Monday, October 8, 2018

Orwell on virtue-signalling and toothpaste-sellers

John Halle shared this on Facebook:
Here's the beginning of Orwell's review of a forgotten book by a self-described supporter of Indian independence which both defines and describes virtue signaling in something like a pure form. Unfortunately, it's not available as text so can only post an image from google books. It's enough to give an idea-which is that even back then, the same tendencies being discussed above were apparent to Orwell and, evidently, prevalent, in his opinion at least.

more here:
and here:
key passage: "This is just the mistake a toothpaste advertiser would not make. But then the toothpaste advertiser is trying to sell toothpaste and not get his own back on that Blimp who turned him out of a first-class carriage fifteen years ago."  
Bottom line: much of what passes for politics is not in that politics, by definition involves convincing others in order to change their views and behavior. But it is clear from both the content and tone of the passages such as the above that that is *not* the intention. Thus, it must have a different objective-and that's where the term "virtue signaling" comes in and is useful. 
I had always thought that virtue-signaling was something one did for others, so the community would accept you and the mob would not make you its next victim. But as Orwell explains it, it's as much or more something you do for yourself, to tell yourself you are a good person though you know you have lost. All believers in a Lost Cause act this way, and their fellow believers appreciate it.

I recommend the discussion that follows this at John's post.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, well. Missed this one, and I find I have it collected in Vol. 2 of the Sonia Orwell/Ian Angus collections. Not the big full-size edition, but a yellow and pulpy one that Penguin put out and which I have not taken very good care of. One of a handful of reviews and essays in which Orwell takes on the nexus between political propaganda and commercial advertising. Much of his Orwell's work is straightforward propaganda, something that he was fully aware of, but which casual readers have trouble grasping. As he points out here, in order to get your idea across you have to share, or rather pretend to share, the basic biases of your audience. You can't begin with an antagonistic frontal attack, telling the readers they are wrong and stupid. That's what the Indian nationalist here does. In the course of making himself palatable as a Man of the Left, and through such exercises as crafting wartime broadcasts for the BBC's Eastern Service, Orwell fully understood this interplay and rightly describes it as something that must be structured like advertising if it is to be successful. Your 'virtue signaling' comment takes it another step further, identifying the common pitfall of political polemics: talking for your own self-justification, rather than trying to persuade your audience.