When it comes to the British political debate, what you say now matters more than what you do.
Last week, the Daily Politics invited journalist James Bartholomew – coiner of the phrase “virtue signalling” – on the show to talk about why more and more of us stop after stating our good intentions rather than following through by acting on them.
First, we got this candid and refreshingly frank take on the virtue-signallers:
“Virtue signalling without actually doing anything is not true virtue. It is self-righteous, vain and silly. It’s not what you say or think that matters, it’s what you do.”
Bartholomew then offers this interesting angle:
“I think the welfare state is a lot to do with it. People feel that they have outsourced their decency. I’ve paid my taxes, therefore I don’t have to do anything. I think that’s part of the cause, why virtue signalling without actually doing anything has increased. […] But what really irritates me is those people who I’ve met, in contrast to people who do real good, the people who think ‘oh, I can say I hate the Daily Mail and I hate UKIP, and I vote Labour once every five years. I’m a morally superior person.’
I think there’s a lot of truth in this idea that the welfare state leads us to outsource our decency. Obviously there are many people who both contribute to the welfare state through their taxes and also find the time and resources to do additional good in their communities. But there are also many of us who do not.
There are too many of us who think that an angry Facebook meme or a lazy re-tweet counts as doing something meaningful and helpful. You could argue that we see the same phenomena every time something like the Ice Bucket Challenge sweeps the internet – a well-intentioned fundraising initiative that soon led to large numbers of (particularly young) people uploading their own videos out of a desire to participate and show off, without then going on to make the all-important cash donation to MND charities.
This phenomena is an annoyance when it is confined to the social or charitable arena, but it becomes most problematic – and distorting – when it starts taking over the field of politics. Bartholomew himself has written about how the virtue signalling Left make any serious discussion about the future of British healthcare almost impossible:
“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.
One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish. But hatred waits in reserve even with the NHS. ‘The Tories want to privatise the NHS!’ you assert angrily. Gosh, you must be virtuous to be so cross!”
Whether it’s worshipping the NHS, opposing the bedroom tax or hating George Osborne’s plans for tax credits, it is clear that millions of people are willing to share a supportive tweet or Facebook post, but less willing to do anything else – even so much as vote in accordance with their own social media timelines, as Ed Miliband discovered to his cost on May 7.
Why is this? Are people that self-centred that they’ll give the poor a swipe of their thumb if they come across a lefty meme on their phones while commuting to work, but won’t march down to their local polling booth?
Or are these lefty memes being shared not because people have given serious thought to the issues at stake, but rather because Politics via Social Media encourages everyone to treat their political opinions like this season’s fashion, casually adopting or discarding opinions in order to fit in with the group and gain acceptance by one’s peers?
Both factors are probably at play. But one thing is clear: when we are all so busy “raising awareness” of our pet causes on social media, we neglect the people actually making real-world policy at our own peril.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty