The Danger of ‘Virtue Signalling’ Without Intention

Tragedies involving police brutality, BIPOC* targeted murder, and racial prejudice have the tendency to feel constant and unrelenting. Probably, because they are. It is frustrating to reflect on the fact that in 2020, Black men and women across the world live their life in terror of the white supremacy imbedded in the institutions that fundamentally exist to ‘protect’ them. Tragedies such as the grim death of George Floyd on May 25th or the Amy Cooper incident serve as constant reminders that “racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”.

*Black, Indigenous, People of Colour

Then, arises some form of moral need to take decisive action. It is often difficult to do something that provides an immediate or satisfactory result. Our systems operate in a way that promotes slow legislation: campaigning, voting, and then initiating change. It is no surprise that social media plays a tremendous role in being a platform for immediate activism. Information, videos, and images can be circulated at lightning speed with no more than a swipe of a finger. This media can arrive without trigger warning but with the intention of rallying people to care for the cause at hand. Mark Manson discusses this idea of an attention economy in a riveting short essay:

“Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new. This is what’s different… This is our brave new world. When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives into the sickest and most grotesque we can find. And the sickest and most grotesque similarly finds its way to the top of the nation’s consciousness.”

In the multitude of relevant tweets, posts of solidarity, and opinion pieces, it is understandable that certain posts have the tendency to feel performative. To see a unified social media feed blare a unified moral message can encourage those who shy away from speaking out on social justice issues to get involved. It is optimistic to think that social media can act as a ‘wake-up call’ for individuals who may hold strong opinions of racial prejudice, but I believe it can be an effective form of education when done right. On this vein of thought, I wondered how many posts could explicitly be judged as ‘virtue signalling’.

Image: @domrobxrts on Instagram

To explore this, I had to first attempt to define the term. Is virtue signalling a pretence? Or an algorithmic form of solidarity? James Bartholomew first coined the term in his 2015 article titled “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling’” for The Spectator, defining it as the “phenomenon” of “indicating that you are kind, decent, and virtuous”. The phrase spread to Twitter and other social media sites as a form of accusation for people feigning righteousness. But like any activist theory (see, ‘Couch Activism’ or ‘Slacktivism’), it does not go without its fair share of criticism.

It can feel easy to call out people for reposting without action, however, it then raises the question of who is ‘allowed’ to call out signallers and if it is justified. Many have felt justified anger towards celebrities in all industries who, despite having millions of followers, failed to utilise and understand the privilege of their platform. To reduce this cause to an aesthetic that is ‘off-brand’ for a celebrity is wildly ignorant and a missed opportunity to spread genuine awareness.

However, it is imperative to remember that social media is a platform for the exchange of ideas. It can exist as a blanket for the actual action taken beneath it, like petitions, emails, and protests. In our digital culture, a lack of evidence (posts and tweets) can immediately be judged as inaction, apathy, or complacency. What if those people who are reposting and retweeting, could also be relentlessly campaigning for the cause? In the specific case of protests, it’s important to remember that broadcasting attendance can put protesters in immense risk. Evidence on social media would immediately be evidence against the protester. In this sense, virtue signalling can be a harsh label to assign to people in our digital community. However, it is a necessary one.

I digress, the danger of ‘virtue-signalling’ is ultimately this: it is supportive but not intentional; performative but not substantial. I know that there is no objective definition of ‘substantial’. However, in this context, I believe that substantial action is to take the relevant steps to educate, listen, and learn. The tragic reality is that this will happen again – but education today, guarantees intention. And intention drives committed change.

I want to make it clear that I cannot speak on behalf of the Black community or attempt to equalise my individual experiences as another POC to the unique experiences of a Black person. However, in the wake of such immense human rights atrocities we must remember that change is driven by every person in the community. It is not the African American community’s job to draw our attention to institutional racism, nor is it a ‘BIPOC problem’. The need for people of colour to draw our attention to such daily tragedies implies that our society is otherwise unaware of their struggle; their existence.

To post or discuss social issues and current affairs is necessary. Dialogue and discussion, especially on social media, are essential for activism. However, there are so many more forms of action one can take to drive this vehicle of change. We must do more. Education and conversation are powerful tools. We need to reject exhausted myths such as the “model minority” that are entrenched in South-Asian communities. We should bring up relevant topics with family members or colleagues, no matter how heavy or uncomfortable they might feel.

Remember that it is a privilege to find another person’s traumatic reality heavy or uncomfortable. Taking the time to research the history of racial issues, organisations, and scholarship from non-white academics are more steps we can all take to become more compassionate allies. If you are a non-Black person posting about anti-BIPOC racism, ask yourself whether your goal is to dismantle racist systems or is it to broadcast to your followers that you are good person? Will this post be the only action you are taking today towards dismantling institutional racism?

It is only virtue signalling when you post to fulfil a personal moral ‘quota’ but still uphold political views that do not uplift the same people you are posting for. In our current social and political climate, yes, there is a definite need for social media campaigns and posts. But there is a greater, more urgent need to be proactive and intentional.

The words of Angela Davis have never been more relevant than in the events of these past few weeks – “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” I reached out to my own community of friends and peers to spark a dialogue about race in academia. We have so many sources of literature, essays, think pieces, films, and media that are easily accessible for all. Education is a never-ending journey – and our first steps must be taken now.

Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor

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Further Reading:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by Bell Hooks

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Feminism Interrupted by Lola Olufemi

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F Saad

“20+ Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now” by Michelle Kim

“Holy shit, being an ally isn’t about me!” by Real Talk: WOC & Allies

Petitions you can sign:

Justice for George Floyd

Justice for Tony McDade

Justice for Tamir Rice

Justice for George Floyd (Amnesty)

Justice for Belly Mujinga

Action Against Amy Cooper

Collection of Black Lives Matter Petitions and Resources

Funds you can donate to:

Black Lives Matter

Minnesota Freedom Fund

Reclaim The Block

National Bail Out

Black Visions Collective

Black Youth Project 100

Action PAC (also provides multiple links/ updates in their mailing lists)

Support Black Owned Business

To support in the UK:

The United Families & Friends Campaign (coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody)

Resourcing Racial Justice

Freedom From Torture

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