Recently I had the opportunity of having a week off work to gather my thoughts and regain my energy after a gruelling nine months of intense policy work. It gave me more time to read the papers, listen to the news, and observe some of the political and social commentary currently playing out across the world.
What became striking to me is the amount of anger and rage being expressed across the world at the moment, particularly in the western world. One could be forgiven for thinking that the world is in a perpetual state of outrage.
Whether it be in politics, sport, academia, law, civil society or any other area, anger and rage appear pervasive. Clearly people are dissatisfied for myriad different reasons and, at least in their own minds, such anger appears to be justified.
The ethical challenges of expressing our dissatisfaction
When I talk to people about the state of society, many of them comment on a sense of hopelessness or an inability to instigate changes that, in their opinions, would make the world a better place. For some, it is a failure of leadership, particularly institutional leadership, whether public or private, political or apolitical. For others it is driven by a sense of injustice, either to themselves, or on behalf of others they perceive are being treated unfairly, and I have no doubt that the injustice is occurring. For others, it is the desire to rebalance power differentials between those who have the ability to influence change for the better and those who cannot. Of course, there are myriad other reasons as well, and again, many of them appear justified.
It is eminently sensible to speak out against those things that are harmful to ourselves and others. However, if you reflect closely on these expressions through most forms of mass media and social media you will notice that many people attribute such dissatisfaction to a moral or ethical breach of some kind by others, whilst at the same time implicitly declaring their own ethical standards as more intact or complete. In other words, people often express dissatisfaction and hatred through a self-declared virtuosity. Such virtuosity of ethical and moral purity may well be true for some, but I suspect it’s not true for most. Ouch you might say? Let me explain.
Virtue signalling – an all too easy way out
Self-declared virtuosity, without humility, self-reflection and personal commitment to ethical mastery over time of thought, word and action, produces an arrogant moral and ethical superiority that most people find offensive. Such a phenomenon has earned the term ‘virtue signalling’. This term was coined by The Spectator journalist James Bartholomew in 2015 in reference to “the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.”
In essence the criticism centres around the ease in which people can express their views or make statements on social media about their anger and dissatisfaction, whilst simultaneously indicating that they are kind, decent and virtuous, without any intention of following through with commitment, action and sacrifice to improve things. As Bartholomew observes, “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….. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”
In politics for example, both Government and Opposition parties often criticise each other for this phenomenon, levelling criticisms for promoting an imposed morality without offering constructive alternatives nor commitment to action.
One of the effects of virtue signalling is that any genuine notion of virtuosity becomes discredited and people shy away from moral and ethical considerations all together. In other words, any genuine consideration of morality and ethics becomes shameful and thus suppressed. The irony is they then become eroded and further reinforce the causes of virtue signalling, whilst at the same time undermining a more sensible and sophisticated moral and ethical discourse. In essence, we lose our moral and ethical confidence.
A better way to speak out
So what’s the alternative you might ask? Well firstly, harm and suffering have no place in a society that aspires to a genuinely prosperous and happy life, but unfortunately, due to our fallibility, imperfections and delusions of mind, harm and suffering exist. Therefore, speaking out against harm and suffering to ourselves and others through ethics and morality is essential. However, in so doing, it is important that we neither become righteous nor superior.
For example, in Buddhist thought, whilst it is important to master morality, it is a mistake to allow morality ‘to get the better of oneself’. In fact, ultimately, morality needs to be transcended beyond the duality of Self and Other as well as beyond Good and Evil, but that is a much bigger conversation than this blog could give justice to! In Christian thought, most people would be familiar with the phrase ‘first remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye’. In other words, the focus should always be on our own faults, not that of others. It’s only when our own much larger problems are dealt with that we can perhaps make commentary about the moral failings of another. Increasing our own wisdom through virtuous actions of body, speech and mind has the mutual benefit of improving our own life as well as helping others by understanding they suffer the same afflictions as us. And by understanding this, our anger subsides, and we get the chance to see the problems that are aggrieving us in a different light.
Secondly, speaking out, whilst essential, is not enough. All ethical and moral considerations need to move to commitment and action otherwise they simply become rhetoric, and that action begins with Self. Too often, and this is what virtue signalling points to, is the words without the actions along with the implicit assumption of superiority. If we are genuinely concerned about the state of the world, and we certainly should be, then it’s not only what we think and say about it that matters, but perhaps more importantly, it’s what we do about it, including what we do about our own limitations. In short, if we want to improve the quality of our societies then we need to do it through a personal commitment to our own ethical and moral standards and in so doing, exemplify those standards through how we interact with the world. The old adage ‘be the change you want to see’ fits comfortably here.
Participation through demonstration
Whether we participate in society through a public or private life, we have an obligation to demonstrate, through virtuous actions of body, speech and mind, an ethic that brings the maximum benefit to ourselves and others. A benefit that moves towards a genuine wellbeing and happiness. To do this, we need to express, with courage, confidence and humility, those ethics that speak to the essence of who we are as compassionate human beings. And whilst we may be unskilful in our ethical discourse and narratives, we will at least have the benefit of following through with our actions, silencing both those whom cry out in anger and frustration at the lack of ethics, as well as those whom quickly condemn others for pointing out such absences.