The vice of virtue signalling and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour  

Pundits on the right and the ‘left’, and centrists of all stripes, are asking the question: how do we solve a problem like Jeremy Corbyn?

If some are to be believed this Trotskyist dinosaur – or is Corbyn a spectre? – got his boost at the ballot box in part because of a pernicious online phenomenon that, thanks to the youth turnout for Corbyn last June, profanes even Her Majesty’s parliament nowadays – ‘virtue signalling’.

Virtue signalling refers to people who ‘say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous’. To indicate only. Or so the term’s populariser, James Bartholomew, defines it. We might add ‘in a political context’ since, importantly, it’s in the context of political discussions that the term is bandied about.

We might ignore, momentarily, the oversimplifications of the anti-millennial/Corbyn narrative – namely, the missed complexity of continuity. A man who turned fifty the year the Berlin Wall fell was driven to such ‘unlikely’ electoral success by a generation whose problems are (so Third-wayers say) precisely that they were born after the fall of the Wall. Their other problem is online vice – the vice of virtue-signalling. (One of the new mutations, post-Corbyn, of the TINA argument is to assume that millennials can’t read history books about countries with formerly blood-red flags.)

Instead we can focus on decoding the term ‘virtue signalling’ itself, on why it’s used, and with what effects on political speech. These effects are more pernicious for democracy than the foible of insincerity they would point out.

Though doubtless left and right use it, ‘virtue signalling’ is a reactionary catch-phrase. The context of Bartholomew’s ‘discovery’ of the term says much: he was researching a book denouncing the British welfare state. For Bartholomew, a virtue, rather, is a ‘sacrifice’ like ‘staying together for the sake of the children’, or it’s a charitable act like ‘delivering lunches to elderly neighbours’. It’s not political speech, certainly not online.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. In austerity Britain, it makes sense that Tories would want millennials to stop posting online about feminism and austerity, and start filling in (with their charitable acts) the gaping holes left by a gutted welfare state. After all, this is a country where, in 2015, the mortality rate jumped for the first time in nearly fifty years. Suddenly, Batholomew’s calls on Corbynistas to throw down their ‘Vote Labour’ placards and deliver lunch to the vulnerable aged makes more sense.

The phrase has of course transcended its origin. But wherever it’s used, it works to undermine the legitimacy of political speech.

Witness Chris Kenny of The Australian recently decrying the widespread phenomena of social media users posting photos of themselves online delivering their Yes vote to the local post office box. Straight-facedly, Kenny expresses his support for same sex marriage. He just wants to be ‘spared’ others’ expression of their support for SSM online. This, he says, is just ‘voter virtue-signalling’.

Kenny’s cantankerousness could perhaps be tolerated, if it were only that. But he uses his ‘virtue signalling’ accusation to delegitimise democratic expression: ‘The gay marriage debate has been a largely fraudulent affair.’

But how can Kenny know who’s genuine or not online? Whether one of the selfie-takers Kenny cringed over was gay, sincerely expressing hope, or Cory Bernardi disguised in a hipster suit, he’s no clue. Rather, he relies on a new stereotype convenient to reactionaries: millennials’ laziness extends to the vapidity of their politics, which signals, but doesn’t act – hence the rhetoric around SSM being a ‘symbolic’ issue.

Kenny would do well to remember his Pride and Prejudice – namely, Austen’s mirroring of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy. Seen through the heroine Lizzy Bennet’s eyes, Wickham at first is the one with the manners that ‘recommend him’. Darcy presents as Wickham’s inverse: priggish, cold, unkind. But Austen’s masterful plot swaps them exactly. Wickham’s darker motives are eventually exposed, as Darcy’s true virtue shows itself.

The problem with ‘virtue signalling’ like Kenny’s is that it deflates without cause – prejudicially – the credibility of speakers in a political discourse (using a stereotype as a heuristic). The phrase attacks, not an argument itself – the possible ‘virtues’, for example, of the modestly social-democratic policies of Corbyn-led Labour – but the credibility of types of speakers.

Philosophers of knowledge worry about the ‘credibility economy’, since they know that a hearer’s deflation of speaker’s credibility because of identity (women, non-whites, etc.) will mean we don’t believe people when we should. This is an issue the philosopher Miranda Fricker calls ‘testimonial injustice’. It works via ready-made stereotypes that precisely attack credibility – like the irrational woman, or the unreliable witness-of-colour – to undermine the ability of marginalised people to act as fellow (equal) knowers in the world.

The signal sent by the popularity of the term ‘virtue signalling’ goes beyond intergenerational clashes, or the old media’s fear and loathing of the new. It’s a way to undermine the credibility of new left democratic movements, and their online expressions.

After all, is it a coincidence that Bartholomew’s term arose the same year as Corbyn’s democratic revival? Because that is what Corbyn’s success represents – a youthful, active hive of renewed intraparty democracy in UK Labour, spilling over into a well-attended general election. Thanks to the radicalising of groups like Momentum, the Labour party membership in 2016 exploded to 600,000 members – a half-century peak. Many of these new members are millennials who hope to maintain the grassroots’ new control over the party. The grassroots squashed under Blair are flourishing again.

After seeing off the coup from the parliamentary Labour party in 2016, helping Corbyn to win his second leadership battle in as many years, they mobilised to counter attack May’s snap election, putting her in minority government and making the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn very electable. People show up to vote when democracy is strengthened.

Millennials are not just ‘symbolical’ political animals. In fact, they’re bettering the Blairite generation in democratic participation. Professional politicians’ technocratic style, relying precisely on steep knowledge-asymmetry, has been junked for active democracy.

Young people aren’t signalling their virtue, they’re signalling their politics.


Image: London 2014 – Book 3 – VII – Millenial Rush / flickr

Ben Kunkler

Ben Kunkler is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His poetry, criticism and non-fiction has been published in TEXT, Rabbit and Overland, among other publications. He was the winner of the 2016 Affirm Press Prize for his unpublished manuscript, "Frankness."

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  1. This is a common move in left-wing arguments, an attempt to soften the force of right-wing perjoratives by putting a positive spin on them: ‘political correctness is just being polite’, or ‘virtue signalling is just being politically vocal and politically active’. And sometimes, it is true, the right justifies these criticisms by using such perjoratives all too sloppily. But not always: political correctness is not *just* being polite. It’s being so eager to conform to the norms of a political ideology that logic and reason is dispensed with whenever an obvious contradiction to that political ideology arises.

    The same is true of ‘virtue signalling’: it’s not just being politically active or vocal: it’s doing so in a way that congratulates yourself, makes yourself seem the most important part of the whole act. It is a type of vanity, and that is most certainly a type of vice.

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