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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Palo Altans and their Virtue Signaling

Uploaded: Nov 17, 2019
Self-righteous. Pretentious. Sanctimonious. The list of choice adjectives applied to people who take “eco-friendly” actions goes on. Why is it that we so love to hate the “tree huggers”? Think: drivers of EVs and hybrids, cyclists, vegans, people who compost, and so on. Does even a small part of your brain mumble “Yuck, those preachy, self-satisfied poseurs”?

I was thinking about this when I wrote last week’s post on Zero Waste Party Packs. I was pretty sure the “virtue signaling” accusation would be trotted out, so I aimed to cover it this week. Though I deflected it by focusing more on kids’ parties (can you virtue signal to kids?), the tenth or so comment was pretty much on target.

The thing is, I get it. Who likes to be preached at? Who likes to be judged? One of the reasons I titled this blog “A New Shade of Green” is because it is so important for us to develop inclusive and positive attitudes to being environmentally-friendly, and to collectively welcome changes that reduce emissions and help us to adapt to the changing climate. We shouldn’t need to worry about evading or embracing claims of moral superiority.

So I thought I’d hold up this phrase “virtue signaling” to the light so we can examine it. What does it mean, who uses it and why, and what is its impact?

The Brit who popularized the phrase, a writer named James Bartholomew, says that it describes “the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. … One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.” (1) Two psychologists writing in the New York Times say it is “feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.” (2) Wikipedia succinctly defines it as “the conspicuous expression of moral values”. (3)

It might be used, for example, to describe “a smug Los Altos Hills resident (who parks) her Escalade at the Trader Joe's parking lot and pulls out the tote bags ... in smug reassurance that she's fighting the good war against the evil scourge of plastic.” (This and all following quotations in this post are taken from comments in the online forums of this paper, unless otherwise noted.) There is an element of hypocrisy implied, as well as a degree of pretentiousness and possibly even judgment. It is a pejorative and dismissive term.

I want to go through a number of examples showing how this term has been used in the comments of this online paper, so we can think about how it is used and why.

Applied to Palo Alto’s City Council, for various climate-related actions:
- “Virtue signaling seems to be about all this council is capable of.”
- “The problem with Palo Alto politics is the political establishment virtue signaling civility to misdirect the public from their corruption, hidden agendas, and passive aggression.”
- “Go Palo Alto! You're leading the Bay Area in virtue signaling!”
- “The problem is that they are blaming other people and legislating, always virtue signaling and spewing drivel about greenhouse gases and whatnot. This method can't possibly help the environment. No matter how many laws they come up with, it won't stop climate change.”


Applied to the Cool Block initiative:
“That being said, as an exercise in yodeling our moral superiority without actually doing anything beneficial, while wasting taxpayer money and creating much-needed opportunities for graft, it sounds like a winner. And when it comes to pointless virtue-signalling, the comrades of Palo Alto yield to no one.”

Applied to Caltrain riders:
“For the younger set, wanting to virtue-signal green, Caltrain is just a fashion accessory.”

Applied to cyclists:
“You sound like a very affluent Palo Altan that likes to virtue signal by bicycling and condemning the avarice of your somewhat less affluent neighbors who need a car and still have to work for a living.”

Applied to Tesla drivers:
“I agree that Climate Change as a priority is both a distraction and a feel good item for those impressed by virtue signaling. Why not buy everybody a Tesla and support a home town business? Virtue signaling is the top priority for most Palo Altans. The town is becoming overrun by Teslas.”

Applied to recyclers:
“I wonder what it is that drives Palo Altans to engage in such constant and extreme virtue signaling. "Zero waste" is a myth. As long as we live abundant lives we will always generate more waste.”

Applied to Palo Altans in general:
“There seems to be a denial of reality here, where people with an extremely high income and high quality of life engage in forms of virtue signaling to distract from their own abundance.”

