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.
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.