I invented ‘virtue signalling’. Now it’s taking over the world

It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. 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. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse. One of the first journalists to pick up on the phrase was Liz Jones in the Mail on Sunday on 3 May. Not long after, Libby Purves used it in the Times (11 May). Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times (20 July) wrote about Labour party leaders for whom ‘Europeanism is just a virtue-signalling gesture like wearing a charity ribbon’. Two days later, Helen Lewis used it in the New Statesman, saying ‘a lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” — showing off how right on you are’.

This month, use of the phrase has gone through the roof, appearing in newspapers almost on a daily basis. It has been deployed by Nick Cohen in a Spectator blog, Antonia Hoyle in Stella magazine, James Delingpole on Breitbart, Catriona Stewart in the Glasgow Herald, Memphis Barker in the Independent and Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph.

Nicky Campbell, the best-known presenter on Radio 5 Live, tweeted to his 102,000 followers (13 September), ‘There is much virtue signalling going on at the moment.’ A search on the Guardian website reveals that contributors there have used it 241 times. Good grief, it has even appeared in West Ham Online.

The migration crisis gave the concept a boost. One person on Twitter wrote, ‘There must be a special level in hell below rapists and killers for anyone that uses twitter & a migrant crisis to #virtuesignal.’

I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).

I guess the reason that ‘virtue signalling’ has been used so much is that it fulfils a need. For years, people have noticed the phenomenon but did not have a word or phrase to describe it. One person tweeted, ‘Love it when you find out something that’s irritated you for years has a name #virtuesignalling.’ The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on. Newspeak, the fictional language created by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, limited the number of words people used with the intention of restricting the ability of people to express themselves and even to think. New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. They make expression and argument easier.

It is slightly frustrating that some people have credited Libby Purves with creating the phrase. Unlike Liz Jones, she did not mention where it came from. But I forgive her. I am a fan of hers and the way she presents Midweek on Radio 4. We were contemporaries at Oxford and I’ll never forget seeing her walking in front of me wearing hot pants. That sort of thing creates a special bond.

It has been a pleasure to see the phrase used in all sorts of contexts from environmental policy to dating. One person on Twitter claimed people were using virtue signalling ‘to get laid’. Another wrote, ‘If you find yourself using corn chips to signal your virtue, you’re trying too hard.’

The phrase came to me after years of trying to come up with the something. Researching my previous book, The Welfare State We’re In, I came to realise that the Victorians and Edwardians gave vastly more money to charity than people do now. It was normal even for the working and artisan classes to give as much as 10 per cent of their income. That compares with donations of less than 1 per cent for the general population now. Among many other things, they gave money to help charitable hospitals through the King’s Fund in Saturday workplace collections. They also took it as normal to look after their aged parents and other relatives.

I compared them with people I met who thought they were virtuous merely because they voted Labour once every five years and expressed hatred of right-wingers. That is not virtue. That is lazy, self-righteous and silly.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

James Bartholomew is the author, most recently, of The Welfare of Nations.

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Show comments
  • Suzy61

    Good for you James.

    A virtue signaler is perfectly described in your final paragraph.

  • blandings

    Well yes, and there are so many opportunities to deploy it, but can we not make suble distinctions between the various exponents of virtue signalling – some people seem to strut the thing rather than merely signal it?

    • ill-liberal

      Hopefully there will be more nuance in the future, it certainly has opportunity. Some people are almost fascistic in their delivery, overly keen to force agreement from the rest of the room or space.

  • Mark

    The term “virtue signalling” is useful shorthand for the would be secular saints of modern days. Must confess I also like “wankerati”.

    These people remind me of the ostentatious Christians of my youth who seemed to have forgotten Christs teaching to “fast in secret, so others do not know” and His enjoining secret charitable giving and the avoidance of showy religion, sitting in the front row, the type of religious show that wins a reward on earth, rather than heaven.

    “Virtue signalling” like so much else has always been with us. There is nothing new under the sun.

    • go simile

      Tres Bon.

      • PeteTongue

        Surely it will come to be known that this term is female or the very least feminist and therefore très bonne.

    • Juan_Kerr

      What does wankerati say that “Twitter” doesn’t already!

    • Chris Bartelt

      Bang on with the ‘Carribean food’ thing… I recently had an excellent ruck with a load of Guardianistas over an article on ‘beans and rice’ when I accused the author of doing exactly what you have described. My comment that; ‘Of course the Graun has to put some ‘virtue signalling’ ethnic bullshit spin on a bit of flim-flam about boiled bloody rice with bits in it.’ stirred up a veritable storm of outrage…. some idiot even suggesting that nobody in the UK had even heard of rice before the 1960’s. Quite incredible, as I my grandmother had been eating Kedgeree and curries since her childhood.

    • PaD

      Fearful compliance..Very good..and true.
      Yes Im aware they act as a shorthand but phrases become cliched so very quickly these days ..If I hear another newscast mentioning ‘too little..too late’..Ill probably implode!.perhaps I should..chill out?

  • nancoise

    In fact, I think the ball- and egg-throwers and spitters outside the Conservative Party Conference are not serious protesters (what on earth could they truly hope to accomplish?), but are virtue signallers. They are extra virtuous, of course, because some have had to travel to Manchester at personal cost. I imagine the mood in the spitting crowds is quite jolly and warm, what with all of them being so right about everything, all together there.

    • ill-liberal

      I think you are correct.

      • nancoise

        Ah, but am I myself virtue-signalling by posting that comment, critical of these badly-behaved protesters? Deep waters.

        • ill-liberal

          Ha ha. We’ll all be scared to speak soon.

    • Alex

      0.005% of protesters were arrested for disorder. Maybe you should examine why there were no protests outside Labour party conferences during their period of power (maybe there were? Please correct me if so)

      Your portrait of self-satisfied insularity rather better reflects the mood inside the “ring of steel”.

      • TheJustCity

        Don’t be a cock with your deceptive quibbling. 0.005% of protesters then – with 100% of protestors egging them on (hah!), and not remotely considering a quiet word or two as to it being the not really the done thing amongst adults.

        • Alex

          The difference between 0.005 and 100 is much more than a quibble: it rather shows up the extent to which right-wingers whinge and self-dramatise. Was the person who threw an egg at John Prescott vilified as a treacherous subversive? No, it was all seen as good clean fun. Instead of whinging about it and trying to make out like there was a civil war on, Prescott and the media made a joke out of it. How childish we have become since then.

          Do you in fact have a shred of evidence that other protesters approved of the egg-throwing (and did not administer “a quiet word or two”)? If I were protesting I wouldn’t approve, not only because of the (fairly tame) violence but also because of how it would play in the hysterical media.

          However seeing as how the architects of protest violence are usually professional anarchists tagging along to cause trouble I would be afraid for my own safety if I did intervene, having seen stories from those in the 2010 student protests about violent protesters attacking other protesters who objected.

          • Mr B J Mann

            “Prescott and the media made a joke out of it. How childish we have become since then.”

            I think you’ll find he punch the guy, funny ha, ha!

            Even funnier how “the architects of protest violence are usually professional anarchists tagging along to cause trouble…. violent protesters attacking other protesters who objected”.

            Would these be violent right wing anarchists then?!

            Funniest of all how the left wing are never violent, apart from the odd one or two who who rest don’t condone…..

            But understand how they’ve been driven to it by evil right wing politicians/ bankers/ oil cos/ families of research lab workers/ the children of chip shop owners,,,,,,,

          • Alex

            “The left wing”, blah blah ffs change the record.

          • Mr B J Mann

            No, you switch to another station!

  • Teacher

    Well done, ‘virtue signalling’ describes perfectly the lazy hypocrisy of most of my friends and acquaintances who think their dues to affluent altruism are served by abuse of their decent, modest, prudent, magnanimous and generous right wing neighbours. A sneering cry of ‘UKIPPER’ is roughly equivalent to a charity donation while praising a food bank is on a par with contributing to it in their silly minds.

    • FrankS2

      Must get new friends! Same with me, most of my friends and acquaintances fall into the default ‘progressive’ camp. It’s always a surprise and a relief when one of them lets slip a sympathy with some non-approved way of thought.

    • Suzy61

      If you are a teacher – there should be many more like you.

      • Teacher

        Every state school teacher except me. I stuck it for as long as I could and then ran for the hills!

        • Sue Smith


          • PeteTongue

            DUH, the left wing doesn’t exist in a virtue signalling free world of yours!!!!!!!!!!

            Are those enough exclamation marks?

          • Sue Smith

            I wonder why you’re so defensive? I wonder if I wonder?

          • PeteTongue

            You didn’t understand the point at all did you?????

            Eh, sorry, it’s !!!!!!?!

          • Sue Smith

            Apparently I did miss the point, but sarcasm is terribly difficult with the written word and can easily be misunderstood!

          • PaD

            This is a comments site..she was commenting..and I for one enjoyed her comment.
            You on the other hand have some axe to grind..not here mate!!!!!!!!+++!!!!!!!!!!!!

