Signalling virtue and unmasking vice

It’s not hard to stand out in a crowd. You don’t need beauty or fame. Just keep wearing your facemask when those around have given up on theirs.

If, like me, you’re not convinced that Coronavirus has left the Hunter for good, you may find yourself attracting unwanted stares and whispered comments on the bus or at the shops. On my next supermarket visit I feel like wearing a sign as well as a mask: “No, I don’t have COVID. I’m not implying you have it, either. And I’m not trying to virtue signal!”

‘Virtue signalling’, British journalist James Bartholomew takes credit for inventing this term in 2015, describes people who are more concerned with appearing noble or unselfish than actually being it. It’s become a fashionable put-down and it cuts deep. Whether we’re refusing a plastic straw or campaigning to save the koalas, being told we’re only doing it because it makes us look good is an awkward accusation to fight. The more we defend the purity of our intentions, the more we paint ourselves into a corner labelled “show-off” and “do-gooder” - two things Australians hate. It seems we have an instinctive belief that virtue shouldn’t signal.

We’re not alone. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers not to be like those “hypocrites” who use giving to the poor as a photo opportunity and make sure the microphone is on when they say their prayers. “Those people have received their reward in full,” says Jesus. It’s an interesting comment. It implies that we can expect a reward for being virtuous. Being more patient, charitable or generous isn’t just for the benefit of the people around us – although I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Being good is good for us. Provided we keep it under our hat.

But things have changed since Jesus’ day. While we still prefer our virtues done on the quiet, vices can turn the volume up to eleven and signal to their hearts’ content. From “reality” television to presidential elections, nothing seems more important than getting publicity, and nothing gets publicity like appalling behaviour.

Ruth Wodzak from Lancaster University claims we’re living in a “post-shame era”. Sadly, we see this most clearly in politics. Until recently, politicians felt obliged to project images of prudence, diligence and humility – even if largely for the cameras. Now many openly use lies, humiliation, scapegoating and defamation to stay in power. Far from being ashamed – they flaunt it. And instead of this losing them support, Wodzak argues it makes their followers view them as more “authentic”.

There’s long been a fascinating glamour to evil – or the image of it. Which is why Darth Vader is a more memorable character than Luke Skywalker and Hannibal Lecter than Clarice. Goodness is less “sexy”: there’ll never be a high-rating TV show called “Virtue Squad” or “Miami Virtue”. The serpent in Eden doesn’t get Adam and Eve to bite the apple by being ugly or unpersuasive. But while eating the fruit puts an end to paradise, it has one silver lining: as Genesis puts it, “it opened their eyes”. The snake is unmasked as a vicious little liar.

We need more of this unmasking today. Not literally - I suspect that, whatever happens with COVID, the facemask will become a flu season staple, as normal a part of good hygiene as not sneezing in someone’s face. But flaunting greed, pride and lust in public life isn’t admirable proof of being “the real deal” or uncorrupted by the political establishment; it’s pathetic and despicable, on the same level as stealing from a charity tin or kicking a guide-dog. Let’s call it what it is and stop tuning in to its signal.

During lockdown, many of us rediscovered activities we’d once dismissed as dull or had no time for: baking, repairing furniture or playing board games. Or we found we were glad to see the back of things we thought we’d enjoyed, like golf with the boss or after-work drinks. As “normality” returns, it’s a struggle to keep making space for these more wholesome pleasures and not get sucked into old patterns. The virtues are a bit like this. Some people may sneer at them as outmoded or boring, but when we make them a priority, we can see how much good they do us – and those around us. Maybe it’s time to ignore what others think and boost their signal, just a little.

Dr Sally Cloke is a Newcastle-based academic who writes about theology, philosophy, social justice and ethics.

Follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Other Aurora Issues