More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Virtue Signals

I. Concessions are Signals

In negotiations, concessions to counter-parties play two roles. As negotiations (or other conflicts) drag on, the dispute-process itself becomes increasingly costly. Delays in reaching an agreement can be costly in their own right: some disputed outcomes even have a hard deadline, and neither party gets anything if the deadline passes with no agreement to implement. A proposal that sacrifices some of one’s own goals in exchange for an immediate compromise can be vastly better than a protracted conflict.

(This is true even if one side is certain to achieve its goals if it can simply prolong the negotiations indefinitely. But usually neither side knows how a prolonged conflict would end, which makes the prudent safety of a compromise that much more appealing.)

Reaching a better outcome sooner is the primary function of concessions. However, protracted struggles are nearly always worse for both parties. Both sides do best if both make concessions. Thus, a concession can provide (weak) evidence that one counter-party cares about the welfare of the other, wants the other to like him, or just generally desires mutually-beneficial cooperation.

It follows that in multi-stage or recurring conflicts both parties are often willing to make concessions in round 1, regardless of their relative costs/benefits in that round, in order to signal to each other that they are willing to cooperate in future rounds. The potential costs of sending this signal are minuscule compared to the benefits of achieving closer cooperation in subsequent rounds. If they continue to approach their disagreements reasonably, this sends a further signal to outsiders: both receive reputations for being reasonable, which may later prove valuable in unrelated disputes.

Disagreements about factual claims and predictions may not appear to be “conflicts” in the sense we are discussing. But participants do have desires about the outcome (to agree on the truth) and there are “negotiation costs” if the disagreement drags on and on. Opponents can come to suspect stubborn opponents are either fools (too stupid to understand) or knaves (driven by ulterior motives).

A willingness to consider other points of view or concede errors signals objectivity (no personal interest in the outcome, other than accuracy), humility (not arguing for the pleasure of being right), and intelligence (not rejecting other points of view due to an inability to understand them). These signals (and the general reputations one can win by sending them) smooth over intellectual disputes just as reasonableness-signals smooth over material disputes.

Other types of signals become relevant in interactions where disputes arise from confusion about the goals and values of the other participants. For example, someone who learns you plan to crack open a little girl’s ribs and slice up her heart might leap to the conclusion that you are a disgusting, homicidal sadist; you may need to explain to him that the girl has a faulty heart, you need to repair a valve, and after the operation she will have a long, healthy life. You two share the same goals (the welfare of the little girl); you just need to convey how your actions serve those goals. In other conflicts, it is easy to say that you share your accuser’s values, but harder to prove it: so all sorts of little acts, statements, and gestures are pressed into service for the information they signal.

As all of these different types of signals — collectively, “virtue signals”—are discovered, used, and abused, some of them become so common that they become customs, norms, habits. Instead of sending the signal only when they are having trouble convincing someone of their bona fides in a particular dispute, people start sending it routinely when interacting with anyone whose trust they value. As the “signal” becomes increasingly petrified and meaningless, it is omitting it which sends a deliberate signal when one wishes to be casual, impolite, or disrespectful.

II. Political Virtues Reflect Political Principles

The problem, of course, is that concessions which facilitate cooperation by proving shared values only make sense if you do, indeed, share those values. Or at least aren’t opposed to them: a sociopathic surgeon who fixes heart-valves as a safe, legal way to slice up human bodies, or a greedy surgeon who fixes heart-valves for the paycheck, might in all earnestness explain to a critic that the surgery really will save the patient’s life.The sociopathic and/or greedy surgeon doesn’t reject the humanitarian justification of heart surgery, and he understands its significance to others–it just doesn’t speak to him personally.

But in politics, if you virtue signal by suggesting ways that your preferred policy could accomplish your opponents’ goals, or by posturing in other ways that lead people to infer that deep down, you think your opponents goals are worthwhile, you may successfully build a reputation for virtue–but that of your opponent’s virtues. Everyone who respects you and admires your (frequently-signaled) virtues will add your name to a long mental list of authorities who kowtow to your opponents’ moral principles.

