What is it about environmentalists, or just your eco-friendly neighbors, that so many people love to hate? Think: drivers of EVs and hybrids, cyclists, vegans, people who compost, and so on. Does even a small part of your brain murmur "Yuck, those preachy, self-satisfied poseurs"?
Q: How do electric car owners drive?
A: One hand on the wheel, the other patting themselves on the back.
The sentiment is so commonplace that a new term, "virtue signaling," has been coined. The Brit who popularized the phrase, a writer named James Bartholomew, says that it describes "the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. ... One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous."
Two psychologists writing in the New York Times characterize it as "feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others." Wikipedia succinctly defines it as "the conspicuous expression of moral values."
Local examples of the phrase abound, including in this newspaper's online forum, Town Square. Here is a sampling of the comments.
"You sound like a very affluent Palo Altan that likes to virtue signal by bicycling and condemning the avarice of your somewhat less affluent neighbors who need a car and still have to work for a living."
About Tesla drivers:
"I agree that Climate Change as a priority is both a distraction and a feel good item for those impressed by virtue signaling. ... Virtue signaling is the top priority for most Palo Altans. The town is becoming overrun by Teslas."
About Caltrain riders:
"For the younger set, wanting to virtue-signal green, Caltrain is just a fashion accessory."
"I wonder what it is that drives Palo Altans to engage in such constant and extreme virtue signaling. 'Zero waste' is a myth. As long as we live abundant lives we will always generate more waste."
About Palo Alto's City Council:
"The problem is that they are ... always virtue signaling and spewing drivel about greenhouse gases and whatnot. This method can't possibly help the environment. No matter how many laws they come up with, it won't stop climate change."
About the Cool Block initiative:
"That being said, as an exercise in yodeling our moral superiority without actually doing anything beneficial, while wasting taxpayer money and creating much-needed opportunities for graft, it sounds like a winner. And when it comes to pointless virtue-signaling, the comrades of Palo Alto yield to no one."
The term is used to disparage more than environmental actions. A cursory look on Town Square found it applied to people saving the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, renaming schools, complaining about police behavior, and advocating for the homeless, gun control or minimum wage. It was even used against Stanford, with the claim that the general-use-permit campaign "essentially amounts to virtue signaling aimed at convincing the outside world how good the university is."
The thing is, I get it. Who likes to be preached to? Who likes to be judged? And yet, as a blogger on environmental issues for PaloAltoOnline.com, I believe it is important for us to develop inclusive and positive attitudes to being environmentally friendly. It's difficult enough to engage on climate change without worrying about embracing or evading claims of moral superiority. We need to find a way to collectively welcome changes that reduce emissions and help us to adapt to the changing climate.
In my view, these labels of virtue signaling are lazy, cynical and (at best) unproductive jabs at those who may be taking genuinely motivated if imperfect steps to improve a situation. Can it possibly be true that unless you are driving a gas-powered car to get around town, you are intentionally flaunting your eco-credentials? Or could it be that the "virtue signaling" taunt says more about the accuser than the accused?
What makes this shaming particularly problematic is that it can negate the otherwise effective social norms that would positively influence others. As someone commented: "All the virtuous people doing the right thing simply creates a backlash against "political correctness." Fear of appearing judgmental can be a powerful disincentive. Says yet another commenter: "I typically don't mention it (the efficiency work I've done on my house) because the global impact is minimal and I don't want to engage in virtue signaling." Argh. You should not feel embarrassed to share that you drive an EV, enjoy eating veggie burgers, turn down your thermostat in the winter, or bike to work!
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis writes in the December issue of The Atlantic: "Cynicism is cowardice. ... Cynicism fosters a distrust of reality. It is nothing less than a form of surrender. It provokes a suspicion that hidden malign forces are at play. It instills a sense of victimhood. It may be psychically gratifying in the moment, but it solves nothing."
Consider that people being derided as virtue signalers may be aiming, in however small a way, to improve our future. Their actions may not be perfect, or even adequate, but what they are doing is a start. Rather than deride their efforts, use your energy instead to take it upon yourself to lead by example.
Sherry Listgarten writes the "New Shade of Green" climate blog for Embarcadero Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.