A term commonly used in social debate today is “virtue signaling.” If you don’t know what this means, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t heard it until recently, but now I’m hearing it a lot. Dictionary.com defines virtue signaling as “the sharing of one's point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not.”
Wikipedia adds: “Virtue signaling rose in popularity as a pejorative term, denouncing empty acts of public commitment to un-exceptional good causes. In Bartholomew’s original article, he describes virtue signaling as a public act with very little associ-ated cost that is intended to inform others of one’s socially-acceptable alignment on an issue.”
It is sadly amusing so see our culture overtly reject the Bible as “irrelevant to modern life” yet spout various doctrines and principles that come straight from the pages of Holy Writ. “Virtue signaling” existed long before James Bartholomew coined the term in The Spectator in 2015.
The Pharisees were consummate virtue signalers. Jesus castigated them for their self-aggrandizing charitable deeds (Mt 6:1-4), public prayers and fasting (6:5-6, 16-18). These displays were less about piety and more about marketing, “that they may be seen by men” (6:5). These were calculated acts designed to burnish their “brand” (not a new phenomenon either) and ensure their power as religious leaders in Israel.
But a thousand years prior Solomon formulated a couple of proverbs about virtue signaling: “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Pr 27:2); “It is not good to eat much honey; so to seek one’s own glory is not glory” (25:27). Maybe Solomon was reflecting on his brother Absalom’s tactics in undermining the nation’s loyalty to his father, King David: “Moreover Absalom would say, ‘Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice’ … In this manner Absalom acted toward all Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Sam 15:4, 6).
There are several caveats here:
1. This does not preclude standing up for what is right. Taking a moral or scriptural stand and defending truth is not virtue signaling per se. The issue is actually one of intent. What is our motive for speaking publicly on a controversial matter?
2. This being true, we must be careful in calling out someone for virtue signaling. Reading someone’s motives is impossible unless they give concrete evidence of duplicity or grandstanding.
3. This warning about virtue signaling is primarily inward-looking. I may suspect that social media commentaries are rife with self-promotion, but the real correction must come in evaluating my own motives and making sure that I am speaking or writing with benevolent intent.
4. There is a fine line between legitimate sharing of good fortune or achievement with others and fishing for praise. We should “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom 12:15), and Jesus tells of those who encountered good fortune and called to their friends and neighbors: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep/coin” (Lk 15:6, 9). We desperately need the sharing of more good news in order to spread cheer, and we need less trolling and turmoil generated on reactionary platforms that tempt us to type first and think later.
But let’s zoom out and think about the positions we take in the first place. Some of you may be aware of a controversial open letter that was recently penned by critics of Florida College. Let me say at the outset: I have no desire to defend FC in this forum. While I believe the letter was inappropriate on many counts, the administration of FC can speak for itself.
My point is this: An open letter of dubious character and reckless accusations was written jointly by three people. More troubling were the scores of names who signed on to the letter supporting its message, primarily young former students of FC, teen campers, some who have seemingly left the faith and even adults who had formal affiliation with the school.
It is easy to get swept up in social causes or political movements. Those who are younger are especially susceptible to this, and in their euphoric idealism weigh in on matters that they simply haven’t thought through or don’t understand the dynamics of. There is a strong temptation to virtue signal, to be “on the right side of history” (a statement repeatedly voiced in today’s volatile climate), to be emotionally moved by a situation without examining it from all angles. We can get so riled up over something on FB that we fire off a response – or sign a letter – when we have not carefully considered the deeper issues.
And, as we are repeatedly warned, whatever we post on the internet is pretty much there forever. Oh, we may take something down from our page, but others can “screen-grab” it before removal and circulate it anyway. Stories abound of people who are bypassed for job opportunities because of unwise things posted on social media – things they might not advocate at present but which have damaged their character nonetheless.
It is noble to want to correct wrong, to reason with people who seem to be misguided. But in our due diligence we must ask ourselves some pointed questions. What is my motive in responding? Am I really seeking to move someone in a positive direction, or do I just want to win an argument? Is a public letter the right forum? Or do I want everyone to see my signature attached to a “righteous cause”? Am I approaching this matter in the wisest way possible? Would a private discussion of a sensitive matter be the best course of action? And maybe the hardest question of all: In five or ten years, will I be able to read my post/letter/argument, especially its tone, without regret and embarrassment? Satan is a master at camouflaging our true motives, hiding them even from ourselves.
Some of Jesus’ harshest critique is reserved for “virtue signalers.” We don’t want to place ourselves in His crosshairs.