Virtue Signalling – what, where

I ran across “virtue signalling” while looking up James Bartholomew. His name was in another article and I was curious who he was. One of the articles linked in his set was:

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

Left a bit unclear is wether the phrase of virtue signalling is taking over the world, or the act itself. One of those delicious little ambiguities in English that is exploited by comedians, politicians, and spouses (but I repeat myself) all over the world. But back at virtue signalling.

My spell checker is only happy with ‘signaling’, yet the article has ‘signalling’. I presume this is Yet Another Britishism. I’ve been plagued by them my whole life. Mum would speak or write one way, Dad another, I’d swap back and forth. It is likely part of why I can’t spell worth a damn. Not because I can’t remember it is “behavior” and “behaviour” but because I learned very very early on that it doesn’t matter worth a tinkers damn how you spell a word as long as it got the idea across; AND that it is perfectly fine to have variations. This was, no doubt, enhanced by a tendency to read Very Olde Bookes and an annual puzzling over Auld Lang Syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

    For auld lang syne, my jo,
    for auld lang syne,
    we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
    for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

    For auld lang syne, my jo,
    for auld lang syne,
    we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
    for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,
sin' auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
sin' auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak' a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

sin' auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
sin' auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak' a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.


Anyone who has grown up singing that a few times a year can ne be tell’n me thar be but one way t’spell a werd!

Oh, and I had a fondness of Pirates…

You do know there is an official Talk Like A Pirate Day, right?

Why is this day different from all others?

Why do we need an International Talk Like a Pirate Day?

Make no mistake. We do. But it’s a little hard to articulate why, especially when you’ve made the mistake of referring to your wife as a scurvy bilge rat and tried to order her back into the galley.
When Sept. 19 rolls around and suddenly tens of thousands of people are saying “arrr” and “Weigh anchor or I’ll give you a taste of the cap’n’s daughter,” it staggers us. They are talking like pirates — not because two yahoos from the Northwestern United States told them to, but simply because it’s fun.

So mark yer calendars, maity…

And don’t worry if yer ne a speaker o’ English (the original is full of links):

Mp3 sound files demonstrating how to talk like a pirate in a variety of languages (courtesy of our fans at – we can’t vouch fer the accuracy o’ the lingo, as we don’t speak any o’ these languages…)

Mandarin Chinese
Clip 1
Clip 2
Clip 3

An’ how about some German pirate lingo?

How to Talk Like A French Pirate (courtesy of Gus la Flibuste). (MS Word document)

A switch on the theme: The Two Chinese Characters and the Pinyin Pirate use pirate-talk to demonstrate how to pronounce the Chinese retroflex.

No time to memorize the lingo? Try our new, improved English-to-Pirate Translator!

Now on Mum’s side we had 3 generations (that we know of) of Joseph Sumner who were sailors in HM Merchant Marine, so between The Queen’s English (in movies and in Mums attempts at it), and the traditional regional accent (near Liverpool) and then “what came back from the sea” from the 1700s, well, spelling things Only One Way was the least of my worries. Oh, and Dad had a Standard American Accent from Iowa, but with odds and ends left over from Irish and Amish parents. (One odd bit, I once admonished him for using ‘drouth’ for a drout. Or is it drought… only later to find out ‘drouth’ is a perfectly fine alternative word for it.

So growing up in that stew, I learned to not be quite so quick on the “Only One Way” Spelling Nazi behaviour.

But I said we’d get back to “Virtue Signalling”, didn’t I… I’ll be using the 2-l spelling, just because it is in the document by the guy who invented the term.

The Spectator article is well worth reading; a bit of a teaser:

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’.

