“What is the difference between virtue signaling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it?”

Last week, on various social media, I shared this brief thought:

I’m starting to find virtue signaling frightening, rather than just annoying, because virtue signalers are the same people who cancel (ie lie, denounce, and attack). Virtue signaling and cancel culture are two sides of the same increasingly troubling coin.

This led someone on fecebook to ask:

“What is the difference between virtue signalling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it? Asking seriously. I have only seen virtue signalling used as a phrase by Republicans who don’t believe in the cause being promoted.”

To which I replied:

That’s a great question! I am not a Republican, and I actually agree with the messages being used right now to signal tribal loyalty. Like a religious behavior – “praise Jesus!” – one can only ask oneself what one’s motives are.

The signaling happening at the moment has many layers. Yes, the messages are good. It’s also a “safe” time to share them. Suddenly it has become very important for white people to express their concern for black lives, when in fact we’ve been aware of police brutality for years or decades. It would have been much riskier to share these messages 60 years ago, but we weren’t alive then. (Funny, then, that expressing righteousness at that time was quite different, even though we are not inherently superior to our forebears.) It was not risky, say, last year, yet far fewer were doing that then, because there wasn’t a “movement” directing our attention.

It’s pretty clear that there are social rewards for white liberals to share BLM messages at the moment, and, increasingly, social punishments for not (“silence is violence!”), and most of us want to feel safe, so we know what to do. Even asking questions can get you publicly denounced right now. I do not expect people to deeply examine their motives, but I do examine mine, and when even a message I agree with is mixed with so much threat and reward, I pause. All mobs feel righteous. I am extremely wary of mobs and sensitive to mob behavior, and do not want to be part of them.

Another layer is White Guilt, which Shelby Steele wrote very eloquently about 20 years ago. White liberals are hungry to discharge guilt, and ironically use black people, and what should be a black liberation movement for black people, to do it. This isn’t all bad; white people can be useful to this movement, but the white liberal hunger is there, and it’s ruthless, and it causes problems. All we can do is examine our motives.

The social rewards for virtue signaling, and threats for not, come from other white people. White people use black people and a black movement to signal to other white people, and maintain or raise our status in white society. I have some black friends, but most of my social contacts are white. Like any good white liberal, I have anxiety about this. If only I could fix my society’s history of segregation by racially integrating my social life more! Like any good white liberal, I tried harder when I was younger, only to discover that most (healthy) black people don’t particularly like being used by white people this way, and that white hunger to discharge guilt is not a solid base for friendship.

But don’t we want to be “ALLIES”?? The best allies are like that asshole at your dinner party who tries to be “helpful” by getting in your way in the kitchen. (The worst allies are far worse.) I used to be a liberal feminist who thought we needed male “allies” to liberate women. Now I understand that women’s liberation is for and by women, and any man claiming to be a “feminist” is usually a misogynist using women to manage his male guilt. From the outside, it looks to me like a surplus of white “allies” has the same corrosive effect on any movement for black liberation, which should be for and by black people. Like that performative “helpful” dinner guest in your kitchen, like men claiming to be feminists, white liberals who want to help black liberation should just get out of the way.

Any involvement I have in black liberation is only going to come at the request of black people – specifically black women, specifically black radical feminists, whose narratives about current events differ from the mainstream and “alternative” media’s. Unsurprisingly, no one has asked me yet. I’m here if they do, but meanwhile my white guilt is my problem to deal with, not theirs.

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Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

8 thoughts on ““What is the difference between virtue signaling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it?””

  1. It makes perfect sense for aggrieved people to fight for their rights. But I have a particular concern. If anyone is fighting for their own interests, there’s no way to know if they care about justice in general. If they end up on top of an unjust system later, maybe they will still focus on only their own interests and not for justice. Of course, virtue-signaling is also something that can be for self-interest. So, I’m not defending that per se.

