But what is liberty without wisdom, without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils, for it is folly, vice and madness without tuition or restraint. — Edmund Burke
There’s nothing easy about “virtue” these days, in fact virtue can get you in trouble.
Ever hear of “virtue-signaling?” Me, neither, until about a month ago, even though apparently it’s been around for several years. The problem is, it gives “virtue” a bad name. The first time I became aware of the term, a conservative was accusing a progressive of it, but I’m sure it sometimes goes in the opposite direction.
Here are a couple of working definitions for “virtue signaling,” the first from dictionary.com: “Virtue signaling is defined as the sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgement of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not:
The virtue signaling of solidarity with the victims can be a comforting affirmation of community. Their outraged virtue signaling comes across as contrived.”
And from wikipedia.org: “Virtue signaling is a pejorative neologism for the expression of a disingenuous moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating good character.”
If that’s “virtue signaling” then I can think of several synonyms for it that have been around for centuries before it came on the scene: Demagoguery, grand-standing, self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, the list goes on. All of them are pejorative terms as well, but the new term on the block is the first to directly hook itself up with “virtue.”
Let’s face it, ever since homo sapiens could grunt, whoever grunted louder, thumped their chests harder, were trying to call attention to their superior courage, commitment, loyalty, assertiveness and honor — literally virtue-signaling — so what else is new? Well, I’ll tell you.
In my experience, if one thing exists then usually so does its equal and opposite counterpart. Please stand back because I may be coining a term here, but how about, in this case, we call that opposite “vice-signaling”? Because that seems to be far more profitable than its counterpart. Indeed, in some quarters hate, envy, intolerance, and threats of violence not only get the most applause, they seem to pull in the biggest bucks as well.
I can’t say I’ve done much research on virtue or vice until this column. Naturally, in the course of my investigation, I encountered the ubiquitous (in all ways) Seven Deadly Sins, as well as their counterparts, the Seven Heavenly Virtues, but eventually I discovered the “Virtues Project” (virtuesproject.com), founded in 1988 by Linda Kavelin-Popov, her husband, Dr. Dan Popov and her brother, John Kavelin. It’s an initiative that seeks to bring the exploration of virtues into schools and communities and is now represented in some 130 countries.
The Project provides a list of 52 virtues. A bumper crop! I found the list online last Tuesday, the same day I went over to the gym to get my COVID booster. With Thanksgiving approaching, I thought while I was there, I’d take the opportunity to poll some of my fellow “Boostiers” on whether they had discovered any surprising “positives” during these plague years for which they were thankful.
I was struck by the answers I received. They seemed to be the first things that came to mind. Nurse Mary called them “pandemic perks.” Joe Purcell said that people are “friendlier.” Towney Montant observed that people seem more “tolerant, more forgiving.”
Dee Moorhead maintained the pandemic has brought out the “best and worst in people,” but mostly she’s sees them “trying to help and make one another happier.”
Her lovely mother, Dorothy Kosowski, said she’s noticed people being “more polite.” Even my skillful “shot-putter,” Miranda, felt that most of us have become “kinder.”
Kindness, courtesy, tolerance, helpfulness, forgiveness, gratitude, many of the “positives” they mentioned were on that expanded virtues list! Were these people virtue-signaling? Acting like those virtues were important just to make themselves look better?
Maybe. But I doubt it. I think I agree with Herb Stelljes, who I happened to meet post-shot down at Kissing Rock where several people had spontaneously gathered to watch the sun drop into the bay. I asked him that same question, and he said that in spite of all the craziness abroad in the larger world, people have begun caring about everyday gifts that they may have overlooked before.
Like sunsets. Like a seal popping up for a looksee. Like kindness. Like gratitude.
Am I virtue-signaling? Yes, shamelessly, and I’ll have to continue doing so, because I’ve virtually used up all the research for my next column writing this one.
I’ve got to work on temperance.