I found the understanding of the use of the phrase as useful as the phrase itself. I’d only first encountered it recently, so either I move in the wrong circles (folks who don’t do virtue signalling and / or don’t associate much with those who do), or don’t talk about it, or just spend more time with grog… oh, not 9/19 yet, sorry…)

But for me, it was a bit of a nice handle for all those pompous preening overweening officious folks posturing on about how Good and Green they are. In fact, it looked to me like a huge amount of the whole Green Movement could be explained by this apparent need for external gratification of weak willed folks and their consequent virtue signalling and virtue stroking. (“Virtue stroking” being the positive reinforcement received when one is virtue signalling. The expected “hit” of having the target acknowledge your virtue. And yes, I just made that up. At least, I hope I did… sometimes I find others have beaten me to my thoughts and stolen them without my having had them yet. Most annoying. But assuming no one has done that…)

In short, I think there is great utility is looking for virtue signalling and virtue stroking as markers of social movements and manipulation. Now some sociopathic types will deliberately use those things to manipulate weaker minds and wills, while many of more marshmallow stuff will seek it out as an easy path to gratification. “You tell me what to do and when I do it you ‘give me strokes'” is their contract, so look for the signals and strokes and you have your social map.

Me? Well, for me it makes it a whole lot easier to recognize why I come across as as Surly Curmudgeon to some other folks. I deliberately cast into the trash bin of thought processing any virtue signalling present as “irrelevant static”, since virtues are either “classical” (things like honor or truth and you’ve already sorted them out) or they are “somebody else’s made up stuff” and not relevant so ought to be cast out to ‘keep a tidy mind’ and avoid having your mind palace [Sherlock… I’m sure you know] built on sand of another’s shaping… Then add that I don’t need approval from others in order to have self worth and a lot of the stroking just makes my skin crawl as I’ve already rejected their premise that they have signalled virtue. Watching two politicians at a cocktail party is near nauseating as they ‘oil their way across the floor’ [My Fair Lady, I think] signalling and stroking and lying the whole time. For a true truth seeker it just sets off so many alarm bells and the mental trash bin needs dumping way too often… and the conflict between the ‘people reader’ reporting what they are really thinking and the words coming from their mouths just lights up the Liar Alarm Bells something awful… where did I leave that grog?

But I digress… I do think that this conflict between the inner order and the outer world dominated by these ‘little lies’ is part of what makes the Aspe world stressful. When you can read the truth on their faces and in their posture, then their words are the opposite, or worse, when they are good enough to mask expression and posture but only their actions are opposite, and often only shown later; well it’s the stuff sceptics are made of. (Or is that skeptics… or both… but now I’m digressing in my digression…) Then there is Hillary. Sometimes the Liar Alert blaring. Often the “empty of content” (’empty suit’ in common use, I think) as she hides all under a robotic performance, sometimes the Cheerful Liar who’s actions are fraudulently different. (Am I now digressing in my digression of digression? I think it time to pop stack a few…)

In short, knowing what to call it will make it easier to handle when seen in crowds and faster to ‘get past it’ when trying to figure out what folks are up to. It also gives a nice handle for figuring out why someone is looking at me oddly and expectantly. “Did they just virture signal something? Are they waiting for the virtue strokes?” becomes a quick cross check on social expectations in such environments. Perhaps it even explains some of the vehemence of Greens and Global Warming Supplicants as they are just frustrated from Virtue Signalling and getting no Virtue Strokes in return. And here we skeptics (or is it sceptics) come along and want to tear down their whole Virtue Stroke Harvesting System. The Horrors! No wonder they want us arrested, we’re stealing their Virtue Strokes!

The Dictionary

Has some interesting examples and definitions.

To take a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.

Fred: I see George has changed his profile picture to show his support for refugees.
Barbara: Has he donated money or time? Is he giving English lessons? Is he making a room available?
Fred: No, no, he’s just virtue signalling.

Saying you love or hate something to show off what a virtuous person you are, instead of actually trying to fix the problem.

