Have you changed your Facebook avatar to support a cause? Did you take the ice bucket challenge? Have you ever offered your thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of a disaster? Do you express your beliefs through hashtags?
There’s actually a name for that: virtue signaling. This newly prominent phrase sums up actions (mostly online) that send the message “I’m a good person” — though they might not be accompanied by doing anything good at all. Since the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signaling is judging other people, this term has caught on like, well, the ice bucket challenge.
James Bartholomew appeared to have coined the term in an April 18, 2015, article in The (London) Spectator called “Hating the Daily Mail is a substitute for doing good.” In that article, Bartholomew discussed pretentious signs at Whole Foods, outrage at cheesecake pictures of women, and comedians attacking bankers as examples of virtue signaling. The common denominator is the emptiness of the gestures. As Bartholomew puts it, “No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs.” While Bartholomew can be thanked for repopularizing virtue signaling, he didn’t coin it. Paul McFedries’s terrific Word Spy site records a message board use from 2004 that discussed “Virtue signaling at its most pedestrian.”
Since April, the phrase “virtue signaling” has turned up in a variety of publications. Most often, it’s used by conservatives to slam liberals, as in this comment on a Breitbart article: “The progressives ruin everything they touch with their endless virtue signaling and smug illusion of preening moral superiority.” That type of insulting generalization is discussed in The (Scotland) Herald, where Catriona Stewart wrote, “The charge of virtue-signalling is a lazy tool of those on the right to condemn the left as woolly-thinking and naïve.”
Sometimes conservatives use the phrase to criticize each other, too. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Ann Coulter blasted, “this whole culture of virtue-signaling where debates are about nothing. Look, Republicans all agree 100 percent that we are pro-Israel, pro-life, pro-gun. So why do we spend so much time on these issues? It’s just pandering, so who are they pandering to?” Pandering, whether for the approval of voters or friends, is a major ingredient of virtue signaling.
Though virtue signaling has a form that is quite common in insults used by the right to mock the left, it is a bit different. Geoffrey Nunberg — a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information and is author of “Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show” — said via e-mail that this term is a departure from previous insults: “Like ‘latte-sipping,’ ‘Volvo-driving’ and the rest, ‘virtue signaling’ belongs chiefly to the right. But it’s not really comparable. For one thing, it’s a gerund, not a participle — that is, it functions as a noun and not an adjective. Second, it’s a clunky mouthful — it doesn’t trip off the tongue, it stumbles. And it’s abstract. It doesn’t bring a vivid image to mind — a car, a drink, a dish, a sport — but only describes the vague object of a certain kind of behavior, which the right believes is exclusive to the left.”
Clunky or not, virtue signaling has proven useful in discussing self-glorifying online behavior, regardless of politics. As lexicographer Orin Hargraves pointed out by e-mail, “It aptly describes what a lot of people’s Facebook status updates are about (probably mine, too).” Hargraves called the term “an artifact of the profusion of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, in which there is no barrier to entry for anyone who wants to broadcast a sentiment (or ‘send a message,’ to use the familiar cliché).” Therefore “we need new terms to characterize the quality, content, or intent of such messages, and virtue-signaling falls right into that category. Another bunch of related and productive neologisms are the -shaming compounds: slut-shaming, fat-shaming, pet-shaming, and now prayer-shaming.”
Prayer shaming has a very close relationship to virtue signaling in that it shares a lexical form but has an opposite meaning. When people are scolded for offering their thoughts and prayers after a tragedy instead of actually doing something helpful — classic value signaling — the scolding is called prayer shaming. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik was ahead of the curve in prayer shaming, as his most recent standup special, “Thoughts and Prayers,” called out people who write inane, unoriginal platitudes on the day of a tragedy. Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, mentions another related word: “I like the academic — or even clinical — ring virtue-signaling has to it. It reminds me of the more quotidian humblebrag, which has done pretty well since it came on the scene in 2011. Both refer so efficiently to especially social media behavior that we encounter (or find ourselves engaging in) so often.”
Humblebrag was coined by the late comedian Harris Wittels, and it is the closest lexical relation to virtue signaling. Wittels’s coinage highlighted self-aggrandizement cloaked in humility, such as when zillionaire Mark Cuban tweeted, “It was right around this date in November when I was 27 years old that I remember looking at a 0 dollar bank balance at the ATM. . . ” While Cuban likely meant to portray himself as someone who understands hard times and was once broke, the message that actually registers is how impressive it is that he became rich. Humblebragging and virtue signaling both involve a certain kind of social media post that says one thing on the surface (“I’m no big deal!” or “What is wrong with the world?”) but also says another (“I’m a very big deal!” or “I’m the last decent person left in the world”). It’s likely we’ll see more such words over time, as the free-for-all of online discourse gets fully described.
Virtue signaling is likely to be a top contender for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year award, since it’s so applicable to the endless stream of social media chatter that few of us can resist. It’s also a great reminder that doing stuff is more important than saying stuff, and that we are all united — conservative or liberal, young or old — in finding our Facebook friends annoying.