On virtue signaling, political correctness, and projection.

During the marriage equality debate in Ireland, one of the most odious and contemptable voices from the No side was a man by the name of John Waters. Not to be confused with the living legend that is the filmmaker, our homegrown John Waters is a conservative catholic and above all a noted and infamous homophobe. Though I have to admit it tickles me that he shares a name with one of the most famous gay men of all time, a fact that probably annoys him to no end. No, our own John is a man who exclaimed that same sex marriage is a satire of civilization, among many other incredibly homophobic things, and then sued our national broadcaster when a guest on a talk show, the wonderful Rory O’Neill, dared to call him a homophobe, for which he was awarded €40,000.


The above image was circulated over social media in response to this.

It’s not really him this post is about, but rather an attitude that he so perfectly encapsulates. The most obnoxious things he uttered was perhaps not the outright bigotry, but his expressed belief that people weren’t really OK with the prospects of same sex marriage and LGBT people in general, not really. They were bullied into their support, went along with acceptance to be fashionable, or buy political brownie points. You see, John believes that deep down, everyone is just like him. It’s an astonishingly condescending, arrogant belief that denies the other side the sincerity of their morals, but more than that, it is projection in it’s purest form. He heaves his prejudices onto everyone else, assumes that bigotry is the default position, and attempts to rationalize why they would express a viewpoint contrary to that. It’s a somewhat astonishing set of mental gymnastics to avoid the simple notion that people have different beliefs, experiences, morals and principles than he does. Impossible, they’re being strong-armed into it.

This was something we heard quite often during the marriage equality debate, the shadily funded talking heads from the Iona Institute expressed similar. The average Irish person was being coerced, pressured, bullied, pushed, tricked, and decieved into supporting LGBT people, or they were just trying to score points, prove how “right-on” they were. It’s a common trope with the right-wing, conservative christian types in general, and I think it often goes beyond being projection, it’s an attempt to paint their opposition as being not genuine in what they say they believe. How often do we hear claims that people with left leaning political views are just being “politically correct”? The charge being that they are merely toeing the party line, as if political correctness was an actual code that was to be adhered to, some mandatory contractual obligation. But the accusation is quite loud and clear: your views are fake, your position insincere.

By comparison, I don’t think anyone would do them the disservice of accusing the right, the conservative christians and the like of being dishonest in what they espouse. It’s with a sinking feeling I acknowledge that they do truly believe what they say when they talk about LGBT people in often monstrous terms, I would just appreciate if they could take other people at face value in kind. But I doubt they will, it seems like they’re clinging to a whole framework of buzzwords and dogwhistle terms to undermine positions on social issues. Which brings me to one of the newer, more obnoxious terms.

“Virtue Signalling”

This pseudo-intellectual term comes across as somewhat academic sounding at first glance, but the sheer growing populatity in conservative circles shows it up for what it is, it’s used within that same framework of decrying certain positions on social issues as false. For example, rather than being bullied into supporting LGBT rights by political correctness, it is suggested that a person is expressing their support to show off how “right-on” they are, that they’re signalling to others how virtuous they are. If this doesn’t sound any different to the kind of things John Waters said, like how people were just saying they support marriage equality to be fashionable, that’s because it isn’t. It’s the same bullshit wrapped up in a new veneer, it doesn’t say anything new, it’s the same accusation that people with progressive viewpoints have heard before, that they don’t really believe what they say they believe, that they’re just doing it for the sake of making themselves look good, but deep down… You know the story.

It’s a strange duality, people with conservative viewpoints rarely get second guessed on their motivations, or have ulterior motives ascribed to them, but left leaning, progressive viewpoints are treated with highly dismissive contempt. A man never genuinely cares about women’s rights, he is merely a “white knight” and expressing certain opinions on the matter only to get laid. It may be a lack of imagination on the part of the person making that accusation, that because they can’t empathise themselves, they imagine an ulterior goal the only logical conclusion as to why a man would be a feminist. Likewise, white people don’t genuinely care about issues people of colour face, they’re only “Virtue signalling” and showing off how totally not-racist they are.

It works as a blanket dismissal, a way of not listening or engaging with someone, after all, if a viewpoint or opinion is little more than something fashionable to parrot that the person doesn’t even really believe, why would you engage? And that’s the most vexing thing about it, not just the term itself, but all of the arrogance and presumption behind it, the attitudes and bunker mentality that it cultivates. The more you presume that someone is insincere in their progressive politics, the more justified you feel in ignoring the issues that they bring up, because if someone is “virtue signalling” then they don’t really care either, and at least you’re being honest with yourself, so really you’re the one on the moral high ground. So in this sense, the attitude that has been fostered is that caring is contemptable, and contempt is the most moral position.