The term is used to disparage more than environmental actions. A cursory look found it applied to people saving Buena Vista, renaming schools, complaining about police behavior, and advocating for the homeless, gun control, or minimum wage. It was even used against Stanford, with the claim that the GUP campaign “essentially amounts to virtue signaling aimed at convincing the outside world how good the university is”.

So, what do we make of all this? Is it true that unless you are driving a gas-powered car to get around town, you must be virtue signaling? Is it virtue signaling to buy a veggie burger, use a party pack, or do any pro-environmental action that others can see? We can all agree that people sometimes or even often think about how their actions look to others. But does that mean they are being hypocritical? Judging others? Feeling superior?

IMO there is an element of nastiness and judgment in the accusation of virtue signaling. When Alice accuses Bob of virtue signaling, she is expressing not only mistrust but scorn, interpreting his motivations as manipulative and disingenuous. But is it Alice or Bob who is being more judgmental? (4) Of course you can’t reverse climate change by washing your laundry in cold water, or get to zero waste just by using reusable dishware at a picnic. But is it wrong or hypocritical to do so? Moving towards a sustainable planet will take both big and small actions, and small does not preclude big. (5)

What makes this shaming particularly problematic is that social norms have a big influence on people. When people see and hear their neighbors, friends, or co-workers taking action for the environment, they are more likely to take similar actions. But accusations of eco-posturing can negate this. As someone commented in a post here: “All the virtuous people doing the right thing simply creates a backlash against "political correctness" and allows the clueless to continue their profligate ways.” Fear of appearing judgmental can be a powerful disincentive. As another commenter noted: “I typically don't mention it (the efficiency work I’ve done on my house) because the global impact is minimal and I don't want to engage in virtue signaling.” Argh. You should not feel embarrassed to share that you drive an EV, enjoy eating veggie burgers, turn down your thermostat in the winter, or bike to work!

Geoffrey Miller, an environmental psychology professor at the University of Mexico, has written a book on virtue signaling. (6) He distinguishes two kinds, one being “cheap talk” (as we’ve been discussing) and the other being a genuine reflection of underlying values. He writes: “What distinguishes good virtue signaling from bad virtue signaling isn’t just the reliability of the signal. It’s the actual real-world effects on sentient beings, societies and civilizations. When the instincts to virtue signal are combined with curiosity about science, open-mindedness about values and viewpoints, rationality about priorities and policies, and strategic savvy about ways and means, then wonderful things can happen. These more enlightened forms of virtue signaling have sparked the Protestant Reformation, American Revolution, abolitionist movement, anti-vivisection movement, women’s suffrage movement, free speech movement, and Effective Altruism movement.”

That is a lot to digest, but the point is that many big cultural revolutions are precipitated by early visible (viral?) trends in social norms. And that is what we need to reduce our emissions and blunt the impact of climate change.

Fortunately there are other ways to drive trends in social norms beyond individuals speaking up and sharing. Gregg Sparkman, a post-doc in psychology at Stanford, ran an interesting experiment last year at on-campus eatery The Axe & Palm. (7) He placed a note on the menu, and a card in the restaurant, indicating simply that more customers have been choosing the meatless dishes. Even though The Axe & Palm is a burger-and-shakes place, where people go to eat meat, the signs worked. During the 17-day test period, 1.7% of diners (about 180 people) switched to a vegetarian option, a statistically significant result. I love this idea, which Sparkman refers to as “fostering social change through dynamic norms”. It bypasses issues with perceived preaching or posturing while having a similar impact. Have you seen it deployed anywhere? (Hint: Did you read the previous blog post?) What about at your workplace? At stores you frequent? I’d love to hear.

As to the verbal gunslingers parrying the accusation of “virtue signaling”, I want to end with this quotation from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in the current issue of The Atlantic (8): “Cynicism is cowardice…. Cynicism fosters a distrust of reality. It is nothing less than a form of surrender. It provokes a suspicion that hidden malign forces are at play. It instills a sense of victimhood. It may be psychically gratifying in the moment, but it solves nothing.” Consider that people may be aiming, in however small a way, to improve our future. Their actions may not be perfect, but what they are doing is a start. Use your energy instead to take it on yourself and lead by example.

