There’s a pretty common response I’m seeing to the sharing of anti-racist content online at the moment, and it’s to criticise people for virtue signalling. The people making this criticism say they aren’t objecting to anti-racism itself, it’s just that they think there’s something conformist or bandwagon-jumping about sharing stuff that lots of other people are also sharing: the idea is that people posting e.g. anti racist stuff are doing it primarily for clout or clicks.
Now, I’m not one of those people who says “if you’re not sharing stuff about (issue X) you’re complicit”, or whatever. There are lots of ways to work for justice, and social media posting is far from the most important or useful.
But there are two quick points on virtue signalling – particularly online and social media virtue signalling – that are worth making, not least because they’re very relevant to talking constructively about abortion in general.
1. Just because a cause is popular in certain quarters doesn’t mean people aren’t sincere in supporting it
Why do I post about or share pro-life stuff? To raise awareness, to get people thinking, to help start conversations and change minds. That’s the same reason that I might post about or share stuff about racism, economic inequality, the environment etc. In Ireland at the moment the universal human dignity position that I hold on abortion is unpopular, but let’s say it wasn’t. Even if support for the pro-life position was widely held, it still wouldn’t be bad to share content supporting human dignity.
In fact, if sharing this kind of content generally met with a positive response, this would be a good thing: it would mean that attitudes were shifting! Nor would that positive response mean that I didn’t mean it when I shared pro-life content or was only “in it for the likes”. I’m sure some people are posting stuff to clout-chase: but it’s not good to assume this when you don’t know anything else about them.
That’s why I agree with Timothy Brahm of the Equal Rights Institute that you should never accuse a person of virtue signalling unless you know them personally.
2. Virtue signalling isn’t always bad
This is going to be the more controversial point: but a sort of virtue signalling can actually help the kind of outreach that I described in 1. If people think, “Yeah, Ben’s a reasonable enough guy who seems to care about a lot of different human rights issues” then they’re more likely to give abortion-related stuff I share a second look.
If, on the other hand, I only ever posted about any other issues of justice to say, “Well, actually, have you thought about how abortion is much worse?”, or to criticise the excesses of supporters of those other issues… people would conclude that I didn’t really care about those other issues, and would be more likely to write me off as a single-issue person who isn’t really worth listening to.
It wouldn’t help if I said, “Of course, I completely oppose racism”, when I made these criticisms or comparisons. The fact that I was only posting about racism to criticise the excesses of anti-racists or to compare racism with abortion would tell its own story.
The actual content of one isolated post is not all that matters in communication. Other things that matter include what you choose to talk about, how you talk about the things you do, and how you respond to different people talking about different issues.
This kind of virtue signalling is part of what it is to communicate. If you do it just to make yourself look good, that’s bad. But signalling your support for certain causes can also make the positions you hold look better, by helping people have a more accurate picture of what someone with a pro-life worldview believes.
If you think that accuracy is important, and that it’s good for the pro-life position to be well-regarded, then that kind of ‘virtue signalling’ can be good.
I’m not saying that pro-lifers should cynically express support for causes they don’t believe in. But if pro-lifers actually care about other issues of human rights and justice (as I believe the overwhelming majority of us do), talking about that can be not only good in itself but can help our efforts to talk to pro-choice people about abortion.
Imagine if pro-lifers were generally known as being steadfast foes of racism; if they were generally known for being allies of the poor; for caring about the environment; for sticking up for vulnerable humans in all sorts of different situations. Would this make us more credible to pro-choice people, or less?
I’m not saying that many pro-lifers are not these things already (though I think most people in general, myself very much included, don’t do a fraction of what we should to fight injustice in all sorts of areas). But I am saying that the fact that pro-lifers care about this stuff should be more widely known. But the only way for it to be more widely known is for people who are publicly pro-life to, yes, signal that they also care about other issues like these. Here people aren’t signalling on their own behalf, but on behalf of the human rights of the preborn.
This is another good reason not to throw around accusations of virtue signalling. As Timothy Brahm puts it, “distinguishing the morally objectionable Virtue-Signaling from the morally innocuous Virtue-Signaling is only possible for yourself”. As I said in 1., you don’t know whether a person is virtue signalling at all: but you also don’t know whether they’re virtue signalling selfishly (to make themselves look good) or selflessly (to give people a more accurate picture of what pro-lifers believe).
I’ll go further with this. One very good way to actively sabotage pro-life outreach is to comment criticising a pro-lifer you know who you perceive to be virtue signalling about some other issue.
What happens when people do this? I’ll tell you. Any pro-choice person who sees the initial post sees one pro-lifer showing that they care about other issues of justice: and another one (or, usually, several other ones) piling on to criticise them. Instead of thinking, “Pro-lifers aren’t so bad”, at best they’ll think, “That one pro-lifer isn’t so bad, but look at how much she’s getting dragged for saying something fairly innocuous about racism / poverty / the environment”. Instead of the movement and the cause we support looking better, it looks worse.
Ironically, doing this doesn’t hurt the supposed virtue signaller themselves at all. If all they’re interested in is affirmation, then having a bunch of angry pro-lifers criticising them will just give them more. But any selfless virtue signalling on behalf of the pro-life movement that they were doing (consciously or unconsciously) is undermined by that same criticism.
I’ll go a bit further again: even if you have a small substantive problem with some of what the alleged virtue signaller is saying, think about whether publicly criticising them is a good use of your time. This advice is more qualified: what counts as a small problem is a matter of judgment, and sometimes it is worth engaging to correct errors or express disagreement. But pro-lifers constantly nitpicking whenever anyone says anything “virtue-signally” hurts the movement’s reputation in much the same way as accusations of virtue signalling do. Maybe that person made a small mistake about the way the gender pay gap works: is it really the best thing to have another pro-lifer hitting them with a “well actually”? Or will that just make it look – at least to most of the pro-choice people who we’re supposed to be trying to persuade – that pro-lifers get uppity whenever anyone starts talking about gender equality? The ability to read the room is an important tool in pro-life outreach.
Nobody likes self-righteousness or sanctimony. But accusing someone of virtue signalling because they talk about some issue of justice is almost never helpful; and it’s often actively damaging to the pro-life cause. We usually don’t know whether a person is virtue signalling at all or not – and even if they are, we don’t know whether they’re doing it to make themselves look good or to give other people a better idea of what people with their views believe.
So let’s drop the accusation.