Virtue and Signaling

One of the responses I keep seeing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement about alt-right and white supremacy goes like this: “I agree that racism is bad, but this just feels like political correctness. It seems like the SBC just wants liberals to think they’re good people. Why aren’t we condemning all forms of racism, like [insert group here]? This just reeks of virtue signaling.”

Of course, the proper response to this objection is to ask the person saying this, “Do you mind explaining to me in this context what the difference is between virtue signaling and being virtuous?” That’s the correct answer because the burden of proof is on the one making the accusation of virtue signaling to explain why condemning a politically active group of racists is by definition performative, but condemning abortionists, LGBT lobbyists, and doctrinally wayward churches is not.

But too often, I see friends try to respond to this accusation by saying that it’s not virtue signaling, because racism is a serious threat, it matters how we as a denomination respond to it, and our black and brown brothers and sisters in the faith need to hear us call sin against them what it is. That’s all true, of course, and it all matters. But I don’t think that it’s the best response to the charge of virtue signaling, for two reasons. The first reason is pragmatic, and the second reason is philosophical.

The pragmatic reason is simple. If someone is trying to argue that denominational statements against racism or the alt-right are virtue signaling, you’re not going to get far with them by using arguments that emphasize how brave or necessary such statements are. You see, the trouble with accusations of virtue signaling is that when the stakes go up, the accusations get stickier and stickier. By saying this issue is just too important not to speak up on, you are merely ceding the fact that “liberal media” (by which most people who say this phrase mean everybody who is not in their sociopolitical in-group) determines what’s important to talk about. Like a conspiracy theory, it’s a vicious cycle: Of course you think it’s important to talk about racism, because that’s what the media keeps saying, and what’s important to you is being on the right side of the media, etc etc etc. You can’t defeat this line of thinking with logic, because it’s designed to entail every single response you can give to it. It’s a faith commitment, not a rational deduction.

The philosophical reason is more important, though perhaps less obvious. What makes virtue signaling morally dubious is the fact that it’s basically a synonym for hypocrisy. People who virtue signal are essentially performing virtue for the approbation of others. They either don’t really mean it or else don’t mean it as much as they’re letting on. They want to be known a certain way, and their desire to be approved far outweighs their intellectual commitment to what they’re saying.

That means that the person who is accusing you of virtue signaling because you explicitly condemned racist speech or attitudes is actually changing the subject. The subject has changed from racism, and those who promote it, to you–your motivations, your morals, your authenticity. Here’s the thing: Once the subject is changed in this way, it can’t un-change on its own. Once the issue becomes the where the info came from, instead of whether it’s true or helpful or necessary, that’s it. The conversation has calcified. We aren’t talking about black people, or white supremacy, or theology, or American culture anymore. We’re talking about you.

It’s this rhetorical move that has to be thwarted at all costs.

Part of the reason American racial politics are not better than they are is that both the Left and the Right have tried to change the subject in this way. When the conversation threatens to become about undue economic hardship in redlined black communities, conservatives have too often said, “But look at how liberals have benefited from gerrymandering!” When the conversation threatens to become about Planned Parenthood’s absolute ravaging of urban communities, liberals have too often said, “Conservatives only care about babies until they’re born!” The movement away from racial justice issues toward the motivations of those trying to parse them out is a cultural and political feature that has been devastating, because it has been so effective, and so few people know how to quit its cycle.

If I had 10 seconds to be broadcast on all major TV networks to say whatever I wanted to say to America, I’d say: “Jesus offers life, and don’t be afraid of finding truth outside your tribe.” The intense, life-crushing political polarization of our culture grinds the mechanisms of actual positive change to bits. And it’s due in large part to the fact that people actually believe “But what about them” is a good, morally responsible argument.

It’s not.