Notes and References
1. This 2015 article in the Spectator by James Bartholomew talks about why he adopted the phrase “virtue signaling” in April 2015. (He claims to have coined it, but it was in use earlier.)

2. This 2019 NY Times article describes some work by two psychologists to better understand when and why people might virtue signal.

3. Do you really need a link to Wikipedia?

4. David Shariatmadari wrote a nice opinion piece on this for The Guardian in 2016, observing that “What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It’s too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments. In fact, it’s becoming indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority.”

5. Some people will say that small can in fact preclude big, because people will use the small to excuse the big. For example, someone might rationalize purchasing a new BMW M5 because they switched their home lights to LEDs. I’ll have to do a separate post on emissions rationalization.

6. The book, published just a few months ago, is here. You can find an excerpt on Quillette.

7. There is a very interesting article about Sparkman’s work by Sophie Yeo in Pacific Standard (August 2018). It is worth a read.

8. James Mattis writes in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic about his concern that we are not putting in the work needed to maintain our democracy. But his point about cynicism (and some of his other points) applies equally well to the work needed to maintain our planet.

Current Climate Data (September/October 2019)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Moishe, a resident of another community,
on Nov 17, 2019 at 6:58 am

Perhaps the concept of virtue signaling is a West Coast, or US, or big city phenomenon. I live in rural Nova Scotia and simply don't get that impression at all. Single use plastic bags will be banned here in about a year. One of our chain supermarkets instituted a 5¢ charge on bags a few years ago and it resulted in reduced sales. Personally we always shop with our own containers. If I don't ever get another plastic bag, I have enough plastic bags to last me for the next 20 years. I put solar panels on our house (not yet that common here) and enrolled in net metering, not to be virtuous but flat out in order to save money. The payback will be about 6 years IF ELECTRICITY RATES NEVER GO UP. They just went up. I see people with electric cars locally (still few given that the distances here virtually preclude most Els) and I am envious. I don't see them as signalling. Every little bit helps. As for the woman with the Escalade and her own bags. Well, every little bit helps. Perhaps she felt "shamed" into doing something and having done it, may consider other steps.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 17, 2019 at 7:08 am

I suppose we could all be silent about what we do to help the environment and never mention it.

Or I suppose we could all share the little things we do while perhaps admitting that there are other things that make doing some of these PC deeds more difficult for various reasons. Also there is a Catch 22 problem at times.

As an example, I notice that more of our Amazon deliveries have changed from cardboard boxes to plastic bags!

We are using less plastic produce bags for items that don't need them, such as bananas, but we are using more plastic and paper to wrap meat and fish and even using the plastic produce bags to provide extra protection so that they don't leak onto our bananas or our reusable grocery totes.

For every upside, there is usually a downside.

We all choose to make our choices based on what makes sense to us even though other things are possible, but as long as we put some thought and effort into our choices we are still making a difference.

You in your small corner, and I in mine.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 17, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Excellent article. What I find most puzzling is that in so many cases, there is no "signaling" at all. Who knows how much cardboard or plastic I am recycling unless someone is digging through my bins? If everyone is using reusable grocery bags, who is "signaling"? And the fact is, I never did like those stupid thin plastic grocery bags that rolled out in the 1980's-- nobody did, actually.

Strictly speaking, most of the visible actions aren't any kind of virtue signaling either-- as above, "One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous." A small virtuous act is still virtuous, even if small.

What is actually happening these days is that anybody who doesn't like someone else's preferences tosses out a throwaway "virtue signaling" remark to deprecate those preferences. But, you know what it really signals about the person saying "virtue signaling".