          • PaD

            Your comment is revealing and welcome though that sounds like an awful experience..the herd mentality is not confined to the uneducated..but youd expect the opposite from the so called or self described ‘enlightened’…this rare air only to be breathed by the few..no doubt has contributed to an almost total lack of literacy/numeracy for many who have come under their ‘tutelage’.
            talk is cheap, teaching properly on the other hand requires dedication and skill..and hard work..the magic 2words theyd run a mile from.

          • Sue Smith

            Thanks for your comment. My colleagues were just inexperienced – most had gone into the profession straight from school and lived a fairly sheltered life, dictated to by the department of education and its edicts. Of course, there were exceptions and these people became my friends. But it was excellent to be able to bring vast experience with business and working life into the classroom (in my 40’s I started) and when I shut the classroom door all bets were off for the stymied world of political correctness.

            The vast majority of my colleagues pushed kids to achieve and go to university where my own view was that one wasn’t guaranteed a better life with a degree when there were often better high-paying jobs which afforded students the opportunity to become entrepreneurial and head towards their own businesses. Shocking ideas, I know.

          • PaD

            Sorry I was being unfair to your friends.
            I was just having a swipe at politicised teaching methods..where ‘issues’ seem to be more important than spelling..since the 1970s.correct spelling/pronunciation a seeming bourgeois value.

      • Teacher

        Every state school teacher except me. I stuck it for as long as I could and then ran for the hills!

    • Juan_Kerr

      One of my neighbours put a UKIP sign up (in a solidly Labour area) and my reaction was “I hope he has good home and contents insurance”.

    • PaD

      So well observed!

  • JSC

    Congratulations on the making of a fine meme, Mr Bartholomew; ‘virtue signalling’ is a pleasantly concise term that is incredibly useful and long overdue. It perfectly encompasses many salient features from the “clicktivist” “white knight” and “humblebrag(garts)” who’ve made it their mission to pollute every form of social media known to mankind with their toxic sanctimonious twaddle.
    Now sit back, enjoy your success and watch as other people try and get in on the act. I predict that within a few weeks a bunch of (perpetually) virtue-signalling Guardianistas, goaded with the term, dedicate their efforts to find a retort. Soon no doubt we’ll see “arse-hole signalling” or “Tory signalling” or similar unimaginative ripoffery.

  • meleagris
    • PapaDocPenfro

      That reference in a dated article from 2006 looks pretty indisputable. Moreover, the use of capital letters for emphasis implies that the author was knowingly employing a term which was then already current, although not in widespread use. Sorry, James: you’re going to have to find some other way to achieve immortality.

      • No Man’s Land

        The 2006 article doesn’t contain Virtue Signalling, but there is a comment below it dated 2015 which does. James’ position looks safe yet.

        • meleagris

          Fair cop about the 2006 article, but the 2011 one does contain the term in the article: http://on-memetics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/why-humans-cooperate.html

          • Steve Smith

            True, but it’s not quite the same thing. The definition in the 2011 article is “humans are nice in order to signal to others how nice they are”. What James is talking about isn’t actually about being nice, it’s about sounding nice.

          • PapaDocPenfro

            Possibly so, SS, although that sounds like a fairly subtle distinction. What does seem proven, however, is that the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ was already in existence by 2011; also that the author of the 2011 article is making no claims to have originated this phrase, suggesting that it was already a part of acceptable sociological jargon at that time.

          • Tim Tyler

            Actually, I did originate the phrase in 2011 – as far as I know. The nearest earlier usage which I am aware of is from Eliezer Yudkowsky – who used the phrase “signal virtue” in passing in 2009 (search if you need a reference).

          • PaD

            Maybe its false memory syndrome.? Mm wonder who coined THAT phrase..2nd thoughts..I dont care..
            .or maybe its just something that we all do most of the time i.e use phrases weve heard somewhere.. its how language works

          • Mr B J Mann

            The 2011 article is about how and why humans cooperate and manipulate and if a heading in it equates to coining a new phrase than the writer, Tim Tyler, also coined:

            •evolution of altruism
            •hot topic
            •Kin selection
            •Virtue signalling
            •Cultural kin selection – cultural symbionts, percieved kin
            •Cultural reciprocity
            •Cultural manipulation
            •Maladaptions – non-adaptive – evolutionary mistake;
            •Adaptive – ancestral environment

            And note that:

            •Virtue signalling: this includes:
            ◦Courtship – humans are nice to impress prospective mates;
            ◦Reputations – humans are nice to improve their reputations;
            ◦Business – humans are nice to initiate reciprocal business relationships;
            ◦Friendships – humans are nice to initiate reciprocal business relationships;
            Signalling must often be costly to be effective. Virtue signalling is sometimes classified as being a form of “indirect reciprocity”.


            •Overgeneralisation: Some of the most common problems here are:
            ◦Overgeneralising the general strategy of being nice;
            ◦Overgeneralising niceness to kin – to include cultural kin (sometimes called “fictive kin”);
            ◦Gratitude sometimes results in altruism which is wildly out of proportion, or given to other people besides the original altruist;
            This section is intended to cover all cases of resource-limited cognition.

            So completely different to a supercillious attacking of the right wing as your sole contribution to the supposed moral superiority of the left!

          • Tim Tyler

            I wrote that 2011 article. Virtue signaling is about *appearing* virtuous. *Sometimes* that involves being nice; *sometimes* not, it depends.

          • g1lgam3sh

            I’m fully prepared to give you that one Tim.

            Excellent phrase and pointer.

            I give you fair warning I shall be stealing it and spreading it far and wide in my casual campaign against the japanese knotweed of noble cause corruption.

            Fvkcing virtue signalling uanquers that they are, so sue me 😉

          • James Bartholomew

            Thank you!

          • ill-liberal

            You spoil sport !

            In fairness to the author I think the article you have linked to is kind of different, as it involves being virtuous in the first place.

            It’s a fair shout though.

          • Tim Tyler

            That’s a misunderstanding of my article, though. Virtue signalling is a cause of virtuous human behaviour. However in no way does virtue signalling *require* virtous behaviour. It could involve false signals or lying (for example). Of course the most credible signals must be expensive – so *actual* virtuous behavior is frequently involved.

          • ill-liberal

            The wording suggests otherwise. ‘Humans are nice in order to signal to others how nice they are’ clearly states that humans ‘are’ nice, not that they pretend to be nice. I actually disagree with the premise and think humans are nice due to compassion and empathy above all else. In fairness I didn’t read the whole blog and am sure it is more nuanced than I am stating here.

            Although the wording is used I’m not sure it would follow that you coined the phrase. There seems to have been a very different meaning behind yours, whether intentional or not. Plus the fact that it was put forward in a well circulated national publication and has since become a commonly used phrase.

          • Tim Tyler

            The term is fairly self-explanatory, IMO. I am inclined to doubt that different people are using it in different ways. Sometimes humans are nice and sometimes humans pretend to be nice. In either case, signaling virtue may be involved in their motivation. Signaling virtue isn’t just about *pretending* to be nice. It is responsible for much fine, charitable and good behaviour.

            FWIW, compassion and empathy would not be regarded acceptable as ultimate evolutionary explanations – because they just beg the question of why we would be so compassionate and empathic.

          • ill-liberal

            I’m sure it is but I still think the context of it within your article is different. You may have put those two words together but I think this, as a concept, is different. Anyway, argue the toss with the author, good luck !!

          • ill-liberal

            I’m sure it is but I still think the context of it within your article is different. You may have put those two words together but I think this, as a concept, is different. Anyway, argue the toss with the author, good luck !!

          • PaD

            Right Tim thats enough..were bored now

          • ill-liberal

            He wants it pretty bad.

          • g1lgam3sh

            I see the Veblen is strong in your analysis 🙂

          • No Man’s Land

            So it does, I didn’t find that one based on a quick search. It does seem that it’s some form a anthropological jargon. As others have pointed out it seems our hero has changed the definition.

          • MikeH

            This seems to be going the way of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Richard Lewis.

            He claims to have invented the term “the __ from hell”, even in the face of indisputable evidence proving prior, historic usages.

          • Mark

            Pretty good MikeH, pretty, pretty good.

        • PapaDocPenfro

          Well spotted, NML.

    • Kennybhoy


    • EnosBurrows

      Google books gives more cases. It was also apparently used in Mind, Morality and Magic: Cognitive Science Approaches in Biblical Studies By Istvan Czachesz

    • Mr B J Mann

      But whoever used the two words together in that order in 2006 and 2011 clearly hadn’t “coined the phrase” or you would have had a a common usage from 2006!

      His current usage clearly started the trend!!!

  • No Man’s Land

    It’s an extremely useful short hand, I think it succeeds because it can be a twitter hashtag. It’s short, but carries a lot of meaning that is instinctively understood.

    One of the difficulties of debating from the right is we’re more interested in ends than means. Higher tax on the wealthy to help the poor feels ‘nicer’, but we know it can backfire and reduce tax take. The trouble is the left often counter our intellectual argument with an emotive one. ‘You want to reduce taxes for millionaires, you don’t care about the poor’.

