Virtue Signaling and Shunning

Franklin Veaux posted a piece, “Virtue Signaling Left and Right.” It ties in nicely to a conversation I recently had, about tribalism and shunning behavior on the left and right. Virtue signaling is definitely part of that process, but in my thoughts I usually skip over it.

Franklin points out how virtue signaling is used to attack “perceived threats to the orthodoxy,” which are different depending on whether you’re a liberal or a conservative. This is a ready-made tool that malignant narcissists and other bullies can use to push people’s buttons, push the tribe in the direction they want it to go. And it is riskless and cost-less for tribe members who hop on the bandwagon:

…people uninvolved with the original whatever-it-was start to pile on because piling on is an easy, no-cost way to be seen on the side of the righteous…

The pile-on is kind of the definer of virtue signaling. Once it becomes socially acceptable within a certain group to attack a certain person or subset of people, those without any dog in the fight will pile on merely for the admiration of their peers.

One of the reasons that people pile on is to remain a member of the tribe. It’s not just a zero-cost way to be seen as righteous. Rather, not properly signaling can be quite costly.

I was critically aware of this during my decades as a fundamentalist Evangelical. For years (for just one example), I thought of myself as an “agnostic Christian.” Those are the exact words I used in my own thoughts. But I never used the first part of that formulation in front of any of my Christian friends. Ever. In fact, one of the few times I ventured to defend atheists as not-crazy (not as “correct,” just as “not out of their mind”), the clergy I was talking to jumped down my throat. I don’t even remember what he said. He was clearly angry and scolding me, and my whole system went into lockdown. That’s the way it was in that world: Say the wrong thing, and you too could be in league with the enemy.

As Brooke Harrington put it, “Social death is greater than physical death.” So anything I can do to remain in good status with the tribe is worth doing, and anything I do to challenge the tribe is dangerous.

Given the choice between shunning the dissenter and defending the dissenter, the vast bulk of the tribe will always choose the former, quickly and without a second thought, and then go through great efforts to justify that choice.

So it does not surprise me at all that neither liberal nor conservative see their actions as an abridgment of freedom. They’ve already figured out a story that justifies what they did, for their own social safety and for the sake of the tribe.