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 12:47 am

I think "virtue signaling" is a problem when there is an underlying hypocrisy to it - like driving your Tesla to the airport to go somewhere on your private jet. It's when there's a concern about appearing righteous, but no real thought given to stepping back and looking at the big picture. It's actually an excuse to not do the right thing.

Eliminating single-use plastic for picnics does not fall into that category; it's a small thing, of course, but it's still a good thing. The most successful way to address problems like single-use plastic is to find an alternate that doesn't require require a whole lot of virtue; something simple, something that you wouldn't feel a need to brag about afterwards.

People who preach may get annoying at times, but if they're preaching the right thing - it's still the right thing.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 7:26 am

Common sense is a registered user.

When modern electric cars started becoming fashionable in this region, a type of owner appeared who proudly boasted of their "carbon-free" transportation choice despite (at the time) circa 50% fossil-fueled electricity production powering the vehicle (to say nothing of its considerable lifetime carbon-footprint burdens including production and eventual disposal). Is there a better term for such behavior?

Also: Impressive would be an equally searching follow-up essay about how frequently and readily the term "denier" has appeared, pejoratively and reductively, in comments to your posts, to dismiss any perspective the commenter dislikes, or doesn't wish to thoughtfully examine.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Dennis, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:23 am

Hi Sherry, thank you for the interesting article. I agree that the accusation of virtue signaling is too often used as a dismissive, judgmental criticism of actions that are well-intended and, in their small way, help alter social norms for the better.

That said, it can be hard not to apply this criticism to many local political decisions and, especially, the justification behind them. It feels like on any initiative regarding things like climate change or social justice, there is a lot of loud, emotional support, regardless of the actual details of the initiative and what it could possibly accomplish. To the extent that some or much of this support comes from very affluent people living $3+ million homes (some of whom may also lead lavish lifestyles), it's easy to fall into the thinking that if these supporters wanted real change, they could maybe make a few life changes and support their causes in much more significant ways.

Not saying this kind of thinking is necessarily accurate (though it may be, in some cases); just that it can be hard to avoid. Also, in speaking to relatives and acquaintances in other parts of the country, you can be sure a lot of non-Bay Areans have similar thoughts about our area.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Cherry, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:26 am

> "denier" has appeared, pejoratively and reductively, in comments to your posts, to dismiss any perspective the commenter dislikes, or doesn't wish to thoughtfully examine.

Odd. I'll look back, but seem to recall in Sherry's blog that 'denier' is frequently used to identify posters who present falsehoods or ignore the facts of our man-made changing climate.

Please cite an example of "doesn't wish to thoughtfully examine."


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Social Justice Warrior, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:43 am

That's another trigger phrase I've noticed a lot. When I check the FB pages of the people who use it, their pages are full of Flags and "I stand..." memes posed at trying to support their version of social justice...as if they are a warrior in it. LOL


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Could be worse, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:45 am

"Denier" is nice, "Willfully ignorant" is the alternative.


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:51 am

I have never heard this term "virtue signaling." I have observed that the environmental movement in California seems to have been completely co-opted in California by developers, similarly to the way the white evangelical religious have been co-opted by rightwing politics.

In the latter case, they may practice their religion fervently, but the actual tenets of the faith take a backseat to the political ideology, even when the political ideology in practice (or outcome) is the polar opposite of the religion or produces the opposite actions to proclaimed beliefs. (I specifically say "white" because black evangelical churches tend not to be a part of that trend, per a Pew research study.) The outcome is people who justify hate and hateful actions as somehow representative of a religion that full-on promotes peace, forgiveness, and love in its texts. The outcome is a prosperity doctrine that gets people justifying their wealth as a sign of their goodness when the religious text says "for the love of money is the root of all evil" and "give all your money to feed the poor, take up your cross and follow Me."