    Virtue signalling is great because it correctly implies they’re more concerned with their own image than the outcome, it levels the emotive playing field.

    So thanks James, you’ve helped a lot.

  • Ralph

    I would love to post this article on Facebook just to silence the vast numbers who post splenetic emotive left wing drivel. I would love to have a healthy chat with these virtue signallers, however within seconds all debate would be shut down with ‘Ah The Spectator! What the *^#* do you expect’

    • ill-liberal

      That’s why it’s best to not bother with Facebook. Any attempt at reasonable discussion is either fobbed off or left eerily quiet in a way that suggests everyone thinks you are basically Hitler. They don’t, most people just shy away from it all because of the judgmental lefties signalling their virtue.

      It is a great phrase, I’m envious of this chap inventing it.

      • Alex

        This is very true, speaking as a lefty myself. I dare not get involved in any discussion, particularly not on identity politics – have a few rad-fems and the like in my feed.

        • ill-liberal

          I suppose the centrists, right and left leaning, are less likely to get involved.

  • FrankS2

    Yes, a needed and worthy addition to the language. It’s eclipsed my ‘displays of piety’, but I still have hopes for ‘compassion commandos’.

  • Alison Blazeby

    I shared the original article about the Daily Mail, because I thought it was so good, and I’ve been a devoted user of the phrase ever since. It sums up that habit – usually practised by ‘leftists’ – of claiming the higher moral ground in any given argument, which is so childish and infuriating. It describes perfectly people’s response in an event such as the migrant crisis. Sometimes the escalating virtue-signalling on programmes like Question Time provide laugh-out-loud entertainment.

    • SonOfGud

      Maybe one could play a game of Virtue Signalling Bingo whilst watching QT?

  • ill-liberal

    It’s a great phrase and it is used a lot now. I’d thought it was Ed West but looking back I read his article about the original one.

    We need to keep going with it because it’s the lefts major weapon in the public shaming of people who disagree.

  • michael buckler

    How about ….”Virtue signalling is it’s own reward.”…. Must have been done

    • Sue Smith

      It’s a kind of exclusive, self-rewarding, philosophical and perennial Father Christmas.

  • ardenjm

    The Victorians and Edwardians gave nearly 10% to charity because the very ancient notion of tithing a tenth of one’s income to the Church and its charitable causes was still present in the collective memory. As we secularise and ‘governmentalise’ welfare we give less (and feel less happy as a result) and exacerbate that by also resenting the inevitable increase in government taxation (with attendant inefficiency, waste and officiousness) which is henceforth required to fill the welfare gap left behind by no longer making our ‘spontaneous’ religiously-inspired donations to good causes.

    • Alex

      “Spontaneity” and “feeling happy”, not to mention “religious inspiration”, is hardly a good model on which to provide for those in need. We worked this one out a hundred years ago. Have you seen some of the bullshit charities the British public donate to? And a media smearing campaign against, let’s say, benefit scroungers/single mothers/street sleepers/disability “fakers”/insert moral panic here would quickly hit donations.

      Your post is an example of right-wing virtue-signalling.

  • Gilbert White

    There would be much virtue if Corbyn used those big red buses full of undesirables south of Westminster, for the rest of his miserable existence like the rest of the unfortunate proletariat. An expensive bikeis not being ecologically progressive.

    • Alex

      I would have thought it was seeing as it will have a lifetime of several decades with no need for fuel. Are the openly venal, driving 500 yards in their ministerial cars, exempt from the need to be virtuous? Do we actually care about outcomes, or are we more interested in exposing sub-tabloid-level “hypocrisy”?

      Is this sanctimony over supposed hypocrisy merely a perverse, and selective of course, form of virtue-signalling?

      Corbyn, whatever you think of him, is what right-wing trolls have been facetiously demanding for years: a genuine sackcloth-and-ashes lefty. And still it’s either not good enough or makes him a weirdo, a target for a more straightforward form of bullying.

  • douglas redmayne

    What a turd. I have paid thousands in tax still work so I have no time or money to tend to elderly relatives. Moralists like Bartholemew seem to think that I should and give money to charity.

  • PapaDocPenfro

    Very interesting to see that a sociologist named Tim Tyler has popped up to stake a very convincing and solidly evidenced prior claim to having devised the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ in an article dated December 2011. Although James Bartholomew might be able to argue that his usage is subtly nuanced, his belief that he is the true creator of the phrase is completely demolished and leaves him open to a charge of plagiarism, at the very least on an unconscious level. Any comment, James?

    • James Bartholomew

      I thought the excellent Steve Smith gave a good reply higher up: “The definition in the 2011 article is ‘humans are nice in order to signal to others how nice they are.’ What James is talking about isn’t actually about being nice, it’s about sounding nice.”
      I think the meanings are clearly different. I was suggesting that people say things to make themselves sound virtuous when in fact they have done nothing virtuous at all.
      The phrase in the many comments on the Guardian website, for example, is clearly used in the new sense that I suggested. Indeed, they would not make sense otherwise.

      • TheJustCity

        I’d say ‘moral vanity’ has been around a while.

        • Sue Smith

          But “virtue signalling” is on the radio-active spectrum of moral vanity.

      • Tim Tyler

        ‘Signalling’ is an absolutely standard biological term. It can be used to refer to both honest and dishonest messages. My usage was consistent with this standard biological meaning. If the term is used to mean something else, that would clearly go against many decades of use by biologists.

      • frankster

        So would you say then that rather than “inventing” or “coining the phrase” you applied a pre-existing phrase to a – at best – slightly different context?

  • Dr. Heath

    Isn’t ‘virtue signalling’ merely the same as ‘moral preening’? My research has come up with a piece of invective by George Will in which he employs this term to describe the ludicrous feather-fluffing of the Americans’ royal family [Bill and Hill]. In the UK, virtue signallers resort to a small number of tweets that, like those of the star turns in a David Attenborough documentary about birds, alert other species members to the beauty of the signallers’ well-polished halos [without any of the preeners of course having to engage in any genuinely charitable activity]. Examples?

    “Nye Bevan said that Tories are lower than vermin. Spot on!”

    “Incompetent, useless Tory scum!”

    “Because of austerity, millions rely on soup kitchens to avoid starvation.”

    “If it weren’t for Cameron, Britain would adopt an open-door policy for migrants.”

    • Alex

      Can you put your hand on your heart and say you never see the equivalent comments the other way around? (Not Tweets maybe, but here, for example?)

  • Pacificweather

    Voting in a British General Election is “virtue signalling” by James Bartholomew’s definition of the phrase. It shows you are a good citizen but, for the majority, it doesn’t actually have any effect.

    • red2black

      Aren’t the Right virtue signalling to others on the Right when they have a go at the Left, and same the other way round?

      • Pacificweather

        If they aren’t making coherent arguments for their statements then I think you have a good point. There is often more virtue signalling here than political discourse. In elections for the regional parliament and assemblies all votes can make a difference but in a general election the majority of votes have no effect so for the majority virtue signalling is all they get to do. But that’s how the English, in particular, like it. Having the responsibility for electing a government is a scary thing and best left to the minority.

        • red2black

          Our form of Democracy appears to have more to do with traditional
          mainstream political party interests than anything else.
          Perhaps first-past-the-post will be called into question again if UKIP are able to maintain or increase their share of the vote. I don’t support them, but it seems unreasonable that so many votes are rewarded with so little influence. Of course, the FPTP argument stands that it tends to create a majority, which makes for more stable government.

          • Pacificweather

            Surely, you mean it tends to create minority goverment? It certainly creates the most expensive blunder prone governments. German governments tend to be stable and even the Israeli multi party governments are (some of its citizens say) all too stable. So when you consider British post war governments you wonder who came up with the idea that they were more stable than real democracies. Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan would be pleased to know stable government unlike our recent stable coalition.

          • red2black

            The usual argument against proportional representation is that it creates fragile and unstable governments. To me, it seems to be far more democratic: if a third of voters vote Conservative, then Conservatives make up a third of the government.
            Point taken as regards some of our previous Prime Ministers.

          • Pacificweather

            The “usual argument” does indeed tend to be the justification for the status quo whatever the subject matter. Repeating the old canards maintains the emotional link to the status quo and avoids having to examine it or take any improvements.

      • Mr B J Mann

        But surely the point is that the left not only believe that they hold the moral high ground, but don’t even try to BE moral, just signal their moral superiority!

  • Fraser Bailey

    No doubt learner drivers will have to ‘virtue signal, selfie, maneuver.’*

    *Sorry, I’m not up to the UK spelling of this word today.

  • Muttley

    I use it all the time now. And oh, the irony of it being used by Nicky Campbell – the ultimate BBC virtue-signaller! A sickening trait which means ignoring the facts and glossing over real problems just to gain righteous personal image.

    • Simerall

      Please, Dame Nicki Campbell.

