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  • Writer's pictureDamon Young

Virtue signalling

What does "virtue signalling" mean? And is it a helpful idea in conversation?

My latest essay for The New Philosopher discusses this popular concept.

Certain phrases are epitaphs for good debate. The conversation might continue, but in a deadened form: a petty spat, or series of monologues. For example: “that’s just your opinion”, “check your privilege” and “as an x, I’m offended”. They often reveal the speaker’s lack of goodwill or good faith, or they demonstrate what philosophers call ‘incommensurability’: the participants have not only competing ideas and values, but also competing standards of ideas and values. They’re talking past each other.

But there is more: they’re sometimes talking past one another—to an audience. The point is not to persuade, but to grandstand. Interestingly, one recent phrase for this behaviour can itself be a symptom of a sick conversation: “virtue signalling”.

As with the others, the problem with the concept of virtue signalling is not that it’s necessarily false. Virtue signalling undoubtedly happens, and sometimes it is rightly noted and lambasted. The problem is that, even when accurate, the concept can be unhelpful: vague, simplistic, or unenlightened.

The issue (#17) is on communication, and covers value of silence, one's "mother tongue", the dodgy idea of information overload—and much more.

You can buy The New Philosopher in bookshops and newsagents, or subscribe here.

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