    I mean this is an honest, open question: Wouldn’t the only actions that we can *trust* as not being just self-interested be the ones that are fighting for *other’s* rights in a way that brings no credit whatsoever? That would be a form of being an ally. I’m not saying such work is necessarily helpful, it could still be counterproductive. I’m just really wary of the idea that the only thing we can do is work for our own interests. That seems anti-social to me. If we leave it to women to work for feminism and blacks to fight racism etc., then where do we fit the idea that we can care about justice altruistically? Just discard / deny altruism (despite the clear evolutionary foundations for why it exists)?

  2. Well said. I don’t agree with several things toward the end, but I can’t clarify them quickly now. Mostly I wanted to say that I respect you for asking questions that conformists hate.

  3. It began in Africa…
    I have reviewed your Hundred dollar drawings. It would be cool if you make one of a dark-skinned person, such as a black Gaian Way.

  4. Identity groups aren’t monocultures. Given a social problem (police brutality, for example), two activists from the same identity group may have significantly different policy prescriptions to address the problem. Enter the allies who care more about their own guilty consciences than they do about the actual problem needing resolution. Instead of listening, the ally must act, and they do so in a way that collapses complexity. In practice, the activists who generate the most outside audience are the ones who have the most influence. Allies who acknowledge and listen are great. Allies who want to “get involved” are the worst.

  5. An actual feminist born and raised male will generally be campaigning over issues like “boys are beaten up for crying, boys are beaten up for wearing skirts, boys are expected to just accept being physically attacked because boys are supposed to be tough” — gender role enforcement which mistreats men & boys. This is why, having been a boy and suffered through this, I’m a feminist. But I have no use for “allies”, because claiming to be an ally is claiming that the problems are all someone-else’s-problem. Men’s liberation from gender role enforcement has been part of the feminist movement all along, and it’s not women’s job to do it.

    In Black liberation, perhaps we’ve actually gotten past the phase (at least in the US) where white people are routinely attacked for refusing to be racist or refusing to support slavery or attacked for associating with Black people or attacked for marrying black people, though it took a long time. Back in the 60s, Richard Loving wasn’t an “ally”; he was fighting for his own liberation.

    In general I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have entirely altruistic and selfless motivations — that may mean that their motivations are their own self-image. If you’re quite clear about how reforming society helps you personally, as Richard Loving was, well, we know where you’re coming from and it isn’t mere guilt.

    Right now, I’m watching dirty cops go from murdering black people to murdering anyone who gets in their way — which, of course, they have done before — in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement, the White League, KKK, and so forth spent a lot of time killing white people for opposing them at all. And I don’t need to be an “ally” to find that a personal threat and want to fight it. Major voices in BLM know way more about this than I do so I will follow their lead because I respect their *expertise*. But this isn’t “allyship”, this is I don’t want to be attacked by lawless brutal sadist cops who think they can get away with anything.

    The Minneapolis City Council is trying to dismantle MPD partly because MPD actually *blackmailed* the City Council, partly because MPD openly refused to follow the instructions of their bosses (the Police Chief, Mayor, and Council), and partly because MPD, while collecting salaries and claiming to be police, have refused to even show up when people are being shot in public parks, on flimsy excuses; *as well as* because MPDs been racist, murdering black people, attacking peaceful protestors, etc. The Mayor of Portland — considered a fairly right-wing figure — was teargassed by the federal paramilitaries and now has a very personal reason to want them out. This isn’t performative allyship, this is realizing that you have a common enemy.

  6. “Men’s liberation from gender role enforcement has been part of the feminist movement all along”
    No, it never was. Feminism is for the liberation of women; that is all.

  7. So, you’re just another person telling white people to “get involved” but “don’t get involved.” Got it!

    Oh, and 99.9% of men have given up on trying to be sympathetic to anything regarding feminism for this very reason: Get involved, but really … don’t. Having a conversation, as a male, with a hardcore feminist goes something like this: “you’re not a woman so you just don’t understand.” And that’s where the buck generally stops.

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