    • Sue Smith

      It’s very easy to confuse a virtue-signaller. Heavy lashings of objective truths have them screaming, “ooooh, look over there!”. They’re great at stonewalling and creating red herrings (sorry about the mixed metaphors). Completely unable to process any disruptive or interrogative narrative, they’ll reach for their time-honoured cliches by way of response. As I said, “look over there”!! An example: the Australian government is ‘liaising with the muslim community to try and improve community cohesion”. At a press conference a muslim ‘community representative’ was asked about violence in the Koran and the retribution which was ordered for “Infidels”. Her response went like this:

      “I’m glad you asked the question; I want to look at the present, not the past (eg. “look over there, not here!!”). We want to ‘move forward’ (over there!) and create a ‘harmonious society’ (over there!). Absolutely nothing to do with the question (just like any politician!).

      The left doesn’t THINK, it EMOTES.

  • Bert

    Wonderful addition to the English phrasebook and so aptly describes those vulgar, preachy, holier than thou, needy dullards who need to reflect an identity rather than have an original thought or actually do something without drawing attention.

  • PaD

    Im sure there are many right now putting two other words of English together on the line of their work and not needing to crow from the rooftops..
    vanity signalling..there ..a phrase Ive just invented..can I now be quoted as a famous author?

    • PaD

      Or more original, vanity projection

    • mumble

      I think that ship has sailed: consider the recent emergence of the cognate “-shaming”. AFAIK, the first usage was in “slut-shaming” — surely worth a credit in every etymological history — but now we’re appending “-shaming” to all sorts of new things on a daily basis.

      You could claim “Watergate”, but not everything to which “-gate” has since been appended.

  • Juan_Kerr

    You may be amused that there is a counter-phenomenon in Universities that we might call “evil signalling” or “vice signalling”. When someone makes a comment in such a way as to make it churlish to object, you object just for the fun of it, or rather to make the point that the other person is trying to co-opt you into something you don’t necessarily believe in. Funny thing is, as long as you don’t cross the line into real unpleasantness, nothing ever happens, and sometimes even they see the funny side. (More rarely, but more than once or twice when I have done this, the other person lets their guard down, agrees with me and admits to being a Tory).

  • g1lgam3sh

    Good gloat, and why not, I would 😉

    • frankster

      You would if you had actually invented it, though a quick use of google makes it pretty clear that JB hasn’t!

  • Alex

    I didn’t realise the term was coined just a few months ago! I feel like I have been using it for years. It shows how on point it was.

    Of course, right-wingers are often quite as guilty of virtue-signalling as left-wingers. Charity donations and patronage are one of these things, ironically.

    • Mr B J Mann

      But the whole point of Bartholomew’s usage is that you DON’T actually DO anything good, charitable or virtuous, you don’t even SAY you DO, you just say things that signal that you hate the right too, so not really virtuous at all, except to fellow haters!

      • Alex

        Hating the right is absolutely a virtue 🙂

        • Mr B J Mann

          Yes, Stalin and the other International Socialists hated the National Socialists and made a virtue of it.
          Feel free to continue burying that uncomfortable truth.

  • stag

    Well done, James *pat on the back*.

  • I find it hard to believe that James Bartholomew really invented the term “virtue signalling”. The importance of signalling of qualities such as virtue, but also health, strenght, courage, fidelity, fertility or intelligence has been known for many decades to anybody with only the slightes grasp of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology. The popularity of the slogan “Never kissed a Tory” is proof that virtue signalling can lead to an adaptive, reproductive advantage, even if it is based on mere hypocrisy, self-delusion or ignorance.

  • DennisHorne

    Virtue-signalling is a word for its time, the world newly ordered by social media.

    Somewhere in the middle of fake, for the sake of appearances, modern, liberal, fashionable piffle.

    • Sue Smith

      …and don’t forget narcissism!

      • DennisHorne

        I think the reason the word has been seized by writers is it really is a new word for a new phenomenon. When I first saw it I knew immediately what it meant but when I came to explain it I had difficulty. And missed out narcissism! Certainly self-importance, self-satisfaction and self-centredness, and a need to display it.

        But the key aspect is all this at no cost. You don’t even need to write a letter acceptable to the editor to show your support for the latest good cause.

        • Sue Smith

          My experience with all of this is its entirely self-defeating mindset. Sooner or later the kinds of decisions made and pressure exerted by do-gooders and virtue signallers (not one and the same, necessarily) is that these often have to be reversed by realists from the (far!!) right. I include myself in that group of grounded realists.

          And I’ve actually read psychology articles which suggest that ‘do gooders’ often have pathologies, you might be interested to know. It’s not about helping others, but really all about them!! Same with virtue signalling – when the real ‘virtue’ would be in granting others their freedom of speech and caring a little more about the consequence of their own choices on others in the community!! (In short, all the things they say about conservatives and which are true in a good way!!)

          More mentally developed and healthy individuals balance a life of kindness, empathy and realistic self and community interest.

          • DennisHorne

            Thanks. For me the word implies emptiness. That is: All show.

            Do-gooding is something else, although do-gooders may advertise and seek approval.

          • Sue Smith

            Yes, it’s this approval-seeking behaviour which is behind many pathologies! (My sister is a retired clinical psychologist and we’ve often discussed this!).

            The thing which gets to me the most is that virtue signallers don’t care about the community interest at all – it’s always about THEM. Easy ripostes at fashionable dinner parties if somebody has made an unfashionable statement. How many times have I been on the butt-end of that???

            At my sister’s 50th birthday party I was seated at a table with her friends. Within 10 minutes they were wanting to categorize myself and my husband and their bogus refulgences about this cause or that was specifically designed to do so. My comment was a now-standard response: “I make it a rule never to discuss politics outside the home”.

          • mumble

            “refulgence”. V. good.

          • frankster

            Complaining about virtue-signalling is surely a form of virtue-signalling in itself!

    • iand

      “Piffle” one of my favorite words, it’s up there with “fuselage”

  • oldoddjobs

    James really needs to look up signalling, construal level theory etc Perhaps the phrase “virtue signalling” is his, but come on.

  • Captain Dryland

    There seem to be three variations on ‘virtue signalling’ The Boastful Samaritan version; the Bartholomew version; and the Tyler version. First though, the Quiet Samaritan, who does good deeds, but keeps quiet about them, and so is not a ‘virtue signaller’ of any sort, except insofar as those and those acquainted with those to whome he has done some good, will know or get to hear about it.

    The Boastful Samaritan type of virtue signaller has done some concrete good in the world, then boasts about it to ensure that everyone knowns he is a virtuous chap.

    The Bartholomew-type virtue-signaller has done no concrete good in the world, but by making a display of his ‘agreement with, support for, solidarity with, etc.’ the doings of Quiet and Boastful Samaritans, pretends that he is from the same stamp as these actual do-gooders, that he would carry out the same kinds of actions ‘if only circumstances allowed’, and that his ‘heart is in the right place’. It is essentially a deceptive or hypocritical stance adopted by those who wish to appear good, whilst doing nothing practical to advance the good.

    The Tyler-type virtue signaller, if I understand Mr Tyler’s posts, may have done some actual good, or he may not; but in either case, by virtue-signalling, and putting about the idea that virtue is desirable in society, some good is done. Clearly the virtue-signaller who has done both a concrete good, plus virtue-signalling about it, has created more good in society than the virtue-signaller who merely supports the idea of virtue, but without doing any concrete good. Nevertheless, the latter type, by promoting even the mere idea that virtue is desirable, may end up having a good effect if by such means society does actually shift towards a more virtuous mode.

    From what I have seen, it is to the deceptive, hypocritical Bartholomew-type that mentions of ‘virtue-signalling’ refer to when used in the press and media.

  • Chris Bartelt

    I suggest we all seem to have unthinking intellectual cowards for friends…. One of mine actually threatened to get out of the car while it was still moving when I challenged his views on global warming, wood burning stoves and electric vehicles… a small part of me regretted his change of mind.

  • John Andrews

    Let’s rebrand ‘Labour MPs’ as ‘Labour VSs’

  • johnb1945

    I find it interesting that virtue signalling is specifically condemned in the Christian tradition.

    “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”

    “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full”

    “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

    “”Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long”.

    It’s interesting because to my mind, virtue signalling is a quasi-religious act. It’s not radically different from being a good Muslim because you pray 5 x daily.

    Our much derided Judeo-Christian tradition really was ahead of its time in some areas. It described the hypocrisy and self righteousness of overt acts to a tee.

    Virtue signalling is no more than than one of the 5 pillars for the self obsessed.

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  • Itinerant

    The future of Europe is being gambled away by ‘progressive’ MPs, furiously signalling their compassion- which for countless young males, is merely a sign of weakness and opportunity to exploit.

  • sturigios

    What’s wrong with West Ham Online? Up the Irons.

  • grimm

    Virtue signalling is not taking over “the world”. It is probably becoming an easy and lazy way for journalists to sum up a certain attitude among the “great and the good”. In other words it is taking over the media (which, for journalists, IS the world).

  • dan barker

    Here’s an article from 2011 coining the term “virtue signalling”: http://on-memetics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/why-humans-cooperate.html – worth footnoting, even if the definition differs.