Jane: “Wow! I hate Fox News! They’re so evil and they hate women!”
John: “Why don’t you actually do something instead of just virtue signalling about it?”
Jane: “OMG that would be WAAAAAAY too much work” *goes back to shitposting on twitter*

Somewhat less useful, there’s a wiki:

Virtue signalling is the expression or promotion of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker. For example, expressing a hatred of the conservative newspaper Daily Mail might be an example of virtue signalling among the British left. The term is chiefly used by conservative commentators to criticize the expression of tribalistic socially progressive views on social media, but has also been used to describe analogous behaviour in other groups, such as pro-gun rights grandstanding among the American right, and by signalling theorists to discuss conspicuous piety among the religious faithful.

Reception of the phrase has been mixed: Zoe Williams has described the phrase as the “sequel insult to champagne socialist”, while David Shariatmadari says that while the term serves a purpose, its overuse has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword. Some on the left have embraced the term: Helen Lewis, writing for the New Statesman, blamed virtue signalling for Labour Party’s surprise defeat in the 2015 general election, suggesting that the desire to be seen as holding virtuous opinions leads political activists to focus on issues such as nuclear disarmament that are lofty and remote to common voters, resulting in an echo chamber effect that led Labour strategists to underestimate support for Conservative policies.

James Bartholomew claimed to have invented the term in The Spectator in a 2015 column, but it was utilized at least since 2010 within the framework of signalling theory, and since at least 2013 on LessWrong.

They think James didn’t invent the term, but then again, just putting two words together isn’t the same as creating a word / term either. The particulars of the meaning must also be present. So if at the “framework on signalling theory” they had a discussion of virtue and someone said ‘virtue signalling by posture’ it isn’t quite the same as giving a meme wings… It is just a generic sentence using those two words in their base meaning. And just what the heck is a ‘framework on signalling’ anyway? And who pays for it?

While I’m on the subject, who is David Shariatmadari and who is Zoe Williams and why ought I care? They list these people like I ought to know who they are and give a damn what they think. Kind of like virtue signalling by name dropping…

In Conclusion

Well, I’m happy to have a nice handle to hang onto for various social customs that I’d mostly just put in the recycle bin as “clutter”, and a reciprocal handle “virtue stroking” for what is returned to the sender. It will make it more compact to store understanding of various goings on and social events.

To some extent, it also helps in understanding why so few people are interested in truth. There is no ‘Truth Stroking’ and in fact you get rocks tossed at you for speaking the truth; especially when it gets in the way of someone collecting their Virtue Strokes. Speaking “truth to power” gets you unemployed on the street with your things in a box, while reading your boss’s preferences and “sucking up” gets you that nice desk… so long ago most folks learned to just lie-and-signal and some got so good at it they mostly lie to themselves, too. The number of folks who support a position will shift wildly based on what they think others see as virtue. Just look at the polls on BREXIT. That’s why we have private ballots… it allows folks to be more honest with themselves.

I suspect that those who are Progressives and “on the left” have a higher sensitivity to this whole process. They actively build piles of ‘approved’ thoughts and spend endless hours ‘virtue signalling’ about them. Those of us not of their ilk don’t do nearly so good a job of it. Sceptics don’t have a play book of approved answers nor do we have an approval feedback / pain application process for folks to keep them in line. We are just looking for truth and find ideas interesting, even the ones later shown deficient, if they give even partial illumination of the truth.

I’m not pissed at Newton for missing relativity, after all.

Then those same folks “on the left” with a strong sense of the central nature of all this ‘signaling’ to their lives simply know it must be the same with us. So go on witch hunts for the “Oil Money” that must be driving us to ignore their virtue signals, or try to outlaw ‘skeptical speech’ so as to block our quest for virtue strokes via blocking our virtue signalling… when we aren’t even aware of it as being of any importance. It might even explain why I see Social Studies as essentially full of made up crap and nonsense. It is over the top bat-shit crazy loaded up with this kind of thing. Perhaps that is where ‘framework of signalling theory’ comes from. And why we dirve them crazy as we are outside their ‘framework’ and so outside their understanding.