I have similarly heard that phenomenon called "cultural Christians" -- people who don't really understand what's in the Bible but they see people hate gay people (despite very tenuous or non-existent reasons in the texts) or glom onto an issue like public prayer, and feel a part of a tribe to be self-righteous, angry, and judgmental toward others (despite all the many admonishments in the texts against judgmentalism and especially against hypocrisy). They come to feel they are exercising their faith through this proxy cultural anger than the thoughtfulness and truly difficult life of self-denial and radical love the text calls for, and the political becomes their faith (even when it is the opposite of and even cause of the faith). I'm writing that for the few people out there who even know what I'm talking about, since the anti-thetical politics have almost completely usurped the actual religion in the public sphere.

Environmentalism in California has taken a similarly unfortunate turn, having been co-opted by large developers to completely destroy the former power of environmentalists to stand up against moneyed interests and put the environment even above making money.

So we take our sponge baths and let our gardens die during a drought while a big developer up the street is pouring water down the drain in gallons every second, in order to make a big dense development devoid of green space that bulldozed a perfectly good orchard or older more affordable homes with a remaining long lifecycle, creating a mountain of construction waste, in order to attract in new highly-paid workers on the ridiculous belief that if more dense luxury housing is built in Palo Alto, it will create some kind of cheap environmental utopia. The evidence of the opposite and common sense never seem to enter into the picture.

Moneyed interests have found terms like "affordable housing" are like kryptonite against environmentalism. As environmentalists have willingly walked away from their power because of the false conflation between rapid overdevelopment (e.g., San Francisco) and environmentalism and affordable housing, a very profound hypocrisy is inevitable. The "housing crisis" thus defies any big picture solutions and instead enables bad density (referring to your earlier post) wherever it makes those moneyed interests the most money. In fact, people who call themselves environmentalists find it easier to go along with a kind of developer-promoted ideology than to do the deep engagement on the issues and actual outcomes.

In short, developers have co-opted environmentalists on the left in an almost mirror manner to how rightwing politicians have co-opted cultural Christians on the right. Somehow, people stop using their brains and use proxies for what they supposedly espouse that have them acting in a polar opposite way. If this longstanding religious co-option is any indication, including how the media amplify it by reporting only on the most click-baity stuff (you would never know by media stories that the religious right isn't the majority of Christians), then environmentalism in California is in deep trouble for the future. I have witnessed so many circumstances in recently years locally and at the state level in which people's environmental inclinations have been completely crushed by this development-co-opting narrative. There does seem to be a lot of people with righteous anger pushing the window dressing (that often isn't in the end environmental at all) than dealing with the big issues.

I'm very sad because there was a time when I was young when both the religious and the environmentalists were not afraid to push back against power to make love triumph over warmaking and nature come first over exploitation for a fast buck (for a tiny percentage of rich people).

Again, never heard the term "virtue signaling" before now. But then, now is a time in which language has become such a powerful manipulator. Environmentalists would do well to avoid assuming such terms are innocently produced.


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Mirror Time!, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 11:34 am

When you operate in the world of blanket stereotypes and anecdotal hearsay you're going to always be frustrated. This is why some people are always angry and frustrated about how "Society" is going.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 11:34 am

The term is appropriate for people who advocate highly annoying changes (banning plastic straws) that will accomplish next to nothing, while being adamantly opposed to measures that would be effective (a France like conversion to nuclear power).


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

In my experience in this blog's context, claims of "virtue signaling" associate not with environmentally-friendly activities by themselves, but generally where there's a component of hypocrisy or status-seeking (conscious or otherwise, as with the behavior I cited in the earlier comment above).

Like it or not, self-righteousness is a real factor in human behavior. If you read in depth about the US of the late 1800s, you find many middle-class social reformers, often using religious language, and with frank condescension. They advocated not only to improve the practical circumstances, but also the morals and behavior -- to "edify" -- those they worked on behalf of.

The times, issues, and preferred rhetoric change, but human nature doesn't change as much as people sometimes like to think.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Chic Fil A, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Comment removed. Please stick to environmental topics.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 12:03 am

Most hard things in life aren't simple. They involve choices and tradeoffs, often complicated ones. Virtue signaling is what people do who don't like tradeoffs and complexity.