  • Haloge

    And there was me believing Brendan O’Neill made it up in SP!KED.

  • Bradley EC

    Millenials are plagued with virtue signalling, political correctness, puritanism and cowardice. They have postures instead of ideology. They are NOT left-wing or liberal. They are postmodern conservatives. You lot are late modern conservatives. The left left if you get my drift. Pretending these millennial dogs are left or liberal would be a terrible mistake to make but you are destined to make it again and again.

    • “Post-modern conservatives”… I like it! So far I’ve just been calling them reactionary authoritarians.

    • Callipygian

      Wrong! Next, please… (and I’ve already seen the bearded albatross with a pet mollusc singing a capella, thanks).

  • frankster

    10 seconds of google find this phrase being used back in 2011: http://on-memetics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/why-humans-cooperate.html

    I hardly think you invented it Mr Bartholomew! In fact, as a poster on a forum pointed out, by complaining about virtue signalling, are you not indulging in a spot of virtue signalling yourself?

    • mumble

      Yes, the discussion on the page you link to does discuss virtue signalling, and it uses the phrase, but in the different context of human co-operation. In the sense discussed by Mr. Bartholomew, it is not a precursor.

      • frankster

        The sense is very similar, clearly related to the one in that source. I think Mr Bartholomew absorbed the phrase from elsewhere, forgot the source, then believed he had invented it himself. An easy mistake to make, but very embarrassing considering the tone of his article.

  • Robert King

    And the concept goes far back to Geoffrey Miller, at least

    • Jack Rocks

      This is a clear case of anticipatory plagiarism.

    • mumble

      That book does not contain the phrase “virtue signaling”.

      Mr. Bartholomew never claimed that discussion of signaling was new.

      • Robert King

        Can you read at an adult level? Here, let me help you

        • mumble

          I apologise: did you mean, alternatively, that the concept of virtue goes back to Geoffrey Miller, at least? I don’t doubt it, although it doesn’t seem any more helpful or relevant than your original comment.

          Or maybe you were just taking off on a random walk through the histories of philosophy, biology and anthropology, untrammeled by the context of the article? If so, help yourself, by all means, and I’ll stand back and watch you recede into the distance.

  • dg

    Critical rhetorics like this do little but put us in a moral bind that disempower us. The author is assuming that the motive of socially engaged posting is to advertise virtue, which is not just paralyzingly cynical of him but also, I think, inaccurate. And the contempt he and so many people have for serious political and social debate on Facebook does not, curiously, extend to in person debate, which can have less impact and be more rife with mixed motives. Moreover, being engaged with politics and justice via social media does not replace or short circuit our action in the real world. It might actually electrify that action.

    Not to mention that his article is an exercise in credit signalling. (you saw that phrase here first!) The author’s motive for writing seems mostly to be pique that someone else is winning attribution for the snarky phrase he says he coined.

    • Trouble

      I really think you’re kidding yourself. This phrase HAD to be created. Just so we would have a clear, concise phrase for all the sniffy, nose-in-the-air, I-don’t-eat-meat, pantywaists out there. It has a delicious, almost collegiate-level venom to it. It’s long overdue.

    • No, he’s dead on. There are plenty of people who think that simply advertising that they have the right opinion about things constitutes actual virtuous behaviour. There is even a segment which sees actual virtuous behaviour (i.e.: volunteerism, charitable giving, morality, etc.) as being “problematic” for one or another reason, ESPECIALLY if its done by people that have the wrong opinions about things. Because, of course, it must be some kind of trick or whatever. People with wrong opinions cannot possibly have other redeeming characteristics, and if virtuous behaviour was really all that great, then the people with right opinions would do it more, y’know?

      I find the concept of virtue signalling very empowering because it gives me a weapon to fight back with. If someone wants to think they’re better than me, then the minimal requirement is to BE better than me. I’m not a saint, but if someone isn’t donating AT LEAST as much to charity as me, or volunteering as much as me, or has a career in public service like I do, then they’re just doing empty virtue signalling and I get to call them out on it.

      • dg

        Most of the activist folks I know aren’t just social-media justice warriors; they are really out there doing the hard work of engaging with their most elemental concerns. I don’t know anybody who sees actual virtuous behavior as “problematic.” I might have concerns about people who have the “wrong opinions” doing activism, but that’s not because of the fact they’re doing it, which I respect; it’s just that I might disagree strongly with their actions—picketing Planned Parenthood, say, or fighting against permits and training around guns.

        Cory, maybe you can use “virtue-signalling” as a “weapon,” but you may find out that your friends are not just talking the talk but walking the walk–and that you’ll have company in your volunteering and public service.

        • Unless the people I’m thinking of are extraordinarily humble about what they actually do, then it is unlikely that they’re investing the kind of time, money, and effort into many charitable causes. Believe me, I wish you were right, but I just don’t see it. I’ve held out the option many times for people to join in and they just don’t, which is their prerogative… until they start trying to guilt me over my “middle class privilege” or whatever.

          I have seen a fair share of criticisms that actually doing stuff is problematic. That its imperialistic hand-me-downs, that it is this-shaming or that-shaming, that it is insufficiently expressing true solidarity (which I assume from example is posting stuff on Facebook), and so on. If it was coming from someone who was right there in the thick of the issue I could see their point, but invariably it is not. Sure, living your life ministering to the homeless and drug addicted is better than just charity, but charity is better than just expressing the right feelings.

        • mumble

          The article is not about activist folks. The article is about inactivist folks, by which I mean — thinking of a real example — those who react to news of an appallingly brutal rape/murder solely by writing condemnatory tweets and Facebook posts, carefully pointing out that they would never do such a thing.

          I concede, though, that virtue-signalling is not the whole story: I think there is an element of self-comfort involved as well. Either way, however, there is no practical effect on the incidence of appallingly brutal rape/murder.

          Another example is sportsmen wearing pink “to raise awareness of breast cancer” (or, as some say, “to support breast cancer”) long after we have become as aware of breast cancer as we’re ever going to get.

          Real virtue would be to move forward to actually doing something about the incidence of breast-cancer, but no — we just have marketers spending advertising budgets and manufacturers selling trendy pink merchandise, and we’re supposed to get a case of the warm-cuddlies all round. Stuff that.

  • easynow

    This is virtue shaming. I COINED IT

  • Rafael102

    I coined the expression “There is nothing new under the Son” … mind you, I immediately found an exception to the rule …. my 14 year old told me I had the IQ of a fish – I’d never heard that insult before.

  • Kenyan Mocker

    As noted by several this comment is not new. By looking up Ancient Alien Theorists posts it goes back to the 21st Century BC and was done on a stone tablet found in the ruins of a Roman galley that had yet to be invented.

  • tom dissonance

    no, you didn’t.

  • Donnie Vortex

    I don’t think its anything to be proud of. All you’ve done is taken a cynical idea, that people only do the right thing so they appear good in front of others, and repackaged into a slightly scientific sounding term that people can use without thinking about it. The terms used to be ‘do-gooders’, or ‘busybodies’ and they fell out of fashion because they make the utterer sound like a misanthropic old fart. But now we can be misanthropic farts while sounding vaguely like a psychologist.

    • RJMA3

      Virtue signalling isn’t about “doing the right thing”. It’s about “saying the right thing”. From the article: “One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.” That’s why it’s different from “do-gooders” because a “do-gooder” actually does good. Also, busybodies is a completely different term. You might want to look that one up for your own clarification.

      • Callipygian

        It’s also about conspicuously BUYING the right thing, as I mention above.

        • Velocet 8

          Nice virtue signaling, Callipygian.

  • Callipygian

    Good stuff, James. Any dictionary definition: your name by the etymology, darling.

    May I add that virtue signalling extends to large cash layouts, as well? Witness Exhibit A: the purchase of an electric car. My husband tells me that makers of such, with an initially discreet indication that the car had a battery, were compelled by consumer dissatisfaction to make the marker LARGER, SO THE WHOLE WORLD WOULD KNOW HOW VIRTUOUS THEY ARE.

    Yes, and they also require rare earth metals making wastelands of parts of China. Pass the sick bag.

    • mumble

      “The nickel in Prius batteries is actually Canadian. It is shipped, on an oil-burning ship, all the way over to Norway, turned into batteries and shipped all the way to Japan, where it’s turned into the car and shipped all the way back to Britain, where it’s bought by morons who think they’re saving the planet.” —Jeremy Clarkson

      • Callipygian

        What I said about China is also true: the mining of neodymium among other rare earth metals has created no-man’s-lands where nothing can live.

        • Velocet 8

          ^^^This is also virtue signaling.^^^

    • Velocet 8

      “Yes, and they also require huge quantities of rare earth metals, the mining of which makes wastelands of parts of China. Pass the sick bag.”
      ^^^Virtue Signaling without a hint of irony^^^

      • Callipygian

        Since when was stating facts ‘virtue signalling’? Do grow up.

        • roiwnvfoem

          Your car is hurting people in china! Omg stop guys! Also look how aware I am of other people’s problems!