I wanted to highlight this term in particular because it encapsulates the very worst of attitudes like that of John Waters and his ilk, the conservative Christian right, and far right. It is an interesting term to unpack, to see exactly how it is used, and to understand what it means when someone says “Virtue signalling” in reference to someone else’s views and politics.


On virtue signaling, political correctness, and projection.

An Open Letter to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland

Dear Michael, I hope you are well and that you read this letter in good time.

During the marriage referendum, one of the nastiest tactics opponents of marriage equality used, was to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. Now, this isn’t to say they claimed all gay men were pedophiles, but that the insinuation was there that legalizing same sex marriage would hurt children. One particularly insidious smear was the claim that pedophiles would get married so that they could adopt a child to rape. They even had precedent for this claim, this situation had indeed happened in Australia. Marriage equality would embolden other pedophiles to do the same thing, and it must be opposed for this reason, they claimed. It was an extremely well practiced talking point, the disgusting anti-LGBT group ‘National Organization for Marriage’ or NOM for short, published it widely. Thankfully, most people didn’t buy it as a justification to hold back an entire portion of society from participating fully in that society, that as horrible an incident as it was, people saw that it was being used in a particularly disgusting way to promote a hateful agenda.

We have achieved something great in Ireland, equality won by a landslide. But before that, in the run up to the referendum, the rhetoric being used weighed heavy on us, and I remember a distinct feeling of dread of what would happen if the ‘No’ side won. Ireland would become a much, much worse place for us, a lot of LGBT people would be forced to emigrate to have a future with whom they loved. I don’t think I can possibly relay how utterly scared I was at the time, it felt downright suffocating. But in the end we won, and Ireland is a much brighter place for it.

Something equally great happened in America last year too, when the supreme court ruled that same sex marriage was legal. But something quite horrible was happening too. The religious right were being dealt constant defeats on the gay rights debate, the overturn of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Prop 8 being repealed, some states banning so-called “Conversion therapy” for minors, and marriage equality, but rather than licking their wounds, they began to turn their focus towards transgender people. A general shift seems to have been happening, last year the notoriously anti-LGBT group ‘Family Research Council’ have been outlining the dangers of acceptance of transgender people, and making press releases about countering the “movement” which you can read more about here. A couple of years ago another religious right group the ‘Pacific Justice Institute’ cooked up a fake story about a transgender student had been harassing girls in the female bathrooms. Similarly, a group emerged in California called ‘Privacy for all Students’ tried to overturn legal protections for transgender students, that group was being funded by many of the same religious right organizations that supported Prop 8, including the aforementioned Pacific Justice Institute. This shift has been happening for a few years now.

Today we are seeing a terrifying backlash from the religious right, and it is targetting trans people in particular. 2016 is looking bleak for transgender people, as the HRC reported over 175 pieces of legislation targetting LGBT people and 44 of which specifically target transgender people. There is a renewed zeal with which they are going after laws protecting trans people, and the truly frightening thing is, they seem to be winning. In November of last year, just months after the historic ruling on marriage equality, the Houston Equaly Rights Ordinance was defeated in what was described by Houston mayor Annise Parker as “a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies”, as demonstrated by the constant talking point that laws protecting transgender people would allow men into women’s locker rooms. One of the well rehearsed talking points that is constantly being claimed now, is that such laws would permit sexual predators and rapists access to women’s bathrooms. Sound familiar? This is the propaganda that the religious right is using not only against transgender people, but to attempt to repeal further equal rights protections. And it is disgusting, hateful and insidious.


The above image compares pre-WWII anti-semetic propaganda to images used by the religious right in Houston to defeat the Equal Rights Ordinance. The comparison is stark, the message in both cases is that these degenerates will prey on your children, they are a danger. When not asserting that trans rights will embolden sexual predators, these religious right groups will often make claims that trans people are mentally ill, or that many trans people are just fetishists. Here’s the proof they say, look at this creepy transgender person who pretends they’re a 6-year-old! You don’t want your child going to the bathroom with them, do you? And when there’s nothing else they can point to to show trans protections are a danger to women and children, why they’ll just manufacture that.

In Washington State, laws have been in effect since 2006 that guarantee transgender people equal access to employment, housing, and public accomodations, but this is currently being challenged. 10 years these protections have existed and nobody has abused them, but just two days before a vote on an anti-transgender bill, a man walks into the women’s locker room at a pool. In fact, groups opposed to these laws are actively encouraging men to go into women’s facilities in protest, because if there isn’t any evidence to back up their claims, well they’ll just go ahead and fake it. Lo and behold, the incident in the pool is being touted by religious right groups everywhere they can as proof of the dangers they’re warning about. It is a disgusting, underhanded dirty tactic, it is hate, and it is pure transphobia. The claim that trans inclusive equal rights laws will lead to rapists and sexual predators to pretend to be trans to access the women’s room is absolutely transphobic, just as much as the claim that marriage equality will lead to pedophiles marrying so they can adopt a child to rape is homophobic.

