Monday, May 11, 2020

I've Never Started A Fight But Every Fight I've Ever Been In Resulted From Deficient Vice Signaling


independent |  The right's embrace of vice-signaling, and indeed of vice, is how we got Trump. It's also why his administration has been so unable to deal with a crisis requiring collective civic virtue.

Conservatives have long embraced a kind of tough-love, individualistic ethos which trumpets callousness as a good in itself. They have attacked "bleeding heart" liberals for decades for the moral sin of caring about people who are suffering, and for thinking that collectively we should try to address injustice and inequality, rather than submitting to economic Darwinism.

Little wonder, then, that the right weaponized the term “virtue-signaling" over the past few years. The phrase is now used to sneer at anyone who expresses public concern about sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, or bigotry of any sort. If you ask someone not to use a racial slur, or not to misgender someone, you are supposedly engaged in “virtue-signaling”— which is to say, that you are only objecting to cruelty because you want other people to like you or admire you. The term “virtue-signaling" assumes that anyone who speaks about the value of virtue is hypocritical and self-aggrandizing. 

But virtue is about how you treat other people. To create virtuous communities, you need to talk about what it means to be good. Labeling virtue talk as bad means you're rejecting the pursuit of virtue as a goal. 

The right has in fact in many ways rejected the pursuit of virtue. Instead, they have chosen to create communities tied together with virtue's opposite. Conservative thinkers and pundits today frequently insist that reality does not have any place for communal and collective good, and instead call on people to admit, or even revel in, openly callous and bloodthirsty expressions of hatred or immorality. 

The most extreme example of this comes, as usual, from radio show conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.  Jones recently said that if there were coronavirus food shortages, he would eat his neighbors in order to feed his children. 

But the vice-signaler-in-chief is, of course, Donald Trump. When the 45th president initially refused to condemn neo-Nazis rioting in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017, treating the request to condemn evil as some sort of trick, he earned that title.

An NBC reporter named Peter Alexander in a press briefing in March practically begged Trump to virtue-signal, asking him if he could offer people reassurance during the crisis: "What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?” he asked. Trump refused the opportunity to utter some words of comfort, instead launching into a tirade in which he said the journalist was a "terrible reporter" and that it was a "very nasty question." Rather than talk about virtue, and encourage people to be virtuous, Trump invariably urges people to be callous, angry and afraid. 

A public health crisis requires public, collective action for good. To survive Covid-19, we need people to join together and make sacrifices for a collective good. We need a government willing to acknowledge those sacrifices and enact policies to make them less onerous. We need, in short, a vision of, and a commitment to, communal good.