          • Callipygian


          • blandings

            Harsh, but fair.

          • Callipygian

            Oh I love ya!

          • blandings

            Steady on there, gal!

          • Callipygian


  • Callipygian

    Obama is a ‘virtue signaller’ if ever there was one.

    I’d like to share a witty comment by an American on another conservative website. It’s virtue signalling a-go-go, but highly ironic:

    “Hello, I’m Barack, I’ll be your President this evening. In addition to our wonderful menu of multiculturalism, which is anti-national socialism served American style, we also have a few specials. These are a big steaming pile of You Take the Blame, No Results, and Complicit Media.”

    “We use a fine local winery, Crocodile Tears. Our wine list has a large selection of reds. All excellent. The rosé is good too. The whites? Not so much any more. ”

    “What’s that? The Bill of Rights? Hmm. Let me think. Sorry, that was our old menu.”

    “For dessert we have a bombe just waiting for this occasion. You preordered in 2012. Enjoy.”

  • Oh, we in South Africa have virtue signallers hiding behind every bush – and frequently also in high-end SUVs, and in large houses protected with 3m walls AND electric fencing.
    You see, it’s regarded as being so necessary here to show that you are LGBTQIA+ friendly (seriously: LGBT just doesn’t cut it anymore) as well as multicultural and racist-unfriendly, that it means negotiating a veritable minefield just to initiate a conversation with someone you didn’t grow up with go to school with / work with.
    You can even get into serious trouble with your children because you dare have an Apple sticker on your car, or because you didn’t ostentatiously shop in the Organic section of the supermarket (where the mycotoxins and heavy metals lurk, unlabelled), or because your wine may (gasp!) contain sulphites.
    So one flaunts one’s nylon shirts, makes sure one drives a petrol-guzzler, and uses politically incorrect terms in everyday speech, just to piss them off.
    Or I do, anyway B-)

  • chickenpie

    I prefer the term “Moral Preening” which I first came across in First Things magazine.

  • Velocet 8

    Ironically, this article is nothing more than a self righteous virtue signaling spree.

    > “I contributed to the English lexicon, others have told me so”
    > “I went to Oxford with the person who normally gets credit for my invention…AND I still admire her for her youthful appearance in revealing clothes!”
    > “Yes, someone else gets credit for my contribution to the English lexicon, but I don’t mind, really!”
    > “My contribution has been widely adopted by Nick Cohen, Antonia Hoyle, James Delingpole, etc etc etc in publications like Breitbart, Daily Telegraph, etc etc….but really, I’m ok with not always getting credit for it!!! I just thought I would mention it off-hand…”
    > “I wrote a book comparing the charitable givings of Edwardian and Victorian societies to our own present one…and I even included perspectives from their working and artisan classes! How high minded of me, and yet also how very down to earth of me! Also, I conclude that we are barely 10% as charitable as these former societies…we can do better that that guys!”

    Your short but potent barrage of virtue signaling has been noted. You’re so great!!!

    • AmazingRandy

      Ah, no that’s not virtue signalling.

  • AmazingRandy

    “virtue signalling” has been used by a Canadian media personality recently regarding John Kerry’s statements at the Paris climate talks.

  • Cue Bono

    A nice summary of the world we live in today.

  • Andrew Riddle

    Sorry James, but you do not seem to have invented this term. I’ve found it in Slate Star Codex comments as far back as June 2014. http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/06/14/living-by-the-sword/#comment-103272

    It was used even earlier, in February 2014, here: http://on-memetics.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/evolutionary-ethics.html

    • OldIowaGirl

      Oops. Looks like Andrew Riddle is correct….Feb 2014 is the winning date here. Keep at it, James Bartholomew, but do remember….God doesn’t like bragging, unless it’s about Him.

    • Mr B J Mann

      But that first link to a blog and comments about, among othe things, signalling (signal/ing occurs ten times on the page) merely happens to have mentioned, in one instance, people signalling their “actual” virtue before it was doubted by fellow PC types.

      The second link is to a discussion about the discussion of ethics and how in the discussion of ethics “a concern for moral issues is typically used as a signalling device: to tell others what a fine fellow you are. This introduces a complicated level of double-talk into many discussions of the topic”.

      So neither introduced the term as shorthand for the mocking. by the non PC, of faux virtual signalling, by the PC, through the use of references to eg never reading the Mail, which signals to the PC (and non PC) crown exacttly what sort of person you are/supposed to be.

      Just because somebody finds the phrase “x is politically correct” is a Millenium old text doesn’t mean “Political Correctness” has been around for a Millennium.

  • Treebrain

    I created the phrase ‘Spartan suicide’ with reference to the policies of ht Netanyahu administration in Israel a few months ago!

    It is only a matter of time before lazy journalists pick up on it.

    • John P Hughes

      It sounds good and is not a bad description of where Bibi Netanyahu’s policies may lead Israel to. But it requires too much knowledge of the Ancient World, something Americans don’t have and not every educated Israeli or Briton does. Worth trying to spread the argument as to how a nd why that is where Bibi could lead Israel.

  • bass_man16

    We are probably less charitable now because we pay so much in taxes!

  • MV
    • n3n5n1

      kinda cruel though
      is that a form of virtue signalling, fighting with inaccurate claims of coining a phrase online?..

    • Bill

      “The discussion of signalling in the paper is all wrong. Humans engage in “virtue signalling” engaging in public altruistic acts to improve their repuatations and to prove how fine and trustworthy they are to onlookers.” – Tim Tyler, August 23, 2012

      Good catch. 😀

      • Mr B J Mann

        But as I argue above: it is not virtue signalling as used here, it merely refers to the signalling of actual virtue by carrying out actual, possibly quite onerous, virtuous acts publicly and visibly.

        This is the opposite of virtue signalling as being discussed which is merely signalling that you are part of a supposedly virtuous in-group by a mere, cost free, signal (eg being disparaging of Mail readers, which isn’t even virtuous behaviour!).

        • Bill

          You’re wrong. The quote says nothing about whether the public acts are actually beneficial to anyone or merely appear to be.

          This was not invented by the author. He read it somewhere and then convinced himself that it was his own idea.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Yada yada yada…..

            The point isn’t whether they are beneficial (the one’s being discussed here clearly aren’t, because they are valueless verbal signals).

            Your quote(s) refer to actual physical ACTS.

            engaging in public altruistic acts

            Hence something completely different.

    • Mr B J Mann

      The relevant text is quoted by Bil in reply but it is not virtue signalling as used here, it merely refers to the signalling of actual virtue by carrying out actual, possibly quite onerous, virtuous acts publicly and visibly.

      This is the opposite of virtue signalling as being discussed which is merely signalling that you are part of a supposedly virtuous in-group by a mere, cost free, signal (eg being disparaging of Mail readers, which isn’t even virtuous behaviour!).

      • Bill

        Nice try. They’re the same thing.

        • Mr B J Mann

          So the signalling of actual virtue by carrying out actual, possibly quite onerous, virtuous acts publicly and visibly.

          Is “the same thing” as: virtue signalling as being discussed which is merely signalling that you are part of a supposedly virtuous in-group by a mere, cost free, signal (eg being disparaging of Mail readers, which isn’t even virtuous behaviour!)?!?!?!!!!!

          • Bill

            Yes, they’re the same thing. If I bold random words in my sentences will it help you to understand them?

          • Mr B J Mann

            So slaving in a soup kitchen is the same as saying you would never read the Mail?!

            Clearly I have been feeding a troll!!!

          • Bill

            Not a troll; you’re just obtuse.

  • Sun

    Except you didn’t make it up. I heard about signaling from TRS since 2012 (or 2013).

    • Mr B J Mann

      Is that “The Railway Signaller”?!

  • Bill

    The Toxoplasma of Rage is all about virtue signalling and was written in December 17, 2014. Are you just claiming to have invented the two-word term? You certainly didn’t come up with the concept.

    • gozur88

      It’s pretty clear from what he wrote he’s only claiming credit for the phrase.

      • Bill

        Well he didn’t invent the phrase either.

        • gozur88

          It seems not. Probably, like most “invented” things, several people had the same idea.

    • Mr B J Mann

      It’s about virtue and ethics.

      Although there is a reference to “virtue signalling”.

      In the comments.

      Posted on February 7, 2016 at 12:44 pm!

      And it contrasts it with sending out massive costly signals!!!

  • Bill

    3.5: And what do you mean by “signaling”?

    Signaling is a concept from economics and sociobiology in which a people sometimes take actions not because they are especially interested in the results of those actions, but instead to show what kind of a person they are.

    Consequentialism FAQ, September 2011

    • Mr B J Mann

      But “virtue signalling” as used here is the exact opposite:

      It’s about not taking virtuous actions, certainly not at the expense of the signaller, but just sending out cost free signals (saying aren’t Mail readers awful bigots!).

      • Bill

        How in the world is that the exact opposite? Are you the author of the article?

