In Defence Of Virtue Signalling

We cannot let fear of being branded a ‘virtue signaller’ put us off from challenging extremism and bigotry.
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The Daily Mail has memorably described Stop Funding Hate supporters as “‘Anti-hate’ headbangers” - a phrase we like so much that we’re getting a range of t-shirts printed.

More recently, a Sun columnist has accused us of “attacking the very basis of ourdemocracy”. Meanwhile Spiked Online has claimed - in a postmodern riff on some of the more outlandish anti-Muslim headlines - that “Stop Funding Hate wants to ruin Christmas”.

It turns out that a large section of the UK media establishment isn’t keen on the British public challenging hatred by persuading companies to switch their advertising away from newspapers that demonise minorities.

Much of the recent coverage about Stop Funding Hate has been somewhat inaccurate - which may not be a surprise given that surveys consistently show the UK press to be among the least trusted in Europe.

But the charge that seems to pop up most often is one we’re quite happy to own: Stop Funding Hate are “virtue signallers”. In fact, City AM have been kind enough to describe us as “virtue-signallers-in-chief”.

To the likes of Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson, Piers Morgan and The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express, virtue signalling is clearly a badge of shame.

Anyone, it seems, who publicly challenges discrimination, or opposes the normalisation of extremist rhetoric, can have their motives attacked and be derided as a shallow exhibitionist.

Yet if everyone who speaks up for compassion is branded an attention-seeking virtue-signaller, where do we draw the line? Are all people who publicly state “that’s not OK” when they find something disturbing or dangerous to be denounced as self-referential ninnies?

Was Rosa Parks a liberal metropolitan virtue signaller? Was Martin Luther King nothing more than a bombastic crowd-pleaser? Would certain tabloids have it that Winston Churchill, with his incessant denunciation of Nazism, was in fact a shameless narcissist?

What about those who promote peace and tolerance? Are we content to write off Mahatma Gandhi as an elitist, virtue-signalling snowflake? And those Beatles, with their endless banging on about “love”? In fact, what was the 1960s if not one long, uninterrupted series of virtue signals?

A Yougov poll commissioned by Stop Funding Hate has found that just 10% of people believe that The Daily Mail has a positive influence on society. Just 5% think so of The Sun. While parts of our media regularly channel the language of the “alt right”, it seems unlikely that trust in the traditional UK press will improve any time soon.

Speaking out against hatred and discrimination may only be a first step - but it’s an important one. It can help to prevent hateful ideas from becoming entrenched cultural norms. It can embolden others who oppose hatred to take a stand themselves. And it can send a clear signal that the haters who claim to speak for the “silent majority” do not represent all of us.

The logic of the term “virtue signalling” is at best absurd. At worst it stigmatises compassion and enables the normalisation of hatred. And with hate crime at record levels - and racism resurgent worldwide - there is a serious side to this.

History has taught us, repeatedly and with horrifying clarity, the danger of letting extremist rhetoric pass unchallenged. Gregory H. Stanton’s internationally recognised ’8 Stages of Genocide’ describes how a democratic society can go from stage one - ‘Classification of peoples’ - to stage 7 - ‘Extermination’ of the victim group in an act of genocide. Stage 3: ‘Dehumanisation’, is chilling in its resemblance to current affairs:

“One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases… At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group. In combating this dehumanisation, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech… Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable…”

To put it another way, local and international leaders must engage in virtue signalling.

So let us shamelessly virtue signal from the mountain tops. Let the signalling of virtue echo across the land. From the keyboard warriors (and “shrivelled insects”) of social media, to the global chambers of power, let’s claim the term as our own and wear it as a badge of pride. The phrase “virtue signal”, when used in earnest, should be met with laughter. It is a ludicrous term. We cannot let fear of being branded a virtue signaller put us off from challenging extremism and bigotry. Because the void left when the virtue is silenced will surely be filled with hate.


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