Thursday, December 24, 2015

On virtue signalling, new words, and Newspeak

I was thinking about a recent useful term, "virtue signalling", so I googled it and found I invented ‘virtue signalling’. Now it’s taking over the world » The Spectator. James Bartholomew defines it as
the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
Talking about the phrase's popularity, he says, "New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. They make expression and argument easier."

He cannot be more mistaken. New phrases and words are the heart of Newspeak. They frame expression and argument. To use my favorite example, people got along without the pseudo-scientific concept of "race" for thousands of years: when it first appears in English in the 17th century, writers had to explain it because they knew it was a strange new idea.

Once a meme's accepted, most people who use it see the whole world in its terms. Memes are both useful and limiting: while "virtue signalling" explains a great deal of the facile political thought online, the term makes it easy to dismiss honest attempts to share information as mere virtue signalling.

When we buy a new idea, we never notice the price we pay. People throw themselves into cults because the cult's language seems to explain everything important. Only the wisest and luckiest cultists wake some time later to see that all those beautiful words were like a stage magician's gestures, making the audience see the manifestations and miss the mechanics.

I suspect I'll use "virtue signalling", a least for a while. But I'll try to use it as a scalpel, not a club.