        • Mr B J Mann

          I don’t need to be the author, or even to have read his article, though it never mentions virtue and when it mentions signals, it is usually discussing the way we signal to ourselves, and in this case it is referring to buying a very expensive car or diamond to show how rich they are, which is hardly signalling virtue.

          All I need is to be able to read plain English.

          Your quote refers to “taking *ACTIONS*, (from the article usually *EXPENSIVE* ones).

          Whereas “Virtue Signalling” as used here is a tool to highlight the fact the signaller ISN’T taking any action to be virtuous, but merely mouthing cheap platitudes to signal the fact they belong to a self-styled virtuous group.

          So in the world that is the exact opposite.

          And probably on your planet too!

          • Bill

            The article does not say that those actions are “usually expensive”. It says “the more expensive and useless the item is, the more effective it is as a signal”.

          • Mr B J Mann

            But your article does say actions,

            It refers to taking actual actions which actually necessitate doing something, such as buying and driving a limo or buying and giving away a diamond ring.

            The whole point of Bartholomews virtue signalling is that it is completely cost and effort free.

            You are clearly trolling.

          • Bill

            Wearing a charity ribbon or changing your Facebook picture or posting 60 characters of outrage on Twitter are actions. They are actions that demonstrate your virtue or dedication to a movement without actually benefiting anything except your own reputation. That’s signalling.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Well spotted.

            They are (the most active and costly end of) Barholomew’s “virtue signalling”.

            And nothing to do with the category of onerous and costly actions which might have been classified as “signalling” virtue as opposed to “signalling” wealth in your academic blog.

            And even if Bartholomew had actually seen the blog when he actually refined the usage he made his variant his own and popularised it through his article.

            Or are you saying all the other writers who used the expression in exactly the same way in the ensuing months had:

            A) Not seen Bartholomew’s article.

            B) Had not seen or heard anyone who had picked up Bartholomew’s usage.

            C) Had seen the blog you found.

            D) Entirely off their own bat completely independently had decided to adapt and refine the blog’s usage in exactly the same way as Bartholomew had.

            E) one, or all, of all the other popular writers who had done so after Bartholomew had been the one(s) who had popularised the usage, not Bartholomew?!

  • Tom Burroughes

    There have always been different ways for people to demonstrate their prowess or worthiness in some ways. In Victorian times, shaped as they were by the strictures of religion and writers such as Samuel Smiles, what counted was “character” and “improvement”. And in this case as now, there were accusations of cant and hypocrisy. Lord Byron bemoaned the cant he saw in the early 19th Century moralisers; Trollope wrote novels later in the century that took delicious aim at this sort of thing. So how much has really changed? I am not saying that there isn’t a problem of intellectual humbug and posing today – there surely is. But not all of this is new.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      The point of the expression is that in the past people actually DID SOMETHING to a much greater degree.

      In the past more people actually contributed a significant amount of income that they could have probably used for themselves to charity or of course, volunteered themselves . Now, we seem to have greatly professionalized charity, so in many cases little of all the money raised trickles down to the cause. I find the notion that someone makes a half million pounds a year running a “charity” abhorrent. One would think a talented former executive would work for expenses.

      In the past more people seem to have volunteered at a hospital, the worked at a soup kitchen, they cared for someone elderly in the neighborhood who didn’t have a family, that sort of thing. There are thousands of people who work as missionaries in Africa or a third world country today. I know people who work with dentists, organizing trips to poverty stricken places where they spend weeks fixing teeth during their vacations. I ten years working with young people.

      The point of virtue signaling, which is an ideal phrase, is that it does define how people act so well. If you visit Hollywood, you will see a film star driving a Tesla, signally how green he is, even though the cost of his $100,000 “green” car could feed and house a number of homeless people and took enormous quants of raw materials and raw earth minerals to construct. Much of the green movement is all about putting one’s virtue on display. How can a man like Al Gore, if he truly believes that Global Warming is a calamity, live in giant homes and fly all over the world on corporate jets?

      Mankind is flawed and of course, even the most idealistic person of the past would have been inconsistent in living up to their stated ideals, but that didn’t mean thawing out the ideals was a good thing. The greatest sin to my horrible baby boomer generation was hypocrisy, which was really simply inconsistency, but unfortunately, the lesson must of us learned was simply to get rid of any standards of behavior at all.

      The term virtue signally makes perfect sense as it describes a manner of proving one’s worth to the world in a cost free manner. A real contribution of funds usually means denying yourself something or of your time means taking the time out of a busy schedule to do something worthwhile. That is real virtue, not the public type that can be tuned on and off like a turn signal in a motorcar.

  • Greg Toombs

    Why should people be bothered with making charitable contributions, or even caring about other people with problems. Isn’t that what big government is for? We get to relieve ourselves of society’s responsibilities – someone else takes care of it in exchange for our taxes.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      Yes, of course, this is indeed the problem. If everyone thinks, “I paid though my property taxes for the home that will be taken away from me if I don’t pay them, and I paid at the office though the corporate income tax, then my wife and I paid through personal income tax and through a dozen other fees and charges, which should give the state more than enough wealth transfer to solve everyone else’s problems,” why volunteer your own time or after-tax income?

    • Pete Austin

      It’s worse than that. People can’t be bothered with making charitable contributions, because they have changed their facebook profile picture instead.

      • Steve

        Now now, tbf my relative lack of charitability is because big charities are pretty much corporate entities.

        I like to help out a local charity shop, and for local small-scale issues, but once you get to moderate sized charity, it becomes a self-serving industry.

    • ThomasER916

      Define “society.”

    • fede01_8

      Because not everyone is a pos who doesn’t care about people going through tough times?

  • The_Governments_koch

    “I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator”

    No, you didn’t.

  • GBMurphy

    I love the term “virtue signalling”! I know so many people – usually young, well-educated types from fairly privileged backgrounds – who do it. They even do the things the author used as examples above: slagging off the Daily Mail, saying how much they hate UKIP and telling everyone how they vote for the Labour Party. I wish I could show them this article!

  • geoIndigo

    Love how the subtext of this whole article as actually: “Actually I coined ‘virtue-signalling’, not Libby Purves..”

  • geoIndigo

    Love how the subtext of this whole article is actually: “Actually I coined ‘virtue-signalling’, not Libby Purves..” – and even that’s wrong!!

    Poor self-deluding chap Mr Bartholomew, I bet he’s feeling a bit sheepish now..

  • Julie Blackadder

    this article is a huge virtue signal.

  • Steve

    Thank you. For ages now I’ve been wondering why (despite not being a right-winger myself) some people seem so eager to state how left-wing they are (they must have forgot Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc), how much they hate Ukip for being the neo-BNP even though Ukip is at best the Euroskeptic Tories, and other stuff that seems superficially “good” but would fail even the slightest of intellectual scrutiny.

    My sister is smart, like PhD smart. Because she has one. In the sciences. I love her, but she seems to have a habit of holding opinions which are intellectually weak. Like willfully-ignoring-her-intelligence weak.
    These opinions DO however carry a lot of weight amongst the sort of peoples and circles she moves through.

    Now I know what her behaviour is called.

    Virtue signalling.

  • Matt Lee

    Just a small point. Surely we still give a high proportion of our incomes to ‘good causes’ now, but indirectly via tax. People surely feel they already contribute to the welfare of others without the need to directly fund charitable causes.

    • Kutark Validus

      Yes, I’m quite certain when people are doing their taxes every year or reviewing their paychecks the first thought that comes to mind is “wow, look at all those people I’m helping through social programs with my taxes!”.

      • Kingfish17

        I have the exact same thought. But when I think of the people I’m helping, the first thought that comes to my mind are federal government employees who do nothing productive all day but attend meetings, write worthless reports, and surf the internet while on the job.

    • Thanatos2k

      Above it shows how people would donate to hospitals which would then be spent to treat others.

      Now compare how much you are paying for health insurance, because it’s indirectly the same.

  • Colin Nunn

    Are you perhaps ” cleverness-signalling”?

  • Authopedic

    Every time I see this phrase used, it’s in the context of someone trying to belittle someone else’s stance by claiming that their motivations are selfish and vain rather than indicative of a genuine concern or moral imperative.

    Recommended if you enjoy using the phrases “SJW” and “it’s political correctness gone mad” without irony and/or you believe people who make an effort to do the right thing think they’re better than you.

    • Alexandros Nortune

      Hey guys, I found one!

      • Authopedic

        Excellent work, champ.

    • Bill

      I enjoy using the phrase “SJW”.

      Those are the idiotic bigots who make us left-wingers look bad.

  • Denver Goddess

    Would this include when white people reflexively, while speaking on a topic which may be considered racially touchy to some, try to qualify themselves as ideologically clean and non-racist?

    • Kutark Validus

      No, they have to do that as a pre-emptive “proof” because the Progressive culture is to fling the words racist and/or biggot about willy nilly.

    • Abcdedcba

      No. That is pre-emptive protection against being labelled a racist.

      “I’m not racist but I dislike most black people” is not virtue signalling.

      “I dislike most of my fellow white people. I much prefer black people” is virtue signalling.