Meanwhile, every time you respond to your opponents’ accusations or suspicions by virtue-signaling, you teach him to challenge you when he wants to force you to recognize his moral authority. The more you signal, the more he accuses you and the harsher the accusations become. The ultimate goal, of course, is to force you to make policy concessions, or at least force you to stop making the strongest, most effective arguments for your position. But even absent that, any sort of virtue signal is a small victory for him.

So in the end, virtue signals are the death of any political movement. Again, concessions and virtue signals do have some advantages. But they are short-term advantages that minimize the costs and risks of short-term political disputes. The moral authority they confer on our enemies never goes away.

A good solution to this is to never send any virtue signals. Not only do you avoid conferring moral authority on your opponent, but as he starts to learn you aren’t a dancing monkey and won’t do tricks, he gets discouraged. The disadvantage is that you may lose your virtuous reputation: bad monkey, no banana. Now, you are literally Hitler.

But of course, this has compensating advantages. Once you are literally Hitler, it’s not as though there is any further damage they can do to your reputation, as long as you don’t personally act like a buffoon and keep a strong frame.

III. Virtue Signals are Status Signals

It is worth pointing out that most people do not virtue signal because they are leftists, because they need to cooperate with leftists, or even because they care in any particular way about the particular virtues they are supposedly demonstrating. In The Current Year, virtue signals are prestigious and establish the high social status of the signaler.

The obscurity of the prestige of virtue signals lies not so much in the difficulty of explaining the connection, as in eliminating plausible hypotheses to arrive at the correct explanation. The connection is not an inevitable one. The vices of the rich are prestigious. And when Marxism was young, bolsheviks busily portrayed the (implicitly prestigious) traits of the upper classes as diabolical vices, or else as ridiculous follies.

IV. Informal Power and the Transvaluation of Values

In a society controlled by progressives, the Cathedral wields an enormous amount of informal power. Its high priests are among the most powerful men in society, which gives them high status. To the extent the high priests are not just power-hungry but also greedy, vain, lustful, and subject to other human frailties, they will use their informal power to feed these desires; the resulting preeminence among the wealthy, the beautiful, and the lecherous is also a source of status. The high status of the Cathedral’s staff confers prestige on the Cathedral’s values.

Conversely, if the main source of informal power in any society is moral authority; and if a proto-Cathedral intends to defeat its enemies by vilifying and dehumanizing them, then it stands to reason that a triumphant Cathedral would have already succeeded in first associating enemies classes with vice and then, after having defeated these “vicious” classes, drastically reducing their status.

So if you consider the Cathedral a useful concept, the outcome we observe should not surprise you: one way or another, it was inevitable that virtue signals would become prestigious wherever the Cathedral triumphs.

V. Speaking in Tongues: Undergraduate Education and the Sound of Status

In practical terms, huge numbers of Americans go to college or even go on to get graduate degrees: vastly more than could possibly be considered “elite”. Thus, in America a lack of a bachelor’s degree is a fairly reliable indicator of low social status; and conversely, there are many graduates whose B.A. is the only sign they can give off any status at all.

At the same time, colleges are dominated by the Left and their courses and student organizations are one of the main vectors for dissemination of left-wing theories and tactics. This can rise to the level of indoctrination or even drilling the students. Leftist theories are simply not good, and their conceptual innards are often an incoherent mess of fallacies tied together with lots of rhetoric and wishful thinking. Thus, learning to think like a leftist resembles learning a new language: with immersion and regular drills, soon you sound like a native!

Simply announcing to everyone that you went to college (preferably, a selective college) would be tacky — and even if it weren’t, it would be easy to lie. However, in the twenty-first century, college graduates have little else in common to authenticate their educational status. Some graduates join the professional elite, but once they have the job and the car and the house, those are the only status signals they need. Many graduates learn very little during their four years, but regardless, the specialization of academia has reached the point that two graduates who were diligent students in unrelated disciplines are in the same position as two ignoramuses.

