Virtue signals are destructive memes that lead to ignorance, fear and confusion; for which value signalling might be the cure.
Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group. The term was first used in signalling theory, to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue – especially piety among the political or religious faithful. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views on social media; and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.
The term virtue signalling was used so much that during the last election critics of the concept were deeming it meaningless. I think just the opposite is true, and that a large portion of modern human communication is virtue signalling, or other signals related to identity and status. In large it is exactly the sort of behavior you would expect if the world, like a village from Legend of Zelda, was populated by non-player characters. It is transmission of basic memetic information about the self that takes the place of intellectual complexity and self-awareness in non-actualized individuals.
In Richard Brodie’s seminal work on the subject, Virus of the Mind, he explains how memes act like viruses that shape our perceptions and realities. Virtue signals are memes that tend to drag perceptions and individuals towards lower complexity. And in an increasingly complex world that creates more and more cognitive dissonance. That, in turn, leads to more low complexity (reductionist) memes. This feedback loop causes ignorance, fear, confusion and dependence to spread exponentially like a disease.
However in virology it is well know that some viruses can be used to attack harmful viruses, so in theory we should be able to do the same with memes. And the best way to do so is to spread a new type of signal that aims towards complexity rather than reductionism. I propose calling this value signalling, which I will now explain in a way that is sure to piss people off at me.
Fans of Star Wars are the type of people that really want you to know that they are into geek culture, because it then goes without saying that they are into rationality and science and are therefore smart. On top of this the good vs. evil dichotomy is the central theme and so fandom acts as a stand-in for people who support the good guys, making them easy dupes for nationalist or other types of propaganda. The attachment to Star Wars and the public displays of fandom are used to represent the individual and cast them in the role of modern progressive thinker. Even when just being a fan of feature-length toy commercials in no way contributes to anything being signalled as virtuous.
On the other hand Star Trek fans seem to be more occupied with the complexity of ethical situations that arise during that show, and the persistent message that no code or law is absolutely good or useful and that individuals and individual circumstances are what matter most in any given situation. Star Trek is ethically agnostic, which appeals to people who would rather operate by their values than according to rigid social structures or ideologies. The fans of the show never seem to express, “Hey, look at how virtuous I am,” as much as they are saying, “I am interested in individual values more than status or identity,” unlike the Star Wars fans. Thus, a sort of value signalling.
In order to gain self-ownership one must put their values before any rigid way of thinking or behaving. Laws, rules, ethics and other standardized scripts are all restraints against the individual. In order to avoid getting caught in them individuals need to consider their goals and adopt values that will facilitate those goals. We can thereby use value signalling to communicate honestly our intentions in order that others might choose voluntarily whether to associate with us or not.
Virtue signalling contains an insinuation of mockery and disdain for those who do not share our virtues. By signalling our values instead we are not making divisions so much as communicating positive information meant to encourage mutually beneficial cooperation.
Let us take a look at how the two differ using an obvious example, Donald Trump. Both his supporters and his opponents virtue signal at roughly the rate of infinity.
#DumpTrump: “I am against Trump because he is a symbol of those things which fly in the face of the prepackaged progressive ideologies that define me.”
#MakeAmericaGreatAgain: “I am for Trump because he is a symbol of an idealized traditional nationalism that never existed, but which defines me.”
So how would an intentional value signal about Trump look? There would not be one. A person engaged in expressing their values rather than their virtues has no need to make statements of identity in relation to their thoughts and feelings about the Orange-utang (<-definitely a virtue signal) or any other authoritarian figure. Instead they will be talking about things they love and hope to accomplish and their ideas for getting there.
But how can we use them to counter the negative effects of virtue signalling? Well the first step is to stop as much as possible your own virtue signalling, which we all do, by first recognizing when you are doing it. The first step in any great endeavor is to bust your own bubbles of delusion. Virtue signalling encourages more virtue signalling, either as fellowship or opposition. Take your fuel out of the fire zone and you are off to a good start.
When you encounter someone virtue signalling, take the time to find out why they feel that way. Get very specific about it so that they may reveal truth to even themselves about their intentions and perspective. Find out what their goals are and what values they have adopted to meet them. If their values and goals are inconsistent, compassionately help them see the disconnect. Also once you know and understand them, you can use their values to express your own goals and reasoning in ways that they can understand and might find appealing. Press towards positive ideologies and actions that you can agree on and make partnerships and/or accept your interaction as a learning experience for personal growth and transmogrification.
Unlike virtue signals, value signalling is not going to get you a lot of easy validation and quick gratification. They are not a mechanism for forming short term alliances based on a single subject, but rather a tool for far more transformative long term evolutionary schemes. Sometimes they will be laborious and tedious, and they will require great self-discipline, but no goals have ever been reached by getting the most likes on Facebook or other social equivalents.
Are you going to feed the disease that is eating away at the body of your humanity – or – will you become the virus to end all viruses so that we might hope to one day be unmolested by the vacuous signals of collective ignorance and fear? Don’t answer that. Set a goal and adopt the values needed to successfully reach it.