      • Denver Goddess

        Right, white people and whites only are expected to do that. Don’t. It’s racism against white people to be held to that standard.

  • David Reynolds

    The phrase has close antecedents in the phrases “moral posturing” and “moral exhibitionism” but virtue-signalling is more catchy and has proven itself by its popularity.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      James didn’t invent it as such, just afforded it an apposite epiphet.

  • We have been using various terms to describe this behavior forever, but you captured it in the perfect form.

    Virtue signaling is the most despicable in pervasive British pretenses, particularly in the media – grasping last breaths of empire. As if moral signaling replaces material achievement. What it really means is ‘free riding’. It’s not a virtue. it’s a theft.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Too many on here like to signal an absence of virtue.

  • MikeF

    “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.” Yes indeed – (left)-liberals do rather a lot of ‘hating’ and they actually think that their doing so is a sign of the tolerance.

  • Hamster Dog

    Creating anti-anti-phrases is a typical right-wing tactic.

    • Dryermartinithanyours

      You mean like sh*t-speak terms such as ‘gaslighting’ (irritating pretensions of flabby sophistication) or ‘mansplaining’ (just plain sexist)? Hamster Dog, duuu-ude, the right is just learning from the left. Early days. I look forward to more battles, to shooting down more inept left wing phrases and concepts.

  • Ezra Pound

    Author is out of his mind. The American Alt Right has been using the term “virtue-signalling” for many years, and using it much more effectively.

  • candytripn

    I invented chestnuts, and even though people credit nature, I’m still happy to have given something!

  • Chamber Pot

    ….and noshing off too, good grief !

  • andylowings

    Far be it for me to comment on such a right-wing idea, but those comments about Trump, hateful as they are, must be discussed. Perhaps, in the light of the desperate plight of children, and following Jeremy’s recent new ideas on the subject, we should force ourselves, against our better judgement sometimes, to listen to the arguments for brexit.

    • WTF

      Lets discuss them as I’m still waiting for anyone who can justify anything he has said as being racist. Sure, there’s been lots of part quotes to distort what was said but whether its migrants harboring Jihadists or illegal migrants from Mexico committing crimes in America, no one has showed me that he’s a racist.

  • Liz Myrick

    This seems like a case where stating your opinion in favor of or against anything of any import would be virtue signaling. People spread ideas through sharing their opinions. This isn’t a always good thing, but it opens discourse. Are journalists virtue signaling when they write an article about child abuse but do nothing to help the children in question?
    I can say I am concerned about environmental choices in a distant country, even if I don’t have the ability to volunteer or the money to donate. Maybe my opinion will be lost in the ether, maybe someone who can do something will gain awareness. I don’t think this is a bad thing
    It essentially becomes a meaningless word people can fling at each other for having opinions or points. I would say congratulations but this is the most self-congratulatory article I have ever read.

    • KAR201245

      Agree entirely. “Virtue signalling” is an expression of dumbfounding fatuity. (This of course signals that I consider myself virtuous).

    • Wooxer Pt

      Virtue signaling is about expressing views just to please others, not to open debate or share ideas, people who do virtue signaling never share new ideas because only ideas that are accepted by the group are valuable to them, independently of their validity, virtue signaling shuts down debate by polarizing people even more, people with ideological discrepancies become enemies and intellectual exchanges become emotionally charged insults.

  • Geoffrey Brent

    I wonder if displaying one’s national flag on one’s car or house would be considered “virtue signalling”. It seems to fit the definition very well – an easy gesture to signal allegiance without having to do anything meaningful about it – but for some reason I’ve never heard “virtue signalling” applied to such actions.

    There seems to be some confusion about whether “virtue signalling” means ANY deliberate display of virtue, or only a misleading one (perhaps “virtue feigning” would be a more precise term for that?) Bartholomew’s discussion here focusses on the latter, but in practice I mostly see “virtue signalling” used as a cheap insult by people who haven’t troubled to check whether the target of that insult might actually possess the virtues they’re advertising.

    When somebody actually DOES possess those virtues, advertising them can be a very good and useful thing to do. We don’t criticise churches for advertising their charitable services so those in need can find them; why should we criticise individuals for doing the equivalent?

    • Wooxer Pt

      “We don’t criticise churches for advertising their charitable services so those in need can find them; why should we criticise individuals for doing the equivalent?”
      That’s not what virtue signaling is all about. I’ll give you a practical example, there’s an anti-gun group and many people there support this anti-gun narrative, when confronted, because they’re just craving validation from their group, they’ll try to shut down conversation however they can because they were just virtue signaling and actually don’t know anything about the subject and are emotionally, not intellectually, involved. In such a group, hating on gun owners is fashionable and shows that you’re a very deeply concerned person about the state of the world and the poor little children who get murdered every year, meaning, you don’t actually need to know your stuff or even make sense in a conversation with people of opposing viewpoints, just expressing your viewpoint is enough to be valuable. Your church example is the complete opposite of this, they are actually doing charity, they are actually involved, they actually know their stuff, they’re not merely signaling virtue, they’re being virtuous, which is a big difference. Pro-life advocates, like anti-gun, are typically virtue signaling as well, they equate abortion (like gun ownership) to murder which is supported by no evidence whatsoever and by doing so they turn their opposition into the murder supporters and them into the little children guardian angels, when confronted with opposition, the mere uttering of insults is enough to be regarded as valuable rather than having to do some actual mental work and studying the problem. Not all pro-life or anti-gun are like this but unfortunately those are the ones you’ll hear more often than not. Have you heard of the gender wage gap? It has been debunked thousands of times, no economist takes it seriously, and yet, even Obama down to teen feminists believe and utter this lie because it’s convenient.

      • Geoffrey Brent

        In my experience the label “virtue signalling” gets attached to pretty much anybody who talks about a certain kind of virtue, without any effort to check whether that person actually lives up to those virtues, so I tend to roll my eyes when somebody uses it.

        I do find it a bit unfortunate that you complain about people holding a simplistic opinion without knowing their stuff here, and then offer up a very simplistic version of the gender wage gap. To somebody who doesn’t want to believe such a thing exists, it’s “debunked” by the observation that men and women doing similar jobs at similar levels of experience get paid similar amounts.

        But that’s a very superficial analysis. It ignores the recent research on occupational feminisation, which has shown that it’s not as simple as “women earn less because they choose lower-paying professions”; in fact, longitudinal research suggests that those professions are paid less than others of similar skill level *because* they are mostly female, and when the gender balance of a profession shifts the pay shifts with it. It also ignores the question of whether men and women of similar capability find it equally easy to get those jobs and that experience; dozens of audit studies suggest that they don’t.

        You might well disagree with those interpretations – it’s a complex subject and there’s room for difference – but to write this off as a settled question grossly oversimplifies.

  • Edward Lindon

    You’ll be happy to know your phrase has joined the vocabulary of the same people who break out with “libtards” and “SJWs” at every opportunity. Well done.

    On reflection, couldn’t this entire article be seen as one long, grandiose signalling of right-wing “virtue”?

  • dirkbruere

    Culture signalling

  • Lory

    Thank you for inventing this expression! I think the notion of virtue signaling is something that many have been aware of for some time now, but have never been able to put it into words so succinctly.

    • macthenaif

      The opposite of virtue signalling is, of course, virtue belittling – often attempted by right wingers and zionists to undermine others of whom they disapprove politically. This they do by inventing and attaching words and phrases loaded with pejorative undertones and invoking them ‘Squealer’ fashion at every available opportunity. Thus we have bleeding hearts, politically correct, SJW and now virtue signalling.
      It can be seen that the use of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ is in fact a form of virtue signalling.

      • MI33O3

        Virtue signalling is all about feeding pride and vanity. Thus, no such “virtue belitting” has taken place among those who point out such behavior.

  • ladywatcher

    oh boy how exciting is this.

  • Oscarthegrouch

    ‘Libby Purves’ indeed. You can’t even make this stuff up!

  • LOLO

    In other words, doing a Clooney.

    • fede01_8

      He actually does a lot of things for charity.

  • fede01_8

    I hate how this phrase is used by anti-everything right wingers just to mock someone who wants to point out something obvious.

    • brian

      How so?

      • fede01_8

        Anti-feminists, xenophobics, islamophobics, bigots, etc… It’s a way to dismiss a conversation. “Stop virtue signalling, you damn SJW!”

        • notgivingname2amachine

          “It’s a way to dismiss a conversation.”
          As are most of the terms you listed.

          • brian

            Yep, this, 100%

        • Mark

          they have arguments for being against feminists (encompassing millions of different interpretations), immigration, islam, and other things making them “bigots” to you… by just labelling them those things, you are doing exactly what the author mentioned in the first paragraph :

          “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.”

          And I don’t see you doing anything beyond virtue signalling, according to the guy who coined the term.

        • Wooxer Pt

          Stop virtue signalling, you damn SJW! = Let’s have an actual productive talk grounded in facts, logic, and all that good stuff.

    • joe booker

      It’s a term coined to expose prats.