The only thing that all students learn as undergraduates which outsiders cannot easily mimic is the glossolalia of politically correct babble. This becomes a sort of prestige dialect of the English language which all American graduates can speak. (As far as I can tell, this applies to English and Canadian graduates as well.) A lower-class interloper could try to mimic it, but he would find it difficult and very trying.

Politically correct jargon has additional features that make it well-suited to its role as a prestige dialect. The Cathedral gives forth more extreme and bizarre ideological fantasies all the time, so the most prestigious schools can busy the minds of the sharpest (or most Talmudic) teenagers with the most complex and abstruse strain of the dialect, which is thus the most prestigious. Less selective schools race to catch up with the latest fashions, but generally settle on slightly older ideology which their professors have had time to boil down into empty clichés and meaningless formulas.

This also means that the youngest graduates always speak a more prestigious version of the dialect than their parents. This is equally gratifying to the arrogance of the children and the aspirations of the parents, and creates the illusion of social mobility. Better still, it means graduates of the most prestigious schools can teach their children to speak bolshevik with a smart accent early on. Indoctrinated children can signal their family’s status as early as elementary school and, as young adults, arrive on campus with an invaluable head start.

The entanglement of social status and leftist language entrenches the power of the Cathedral considerably. But if you have already wasted time becoming fluent in a particularly political correct English, you can at least try terrorizing lower-status leftists by presenting them with arguments wrapped in impeccable jargon, or utter nonsense that only a racist would dispute.

VI. Forewarned is Forearmed

Regardless of why and how virtue signals acquired their prestige, it is worth acknowledging the end result up front. First, simply as a matter of mental discipline: most right-wingers who are considering counter-signaling understand that a counter-signal makes them literally Hitler, but are surprised by the amount of uninhibited (and apparently genuine) class-hatred they will receive. Because the contempt comes as a surprise, it can be disconcerting and demoralizing. Being mentally prepared for it helps. If your social status is a sore point in real life, knowing that leftists treat everyone this way can help you stay detached. If you find the contempt stinging because you’ve never experienced anything like it, treat it as research into how leftists actually feel about the underclass they pretend to adore.

If you see that a virtue signal is also a status signal, you will understand that counter-signaling to disavow leftist “virtues” effectively disavows your own social status, as well.

But conversely, understanding how much political posturing in normal life is motivated by apolitical status-seeking, you can tailor your rhetoric much more effectively. When people virtue signal: play dumb, mock them, or pretend to find “problematic” attitudes (racist? patronizing? cis-centric?) in their virtue signals. Even explicitly praising a virtue signaler’s level of education (use the word “articulate”!) will discomfit him: blatant virtue signals are still virtue signals, but blatant status signals are tacky. The need to signal one’s status betokens low status, so a signal must be subtle and understated to communicate high status.

If would-be virtue signalers discover that whenever they try to signal their status only drops, they will get frustrated with signaling games, lose interest, and start to resent people whose virtue signals are more elaborate and earnest.

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  1. “But if you have already wasted time becoming fluent in a particularly political correct English, you can at least try terrorizing lower-status leftists by presenting them with arguments wrapped in impeccable jargon”.

    This can be lots of fun! I used to do it all the time for sport years ago until I got bored with it. A noteworthy effect this approach has is to cause the lower-status Leftist to suddenly shift gears from snooty condescension to populist anti-intellectualism of the ugliest sort.

  2. This accounts also on the right, where there is virtue signaling, purity spiraling, cryptig insider lingo to the point where it gets disfunctional and so much make-believe nonsense just because people after all want to believe what they want to believe. You know, things like “Putin wants to arrest George Soros”, which is obviously nonsense but was shared all over the place because people want to believe.

    1. Agreed.

  3. Dear Karl,

    I don’t know if it dovetails exactly with what you had in mind, but you reminded me to post a little note with some extra material that didn’t make it into the post on my personal blog.


  4. I watched a video this morning of a young white man in a public lounge in his apartment complex. He’s wearing a shirt that says, “#buildthewall.” He is accosted by a Mexican chick and her friend who deride him for being racist, not having an education (he never confirms or denies having been to college), and that she has more friends and money than him.

    I thought it was an interesting example of virtue signaling as status signaling.

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