Guest Opinion: Tired of all the virtue signaling? | News | Palo Alto Online |

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Guest Opinion: Tired of all the virtue signaling?

Phrase popularized by James Bartholomew disparages environmental actions

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.

About cyclists:

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

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."

About recyclers:

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

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 sherry@newshadeofgreen.com.

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by again?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 13, 2019 at 9:24 am

Hasn't this been adjudicated already?


48 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 13, 2019 at 9:31 am

Way to try to stifle dissent to your position by smearing people who don't agree as 'cynical' people who accomplish nothing. Cancel culture and virtue signaling all in the same piece. Wow. People may have different views on how to accomplish things, and may not agree with you and your positions. You're just doing the same thing you are railing against.


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2019 at 10:35 am

City Council just agreed to ban vaping.

Right it will not happen in Palo Alto will it?

Of course, virtue signaling!


25 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2019 at 11:35 am

Common sense is a registered user.

Bit of a blame-the-messenger message in this essay. It defends people from misperceptions as "preachy, self-satisfied poseurs" but fails to confront the reality of some behavior that the same phrase exactly describes -- self-congratulation being a genuine part of human nature.

The writer would have credibility as more than just defensive if she'd been similarly outspoken years ago, when modern electric cars were novel, and early buyers -- many of them! -- boasted wrongly of their "100% carbon-free" driving (ignoring both the lifetime carbon burden of vehicle manufacture, and the California electricity they used, 55% or so from gas-fired power plants then, with distribution losses increasing the carbon burden further).

Or if she also questioned behavior such as was reported in a recent Los-Altos-Hills town-council meeting. Residents raising serious questions about unintended consequences from banning gas heating in future construction brought "finger-wagging" disdain from a couple of others, charging that "those who spoke were trying to harm the planet." Since when do jingoistic, self-congratulatory put-downs of rational questions advance true environmentalism?


19 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Already reactions from people who think that anyone acting virtuously is "virtue signaling". The phrase should deleted from the language.


53 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 13, 2019 at 12:46 pm

Baloney Anon. Those who think they know better and can tell everyone else how they should live - virtue signaling - just like the author.


11 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 13, 2019 at 2:18 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@again: Yeah, it's a repeat. The reason is, the blogs are online only and the paper felt it would be useful to have a (shorter) version of this post in the actual paper. When they do that, the discussion is re-opened. I did add a joke, at least :) It's not my favorite topic (cf the comments), but it's an important one, so I was game.


28 people like this
Posted by again?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 13, 2019 at 3:35 pm

Sherry - bless you for doing so, and at least you are fair and impartial re commenters, as opposed to you-know-who, who deletes every comment that shows his errors.

I'm with Anon over independent, who: "...think(s) that anyone acting virtuously is "virtue signaling". The phrase should deleted from the language."


20 people like this
Posted by Svengali
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Virtue signaling ~= hypocrisy, and the original hypocrites were the ones who used religion, patriotism ... last refuges of scoundrels to push an agenda, or an anti-agenda as is the case with "planetary hotboxing".

With Republicans it was the creation of the religious right first and onward from there. Not having not been challenged then at usurping the moral and spiritual high-ground in he American media and having been successful at media manipulation the door had to be closed behind it ... so after that this was re-branded virtue-signaling whenever someone makes a moral appeal Republicans find threatening.

This is not English, this is newspeak, and wherever these phrases appear commenters should be required to re-phrase into real English and not neuro-manipulation-speak. The Republican corporate elites are attempting to boil us all like frogs, and train us all like dogs. Don't adopt or acknowledge these evil manipulations.


6 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Dec 15, 2019 at 9:17 am

Meh...... First world problems


2 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Dec 15, 2019 at 9:19 am

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2019 at 10:21 am

Check out the thread on vaping. Any consideration of doing something to make things better is deprecated as "virtue signaling". "Sad."


14 people like this
Posted by Grunta Turdberg
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 15, 2019 at 1:16 pm

Nice post, Sherry.

I so much want to live in a world where everybody else isn’t swallowing crazy pills all the time. But I can’t.


21 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2019 at 1:41 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood: "Check out the thread on vaping. Any consideration of doing something to make things better is deprecated as "virtue signaling." "

Nope -- Anon missed the whole point there, and continues to do so. It is solely empty gestures -- self-congratulatory, but whose real-world prospect of success is limited, for well-explained and often demonstrated reasons -- that people deride, rightly, as virtue signaling in that thread. And yes, this phenomenon is an issue in and around Palo Alto, beyond just e-cigarettes. The phrase "virtue signaling" might have been created especially for this area.

If you genuinely can't perceive any of that, then you are approaching reality through ideological blinders. But reality is what it is. It doesn't care what people don't want to know, or how many share their particular bubble.