It really does break their orientation to the world when I don’t care if I am right or wrong in a theory I put forth, I only care if it can eventually advance the search for actual Truth. Even wrong theories can advance understanding (in fact, it is most of the history of Real Science). I’m not seeking virtue strokes. I’m not interested in sucking up to the mob. I don’t care if they are signaling like crazy that I can come to their side and collect more virtue strokes. And that causes them frustration that leads to anger and a belief that I must be very stupid to not ‘get it’ and get on board their side.

Or maybe I’m just projecting too much. But that’s my theory…

I get my virtue strokes from understanding the reality around me a little better, not from others. They get their virtue strokes from the approval of others. I am ‘inner value driven’, they are ‘outside feedback driven’. Thus we shall never agree. Then the Evil Bastards of the world hate my kind, as we don’t respond to their “reward systems”, and they accumulate a high percentage of “them” in their control structures, as they are most mailable to that system.

The result is the mess that is the world today.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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12 Responses to Virtue Signalling – what, where

  1. As the old saying goes: The truth hurts.

  2. Ron Clutz says:

    Marshall McLuhan had grand things in mind when he coined the term: “global village.” He must be turning in his grave seeing it degenerate into “virtue signalling.”

  3. Larry Ledwick says:

    Again this circles back to the old book “Games People Play” and the whole concept of transactional analysis.

    I think virtue signalling and virtue stroking are the hook and the pay off of a new game called “see how righteous I am”.

    In transactional analysis the co-game player uses the proper pay off for the hook, signalling that he likes to play the same game and is willing to be co-dependent. I place virtue signalling in the domain of the “I’m OK you suck” methodology, where the person inflates their value by tearing down some other persons value.

    So what do you call it when a person intentionally gives a negative feedback to a virtue signalling hook?
    If the positive pay off is virtue-stroking, I would suggest we assign the name “virtue-smacking” to the negative feed back.

    (hook) “I just posted this neat Meme about caring for the refugees on my face book page to prove I am not racist!”
    (virtue-stroke) Person who wants to be associated with that same virtue, likes that meme, makes some similar comment about how racist folks are who oppose unlimited immigration.
    (virtue-smack) “That meme is a complete misstatement of why folks oppose unlimited uncontrolled. !”

    Any other suggestions for the term used to represent the negative feed back to the hook and verbal face slap of not only failing to acknowledge or praise the virtue signal, but attempting to show it is a useless counter productive gesture that says how shallow and superficial the virtue signaler is?

  4. Manfred says:

    Hasn’t it been observed for a very long time? Matthew 23:5; 23:27; 26:65.
    It goes by many names. Hypocrisy, window-dressing, posturing and as Larry Ledwick elegantly pointed out, it may involve a toxic ‘willing co-dependence’ in what amounts to a mutual exchange of vacuous approval.
    In politics it pirouettes nicely as, ‘do as I say not as I do’.

  5. tom0mason says:

    In years to come will sociologists look back and note that here is more evidence of the Great Preening Clique grouping within human social groups.

    Great Preening Clique grouping —

    These highly interconnected but socially very narrow groups perform virtue preening, virtue signaling, and virtue stroking, while achieving virtually nothing worthy.
    Within a group most individuals’ sole aim is to gain social acceptance and gratification through enforcing, and then reinforcing perceived personal and group virtue, culminating in sustained circular virtue preening.
    Outside the group these acts are known as perpetuating the same old lies. Lies that says one’s virtue stroked appearance is more important than one’s real personal actions or function.

    These Great Preening Cliques are not known for their logic, knowledge, intellect or curiosity but are known by politicians, merchants, and advertisers as those who are most useful. Using them is simple, as often they are easily to sway to the sentiments of an imaginatively worded phrase or argument. So, once a policy institute, research institute, committee or think-tank, has concocted a form of words or a simple phrase, with an allusion to a virtue that chimes with the target group’s prejudices, the group can be used. With the correct incentives, this allows the more vocal groups to be used as a private ‘rent-a-crowd’ to further a cause, and their prejudices.