You can spot them: if you push, they'll give you some buzzword rationalization why they can have everything both ways. To use @Actual Environmentalist's example, our consumptive culture can have both massive population growth and lower greenhouse emissions. Not in real life, we can't. But that brings up unpleasant tradeoff issues related to housing and even immigration, and many people don't like that. No hard choices here, that's uncomfortable, let us not speak of it. But trust me, I care, really!

Virtue signaling is for people who won't switch to a vegan diet because they like meat, even though it produces far more CO2 than your gas stove that they like to criticize, usually together with like-minded friends over Chardonnay.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 10:27 am

Virtue signaling is one thing, but some of the points brought up here involve sincere differences in opinion.

Take nuclear power; it definitely has advantages for greenhouse gases and energy independence. However, there are inherent risks to using it. Some argue they're overblown, some are authentically concerned about the very long half-life of some of the radioactive materials. I'm not sure; I don't like nuclear reactors in an earthquake zone- pretty sure of that.

Another issue is vegetarianism. There are times when raising meat has very high greenhouse gas emissions. However, some people argue that, under the right conditions, grazing can contribute to a healthier environment. Also, a lot of land that is not suitable for farming can be used for grazing; the Mongolian Steppe is not ideal for growing vegetables.

I picked these two topics because I am not sure of the best answer; but I know there's thoughtful sincere disagreement. Putting a label on a point of view does not help the discussion.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Could be worse, a resident of Mountain View,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 12:46 pm

I've been accused of virtue signaling for having a little free library to share and recycle books. The insult has no impact on me. So, I'm sharing books with the neighborhood and letting people know about it (so they can find said books). If that makes me a jerk in someone's eyes, so be it.

This insult contains an underlying message that if you can't be utterly unimpeachable in all of your actions, don't even try. I totally reject that. The example from the comments above about the person driving a Tesla to the airport as an example of VS.. that is bad why exactly? They should have driven a Range Rover for consistency's sake? Utter nonsense. We should all do our best to make whatever small changes will help the world and the environment be a better place. If someone doesn't like it, that's their own conscience bothering them.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Cherry, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 1:14 pm

"Take nuclear power... However, there are inherent risks to using it."

It's the absurdly high costs to nuclear. What was the average cost of the last ten plants built in the US? When? What would the current costs be? How long before the first drip of power? Cost of long term storage and insurance?

Then: do a back-of-the-napkin assessment to how much renewables (clean, too!) that can be built with, say, $100 billion.

Risks can be mitigated, but only at ridiculous costs. Look at the history of bankruptcy in the nuclear segment.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 1:20 pm

From this post “All the virtuous people doing the right thing simply creates a backlash against "political correctness" and allows the clueless to continue their profligate ways."

This made me smile :)

Whether we are living in $3M dollar home with a huge carbon footprint and advocating for party packs or we are driving our Teslas to fly in our private jets, it would be great to remember that the ones using the disposable partyware or driving their gas guzzlers are NO MORE "clueless continuing their profligate ways" than we are. I just learnt the term virtue-signaling (clueless me!). Great post, overall.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I'm a Gunn and Dartmouth grad who was living in SF when the US invaded Iraq and people my age took to the streets to yell “NO BLOOD FOR OIL!". Shortly thereafter I gave up my pursuit of a job as a copywriter*, moved back to my parents' 5 BR home and shortly thereafter worked as a volunteer on Bay Area Action Earth Day at Stanford.
Flash forward and Thursday I am renting the new Mitchell Park Community Center ball room for a concert “Earthwise welcomes Dave Douglas Engage".
I didn't read your article close enough to comment any more closely other than to say as a former English major, journalist, ad agency freelancer and book store clerk: watch your mouth.
*my last assignment was for an oil company “Turn your engine into a washing machine: now with 25 Percent more Techroline-Tm “


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Funny, I've never thought of Teslas as signals of virtue. They are status signals, like the Rolex watches that every Yuppie wannabe was obliged to flash in the 80s


 +   2 people like this
Posted by silicon valley engineer, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 3:26 pm

I have worked with a guy for 30+ years who virtue signals often about all the little things like meatless food and hemp clothes, in a way that I interpret as arrogant and hypocritical, because for the entire 30 years he has commuted from Oakland to San Jose every *single* day. He even virtue signals, aka notes conspicuously, about his high-mileage car.

I think we all have our Achilles heels here. I acknowledge that my frequent air travel may wipe out any virtue signaling I could do about living close to work for those 30 years.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Rant Bot, a resident of another community,
on Nov 19, 2019 at 5:30 pm

"Virtue signaling" is a cynical phrase that says volumes more about the person uttering this inanity than the subject of their jibe.

Anything positive somebody does is positive, so unless you are interested in cataloging everything someone else does how can you go with the v.s. designation with any presumed accuracy?

I'll take someone doing something positive over someone bitterly hissing this sort of intellectually lazy saying just about any time.

This article sums it up well imho Web Link


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Nov 20, 2019 at 10:23 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Lots of great points here.

One thing I read is that it can be hard to tell if someone is being hypocritical vs unaware vs just taking longer to take some more impactful action. What do we infer? Let’s take the guy driving a Tesla to go fly somewhere in his private jet. How do we know if he just bought the Tesla to reduce his emissions, and is planning next year to sell his jet? Or maybe he has cut back 50% on his flights this year? Or maybe he just hasn’t thought about it yet?

We can see the positive in his actions (driving an EV) or we can see the negative (flying a private jet). We can view things generously or cynically. If our goal is for this person to see himself as a climate-friendly guy who will eventually move away from his private flights, then is he more likely to do that if we commend his choice of EV or if we disparage him as a virtue signaler?

I also see that some of you expect a lot from people! If they aren’t making the tough choices then they are “virtue signaling”. That strikes me as a high bar. It’s okay in my book if the harder things take longer. Do the easy things first, get some momentum :) Just be sure to keep at it.

Finally, as a number of you mention, consider how the rest of the world thinks of us, given our high per capita emissions and primary historic responsibility for global warming. We are easily deemed hypocritical just because of where we live -- in the US, and even worse in these zip codes. But is that productive?

I think we all need to be more generous, inclusive, and encouraging, with ourselves and with others, because that is how we inspire continued action. Accusing people of virtue signaling is pretty much the opposite of that, and I think has the opposite effect. If you only see what people aren’t doing, then that is not going to inspire yourself to take more action, nor will it inspire the others when you call them out on it.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by PeaceLove, a resident of Shoreline West,
on Nov 22, 2019 at 6:24 pm

The term "virtue signaling" is the perfect place to start an interrogation into Both/And thinking. On the one hand, it is a useful term to describe people structurally incapable of seeing their own hypocrisy, as the example of that certain class that drives a Hummer then brags about their use of cloth shopping bags. That sort of virtue signaling has become quite common, especially among affluent pluralistic folks trying their best to avoid owning their own culpability in a system of environmental ecocide. Virtue signaling is very common in social media like FB & Twitter.

On the other hand, as many commenters above have pointed out, the term is easily weaponized against people who try to "wake up" and reduce their consumption and waste. Owning a Tesla, imo, is something much deeper than virtue signaling because it makes you an active participant in supporting a green future; early adapters enable the company to survive, and Tesla is nearly single-handedly dismantling the trillion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure. Furthermore, sometimes you have to step outside a system, like the gas car system, to really see it for what it is: a poisonous industry that contributes to the existential threat we all face.

Both these interpretations are true. Be wary of those who use the term "virtue signaling" to shut down honest critique and debate; this tactic is particularly common on the Right. But also be aware that many people, knowingly or not, virtue signal as something akin to a tribal identification, without the underlying commitment to a fairer, more equitable and just society.



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