At this point, I think we’ve all seen our fair share of virtue signaling; people mouthing or posting pious-sounding (and typically left-leaning) talking points about some social malady, whether real or imagined. As annoying as it is, it seems pretty harmless, right? After all, letting your friends know what you’re up to is kind of the whole point of social media.
While it’s true that social media exists to connect you with your friends, a virtue signal is more than just letting your friends know what you’re up to. A virtue signal, as the name implies, is an action undertaken with the purpose of demonstrating one’s own superior virtue, over against that of others, typically without doing anything of significance or incurring any cost on the part of the virtue signaller. Let’s unpack that definition.
The purpose of a virtue signal is first and foremost to show that the virtue signaler is better than those to whom he or she is signaling. The primary goal of the signaler isn’t to inspire their audience, but rather to garner praise from a sympathetic audience, while making those who disagree look like bad people. This is why the typical virtue signal will include a lot of emotional language, and very little of intellectual substance.
This is because virtue signals are not intended to make an argument, but win praise from those who matter most to the signaler. This requires, of course, that the audience has the same worldview as the signaler, and therefore needs no convincing. However, by restating the audience’s beliefs with emotional intensity the signaler can win accolades from those who already agree with them.
It’s important to note that virtue signals are aimed at the signaler’s friends when we consider the low-to-no-cost nature of a virtue signal. For most virtue signals, the costs under consideration are not financial or material, but social. The virtue signaler may tout their own ‘bravery’ by pointing to people who disagree with them being annoyed at, or dismissive of, their virtue signal. What’s important to realize is that they don’t actually value those people’s opinion, so they’re not losing anything they care about. The most important thing to a virtue signaler is not what they’re saying, but gaining the approval of their peers.
The essence of virtue signaling, then, is not in the act itself, but rather in the heart behind the act. After all, it’s entirely possible to be completely sincere while saying utter nonsense. Virtue signaling doesn’t have to be done on social media, it occurs any time we say something just to impress people with how virtuous we are.
Now that we’ve got a good grasp on what a virtue signal is, we can look at what Jesus had to say about it.
So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)
Just like the virtue signalers on social media, the hypocrites of Jesus’ day didn’t actually care about helping the poor. All that mattered to them was getting the approval of the people around them by doing something that looked nice; hence the trumpet. It’s hard to get praise for your good deeds if nobody sees you doing them. And just like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, virtue signalers have their reward in full when they get likes.
Christians are not to behave this way. We ought to care more for the approval of God than that of our peers. This is why Christ told His followers to do their giving secretly; not because they were trying not to be caught, but because they weren’t doing it for the approval of man. We don’t do good so that people will look at us and praise us; we do good deeds to please God, the only One whose opinion really matters. In both doing good deeds and in posting on social media, our highest priority should be pleasing God, not showing off how wonderful we are.
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