February 5, 2016

God Talk in Political Speeches as Virtue Signaling

virtue is its own reward

Have you heard the term virtue signaling? I've encountered it only recently, but the concept certainly is familiar. In this article from The Spectator, James Bartholomew takes credit for being the first to use it.
I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.
I suspect virtue signaling is something we've all seen, especially on social media. The appealing thing about it, as Mr. Bartholomew points out, is that it requires no effort whatsoever. In essence, the person reaps at least some of the benefits of appearing morally virtuous without needing to do anything.

In a sense, virtue signaling is a brilliant tactic, providing benefit without sacrifice or even effort. Of course, it may annoy others for this very reason. When we detect virtue signaling, we may or may not see it for what it is. If we do, we might even form a more negative opinion of the person doing it than we would have otherwise. But my guess is that many people don't spot it much of the time.

Most of what turns up when I search Google for "virtue signaling" suggests that this is primarily something one sees on the political left. This fits with my observations on social media, as I have indeed seen quite a bit of this coming from left-leaning individuals. And yet, I found myself thinking about a somewhat different sort of virtue signaling that appears to be so common as to be nearly universal among politicians and political candidates in the U.S. regardless of their party affiliation: the frequent god talk that peppers their public speeches.

I'm not at all sure about this, but couldn't the many god references be a form of virtue signaling? Why does it seem that every U.S. president to have served in my lifetime has ended every official speech with drivel about some sort of god blessing our country? President Obama's version of it, which we just got to hear again at the end of the State of the Union, is, "God bless you. God bless the United States of America." Why must this sort of god talk be inserted into so many speeches by so many politicians and political candidates? I'm thinking it might be a form of virtue signaling.

Like the crap we see on social media, adding a couple of references to gods or superstitious rituals (i.e., prayer is a very popular one) requires no effort but seems to communicate "I'm one of you" to the vast majority of one's audience. And it isn't just "I'm one of you" but something more like, "I am a good person (i.e., a Christian) just like you." That seems like virtue signaling.

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