Quite frankly, I am terrified by the rise in transphobia that I see in the world. The rhetoric is hateful, violent and nasty, and it is taking a toll. The number of murders of trans people in the US is at an all-time high, the vast majority are transgender women. In the UK, there is a rise in transphobic hate crimes. In Northern Ireland, a transgender woman had a pipe bomb throw through her window. Trans people are suffering extraordinary hate, rampant discrimination, trans women in particular are subject to high rates of rape and sexual assault. Far from being a danger to anyone, trans women are IN danger, friends of mine have been assaulted by other women just for going to the toilet in public. Can you imagine for one second what that is like? To have to fear for your safety if you have to go to the bathroom? Many do like I do and avoid public toilets wherever possible, but that leads to more problems. Did you know that trans people are at greater risk of UTIs and kidney infections, precisely because they would rather hold it in than risk using public toilets. I cannot emphasize this enough, we are the ones in danger.

But no, you equivocate, they’re not literally saying trans women are rapists. You tell us we’ve misconstrued it. But they are saying that, by association and implication, by constantly talking about trans women and rapists in the same breath they are making that connection. Just like they framed gay rights as detrimental to children, they are framing trans rights as as detrimental to women. And the truly scary thing is, rather than call them out on what is incredibly vile anti-trans propaganda, people who claim to be our “allies” are defending them. You are failing us. Transgender people are crying out for help, and the same “allies” who were so happy to show their support for marriage equality are eerily silent now.

Yet these talking points are so easily dismissed. 15 Experts debunk right-wing transgender bathroom myth. It is hatemongering, and nothing more. There are laws all over the world covering access to appropriate public facilities for transgender people. Far from being to the detriment of women’s rights, it is these religious right claims that are promoting dangerous false notions about rape. The idea that rape is only committed by some stranger lying in wait is regularly criticized for promoting a myth, and that’s exactly the same thing that’s being done here, the idea that someone is going to pretend to be transgender in order to attack women is spreading misinformation, when the vast majority of sexual assaults are by those known to the victim. Speaking out against the bathroom predator myth, Cassandra Thomas, who has worked for the Houston Area Women’s Centre for over 30 years, said “It puts a bogeyman face on a group of people who don’t deserve it at all, who are, by no account, through what we know, are dangers.” And she furthermore states that she doesn’t believe the opponents of equal rights even care about women; “If these same people were concerned about the safety of women, they would have come out against any number of issues that have come up about sexual violence over the years, but they have been remarkably silent. So all of a sudden women are in danger because of transgender people? No. They’re not.”

This concern over bathroom predators is not in good faith, it’s not a rational argument, and it is not one based in fact. But every anti-LGBT religious right group are parroting it again and again and again, and it is gaining traction with chilling effect. The legislation that’s currently being proposed in South Dakota has frightening consequences. It should be plain to see that this has nothing to do with concerns for women’s safety, and everything to do with targeting transgender people. To the religious right, we are the weak link to attack in order to repeal wider equality laws, in fact one of the reasons the Republican party oppossed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was because it explicitly covered gender identity. Opposition to legal protections for trans people are quite often a means to an end, there is a huge push-back against LGBT equality.

Michael, we need allies and not just “allies.”

I am scared. Very scared in fact. There is a rise in hatred towards trans people, and it is happening here in Ireland too. Some of the comments on your blog and on the Atheist Ireland facebook page have shaken me, this is the kind of rhetoric that is driving hatred towards trans people, and you are giving it credence while dismissing the concerns of many Irish trans people. I think it won’t be too long before the Iona Institute or Youth Defense or other groups start speaking out against transgender people too, the seem to follow their US counterparts so well that it’s inevitable. What I wouldn’t expect, is when David Quinn is soapboxing in the media about how transgender people are a danger to women and they’re all perverts, that Michael Nugent is there giving him a slap on the back and saying “He’s right you know!”

Quite honestly, a lot of people in the Irish trans community are scared right now, because we see what’s happening in the US, we see what’s happening to people we know over there, and in the UK. We see these comments being made in social media, talking points we didn’t expect to see imported from the American right, and we are frightened because we are already getting abuse, we have been attacked and assaulted, shouted at, called freaks and have things thrown at us from moving cars. Many of us are scared that something even worse for us is coming, and there are so few of us compared to the wider LGBT community, that we do not have enough of a voice to speak up, and no matter how much we call out for help, our “allies” will remain silent. This is happening right now in the US, we fear that storm is coming our way, and it starts by equating trans women with rapists. I know I’ve said it already, but we are in danger. Where are our allies?

Yennefer of Vengerberg

An Open Letter to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland