Virtue Signals

Here's another post I've been trying to write for a long time. This one's about letting other people know that you're a good person.

Ordinarily, we might call this kind of behavior "virtue signaling," but that, of course, is a loaded term these days. Nonetheless, there are ways that all of us try to demonstrate to other people that we are not fiendish knaves. 

After having spent decades of my life living among religious conservatives of different stripes, I've come to realize that, for many if not most religious adherents, the religion itself is less an expression of a person's metaphysical beliefs as it is an expression of the fact that a person wants to let other people know that he or she is good.

This is why "the one, true faith" is always the one you were born into. It's never the case that the great cosmic truth is the one that was taught to people on a different continent somewhere, it's always the one right there within your own community. There are plenty of people who study religion and come across one that profoundly speaks to them for various reasons, but for the average adherent, it's much more common that people follow the predominant faith because "that's what good people do." They want to be good people, so that's what they do: they go to church, they present themselves as god-fearing people, they wear the right clothes, say the right prayers, and use the right terminology. All of this is to let the people around them know that they are committed to being ethical by the standards of the surrounding community.

It is much more difficult to convince people that you are a good, ethical human being if you belong to a minority faith, or to no faith at all. Believe me, I've tried to explain to people the basis of my ethics and the fact that I live by good morals every day of my life. It's a tough sell to them, because what they know of good people is that good people are "good Christians," or "good Muslims," or whatever the case might be. To them, I have some explaining to do. It might not be fair, but it is what it is; whereas a person wearing a crucifix or a hijab has much less explaining to do within their own communities. Everyone can see that they are people of faith. Additional conclusions about their moral character naturally follow. 

And so it is that religion, especially nowadays, functions as a sort of social shorthand for "I'm a good person." 

I started thinking about this today because I discovered a newer kind of social signal that serves the same function. To a large extent, leftist politics are not so much a set of policy views as they are a signal to like-minded people that "I am a good person." Someone recently told me about his new favorite guitar player, and he was extremely excited to point out that she was also a woman, and a woman of color at that. We all listen to music with our ears, not with our implicit biases, so her gender and race identities were completely beside the point. Why even bring them up? Well, it's simple: he wanted to tell me that not only is this a great guitar player, but rest assured, he himself is also a trusted "ally" in the leftist cause. He didn't know that I didn't care about that, either. (Really, just tell me about the music, please.) But that's how it works.

Similarly, some people are very keen to tell me, when they learn that I used to live in Canada, that they themselves often dream of moving to Canada. I think the assumption there is that we are supposed to bond over the fact that Canada is more appropriately leftist than the savage United States. The information is presented as a signal to me, and I am suppose to use it to note that the person with whom I am speaking is a good person.

They are, in fact, just as much a good person as the other person I spoke to earlier, who might have said goodbye to me by saying, "Have a blessed day." 

It's easy for me, an atheist and a libertarian, to allow these kinds of comments to get on my nerves. Indeed, when I was very young and stuck in an incredibly closed religious conservative community, I considered it to be a kind of bullying. Over the years, however, I've grown to realize that the true purpose is simply to signal conformity to the idea of The Good. For the religious, it is the trappings of religion; for the left, it is the trappings of leftism. The point is not to spread or even to highlight either thing. The point is merely to present oneself as good.

Ever since I realized this, I've been interpreting these signals that way. It reduces a lot of conflict and confusion.

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