9 people like this
Posted by Clean air fan
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 16, 2019 at 9:28 am

Clean air fan is a registered user.

How did we drastically reduce cigarette smoking? By a multipronged campaign to ban smoking in our public spaces, from advertising, and virtue signaling.

As I child I relentlessly badgered my parents to stop smoking and eventually they quit.


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 16, 2019 at 9:34 am

"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."
The problem is when these people take over government, and start shoving their ways down everyone else's throats. If something is imperfect and inadequate with ambiguous results, it should not be made into a law.
"Rather than deride their efforts, use your energy instead to take it upon yourself to lead by example." I agree with leading by example.
Raising taxes as a punitive method, meddling with the free market, special stickers handed out to EV drivers allowing them HOV lane access, forcing through inane legislation like SB270 (because a 10 cent charge on paper bags solves everything) and the constant BANNING of this and that is not leading by example.


10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2019 at 9:52 am

Little things done by individuals do make a difference and if we all do something to improve any situation it can be the start of something big.

However, certain things done by local governments when the next locale does something different only makes things worse and virtue signaling seems like a good name for it. Only when large scale changes are made can some things be altered.


8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2019 at 11:43 am

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown

>> The problem is when these people take over government, and start shoving their ways down everyone else's throats.

To some extent, that is what "government" does -- enforce behavior for all, usually, but not always, approved by a majority. In our form of government, we have restrictions on what the government can do. See "The Bill of Rights" for example. I don't see an enumerated right that states that people are entitled to burn as much fossil fuel they want at the cheapest possible price.

>> Raising taxes as a punitive method, meddling with the free market, special stickers handed out to EV drivers allowing them HOV lane access, forcing through inane legislation like SB270 (because a 10 cent charge on paper bags solves everything) and the constant BANNING of this and that is not leading by example.

There you go again, confusing "virtue" with "virtue signaling".

You need to understand that it is -virtuous- to avoid burning fossil fuels. It is quite reasonable for -government- to provide economic incentives to avoid burning fossil fuels. Anyone who has studied "climate change" in any way seriously realizes that "posterity" is going to have a huge problem with climate change.

"What has posterity ever done for me?" -- Groucho Marx (and others)


17 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 16, 2019 at 12:11 pm

I ignore virtue signaling. We have more important things to worry about.


9 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 16, 2019 at 12:35 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"I ignore virtue signaling. We have more important things to worry about. "

So do the virtue signalers who propose meaningless nonsense like anti-idling on our congested backed-up streets while denying we have traffic problems and hence doing nothing to calm US beyond appointing new commissions to "study" the issues and identify "stakeholders" who might have an interest in fixing problem traffic lights that have been problematic for many many years.

See also "Waiting for Godot" whose characters keep saying "Let's go" while the stage directions read "They do not move." Sort of like Palo Alto traffic.


12 people like this
Posted by So to summarize:
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 16, 2019 at 12:53 pm

"What other people are doing or saying is irritating me, so stop it"
Triggered much? Be truthful.


13 people like this
Posted by Tartuffle
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 16, 2019 at 2:16 pm

Virtue signaling can be annoying, but what's worse is moralistic grandstanding:

"I travel by air X miles per year which (I view as) normal, 'in bounds', good and virtuous. You travel Z > X miles per year and therefor your Z-X miles are immoral, anti-environmental etc."

"My house is better insulated than yours and I keep my thermostat lower (but I fail to notice or mention that I have a ski house and ski, that doesn't count)"

"You have an ICE, I have an EV (but fail to note that you almost always bike, I almost always use the car ... which is OK or necessary because X, Y, Z reason)"

Basically, everyone self-rationalizes their actions as good, necesity driven, balanced but will absolutely not use that same kind of rationalization to explain their neighbor's behavior.

I get why, people assume that you have to be a saint to sway others to better behavior, but the other way is to simply be honest and also point towards better behavior for both.


8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2019 at 5:04 pm

"feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others."

Didn't Jesus call these types to account a couple of millennia ago?


8 people like this
Posted by Robert Cronin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 17, 2019 at 5:38 pm

Before this topic appeared on Town Square I didn't know that "virtue signaling" existed. If virtue signaling appears to annoy the unvirtuous, too bad. But seriously, if you think that you are virtuous, then be modest and keep quiet about it. If you are asked, and your answer would reveal virtue, then go for it.


11 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 18, 2019 at 10:01 am

Pharisee

I am not too up my long-time-ago Christian Sunday School days as a kid, but I recall the Pharisee was the original virtue-signaller.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector - Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this Tax Collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the Tax Collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Executive Summary:
> For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Not much inline with social media these days. Especially Twitter. Especially one special account. Ironic that it is the hypocrites who support Trump that talk the most about virtue-signalling.


1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 18, 2019 at 1:40 pm

Virtue-signalling is in the eye of the beholder.


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