    The Great Preening Clique groups are the largest variety of the urban population known as the ‘voting sheeple’.

  6. Martin Clark says:

    Interesting post. Are virtue signalling mechanisms built-in with social media such as Twatter and MyFace? I don’t visit these enough to be certain. The version that exists in LinkedIn, eg endorsing someone for their skills, seems to work very oddly. I get endorsements for activities I have never done, or not done for say 15 years or more, AND many of the people making the endorsements know this !! Maybe it is their way of endorsing my climate realist comments? I often get endorsements for “sustainability” when my attitude is “I used to support this, but it has now been ruined by the UN, the “early adopters” (easily fooled) and others with unsustainable lifstyles”.
    I used to hate “Talk like a pirate” day, when everybody tried (usually unsuccessfully) to talk like my relatives (sling yer ‘ook), and then wondered why I still talk like a pirate most of the time.

  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    Are virtue signalling mechanisms built-in with social media such as Twatter and MyFace?

    Yes that is one of their most significant functions, “liking” a post on face book is a way of saying Me too!, re-tweeting or sharing a post on facebook serves the same function, as you self select yourself to be part of that “in group” by sharing the Meme or post. Until a post has several likes, it is unlikely to be seen by anyone but your closest friends. Likes are kind of like votes of approval, the more likes the more people in your friends list see the post. If it is not a popular post or posted at a bad time of the day it can simply fall into a black hole and never be seen by anyone on your friends list as newer higher ranking (more likes) posts get pushed to the top and unless they go digging for older posts it never happened.

    If someone who has a large friends/follower count, retweets/shares or likes a post it is much more likely to go viral. Folks who use facebook to skew perceptions know this and push out posts at the right time of the day (morning mostly) when folks are logging on and checking current posts. With a little help from a group of like minded folks who immediately share and like a topic just like search engine optimization they can push a meme or post to the top of enough peoples feed that likes and shares explode and soon everyone in that cultural niche is re-sharing the same post.

    Then there is the social black mail posts:

    “I know most of my friends will not share this post because they are evil bastards, but a few really special and noble friends will, if you really really care about the red bean ladybug fungus you will share this post so that we can stop this catastrophe from destroying our world”
    If you don’t share it some calamity will befall you and your family.
    No pressure!”

  8. John Robertson says:

    I’m with Manfred, this kind of posing is as old as the herd.
    Hans Christian Anderson nails this behaviour in The Emperors New Clothes, when the conmen explain all the character deficiencies of those unable to see the beautiful fabric.
    Old English;’Twit”
    New English Twitter ‘Verse”
    Functionally same creature.
    Old Poem.
    Fools names and fools faces.
    Are always found in public places.

  9. E.M.: “I come across as as Surly Curmudgeon to some other folks.”

    For that to be truly effective, you need more than a virtual cudgel in hand! :-)

  10. E.m.:”I’m not pissed at Newton for missing relativity, after all.”

    I’m not so sure he missed it! Certainly the learned academics that spout some nonsense of Newton’s writings do indeed miss it! :-)

  11. Gail Combs says:

    “Are virtue signalling mechanisms built-in with social media such as Twatter and MyFace?”

    Any comment board that has a thumbs up and thumbs down type of feature has virtue signalling mechanisms built-in especially the commercial sites like Brietbart, American Thinker and such.

  12. Steve C says:

    IIRC, Zoe Williams is / was a Guardian journalist. David What’s’isname not known here.

    There seems to be a rash of phenomena like virtue signalling. (And yes, the double-L is English English; doubling the consonant keeps the vowel before it short & prevents the word becoming sig-nay-ling.) One of my … favourites? … is ‘truthiness’. Half the world (and am I cynical to suggest: The younger half) seems to be wandering around in a fictive universe of half-truth and illogic. Not a great survival characteristic, should anything hit the fan.

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