard and exhausting. It is much easier to look at the signals, and separate the people who matter from the people who do not matter, and it is a very short step from there — shorter, I think, than we realize — to believing that perhaps we ourselves do not matter, and to fall into despair.
If we are to be, and not merely seem, virtuous; if we are to practice, and not spoof, virtue, then we must begin by practicing what is hard: loving one another, and loving ourselves, while acknowledging our flaws. We must not give in to the easy venting of emotions and confuse that with real action. We must remember that in Tolkien’s words, All that is gold does not glitter. Then, perhaps, we will discover in others and in ourselves the treasure that is real virtue.