The Truth About Virtue Signaling

people of multiple genders and races hold a variety of road signs

This is the third post in a series about rhetoric. Be sure to check out the first and second posts as well.

There’s this term that’s been traveling around the internet lately: virtue signaling. In common parlance, when someone virtue signals, they perform a false kind of outrage at a perceived slight, usually on behalf of a group that they don’t belong to. British journalist James Bartholomew, who is often credited with popularizing the term, accused BBC Radio broadcaster Mishal Husain of virtue signaling when she interviewed Nigel Farage about recent racist remarks by a few of his party’s candidates.[1] He suggests that, rather than reacting to Farage sincerely, she is performing “the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions,” and trying to distance herself from Farage’s racism.[2]

Bartholomew’s accusation of virtue signaling can be explained using the rhetorical term ethos. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about ethos in his text Rhetoric. According to Aristotle, there are three ways people can be persuasive: through appeals to logos or logic, through appeals to pathos or emotion, or through appeals to ethos, or the credibility or character of the speaker. I wrote briefly about these rhetorical appeals in an earlier post about rhetoric, and today I want to talk in more detail about ethos.

What is Ethos?

A lot of people look at the word ethos and think it means ethics, or morality, and they’re not completely wrong. Talking about ethics or morality is certainly one way for a speaker or writer to illustrate their credibility or character. If an audience agrees with those ethics or that morality, they’re more likely to listen to that speaker and be persuaded by them.

But I think there are a few popular contemporary terms that better encapsulate the idea of ethos: identity and brand.

Yup. I said it.


Virtue Signaling and Identity

Let’s start with identity, though. What is an identity? Big question, I know, with no quick, easy answers. We could go down a whole rabbit hole of psychology and sociology and a bunch of other stuff, but let’s just say for now that identity can refer to a person’s background, beliefs, values, and other characteristics. People can have racial identities, sexual identities, national identities, gender identities, religious identities, political identities… the list goes on and on. Identity is often about belonging to—or distinguishing oneself from—a group or groups.

Let’s analyze a little ethos in commercial media so you can see what I mean.

After watching these, what kind of person do you think Apple was trying to sell Macs to? Probably folks who thought of themselves as smart, cool, easy-going, creative, maybe even superficially anti-establishment. Justin Long’s character, the Mac, is dressed down compared to John Hodgeman’s PC character, making the Mac character seem young and hip and the PC character seem old and stodgy (I mean, at the time).

It’s not that these commercials don’t appeal to logos/logic or pathos/emotion. They work hard to make Macs seem like the rational, obvious choice, and they’re funny to boot. But they literally create characters to sell a machine that is only shown for half a second at the very end of the commercial. They’re selling—or, perhaps, signaling—an identity rather than a piece of technology.

In a sense, this is what Bartholomew accuses Husain of in his piece in The Spectator: signaling an identity based around certain virtues, values, or beliefs. In this case, virtues of non-racism and non-bigotry.

Here’s the thing, though.

We All Virtue Signal

Everyone signals their values when they communicate. All the time. We can’t not signal our values, beliefs, and identities. It might be more or less overt, but even the act of saying, “hello” to someone signals that you value polite greetings. You may even be signaling that you value that other person. When you post something on Facebook, you’re signaling that you care about that thing, whether it’s a picture of friends or family, a news article, or a goofy meme. If it’s a goofy meme, you’re signaling that you care about humor and making people smile.

Everyone signals their beliefs, values, and identities all the time.

That’s not to say that someone can’t hide their beliefs, values, or identities. Plenty of LGBTQIA+ people are still closeted, even in this, the Year of Our Lord, 2020. I have a dear friend whose Facebook profile picture has been an inanimate object the entire time I have known them—which, to me, signals that they value their privacy quite highly.

What’s really funny to me about virtue signaling is that we’re all always doing it, and yet certain groups of people like to throw it around as an accusation of performance. We could ask Bartholomew, for instance, what he’s signaling when he says that Husain is performing “the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions.” He’s signaling that he’s conservative and anti-elite. He’s trying to signal that he’s “not afraid” of being “politically incorrect,” which, when put another way, just means that he’s not afraid of saying things that people have explained over and over again are hurtful. He’s “not afraid” of being an asshole.

You might say, that in those last few sentences, I’m guilty of virtue signaling. And you’d be right.

But in calling me out for that, you would be, too.

[1] Read a transcript of the interview for more context.

[2] I don’t want to give this article more clicks, but you can search for it yourself if you want: Bartholomew, J. (18 April 2015) “Easy virtue.” The Spectator.

That’s (another) big word!

Hi, folks! Just wanted to let you all know I created a second episode for my little Youtube series called That’s a Big Word! This episode is about the word “evidence.”

I also created its own channel because I’m thinking about doing more Youtube content for the blog specifically in the future–stay tuned for that!–so I wanted to make sure the show had its own space.

Be sure to check it out and pass it on to any kids interested in learning big words, or really anyone who wants to see me steal chocolate from myself.

Be sure to let me know what you think here or on Youtube! Thanks for watching!

Three Things to Improve Your Professional Writing

This post is part of a series explaining basic principles of rhetoric as they apply to professional and public writing. Check out the first post and stay tuned for more posts on rhetoric!

When you sit down to write something for your job, what’s the first think you do? And don’t say panic.

If you’re like most people, you probably think about what it is you want to say. You might also think about the person or people you’re writing to, and why they should listen to you.

If you’re writing something short and simple, like an email reply, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about these things. On the other hand, if you’re writing something really big, like a grant proposal or a technical report, you probably think quite a bit about them.

In rhetoric, we talk about something called the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is made up of three main components:

  1. The author
  2. The audience
  3. The purpose

Sometimes we like to illustrate these components with a neat little triangle.

An image featuring an illustration of the rhetorical situation triangle diagram. A triangle's three corners are labeled "purpose," "author," and "audience."

Most likely, you’re already thinking about these things when you sit down to write. You’re thinking about who you’re writing to—that’s the audience. You’re thinking about why you’re writing, or what you want people to do after they see your message. That’s the purpose. And you may be thinking about why your audience should listen to you, the author.

If you’re not thinking about these things when you sit down to write, you should start! Thinking through each component more explicitly can help you be more effective in your writing.

Fix this Social Media Post with the Rhetorical Situation

Here’s a quick, short example:

Say your organization is hosting an online trivia event to raise money for a charity. You create this great social media post with all the details, and you plan to ask everyone in the organization to share it. Let’s think through this piece of writing. Who is the author? Who is the audience? What is the purpose? And do you think the document will succeed in achieving its purpose?

Text on decorative background. Text reads: "Charity Fundraiser. Zoom Trivia Night. Date: Saturday, June 27. Time: 6:00 pm. Location: Your Computer!

Okay, so, first of all: who is the author? In this case, it’s you, but only sort of. The event is hosted by your organization. Can you tell that by looking at this piece of communication? Not really. It might be a good idea to add an organizational logo to the image so that the author is easily recognizable. Especially if it’s a big, well-known organization, that’ll give the post a boost in credibility.

Second, who is the audience? Well, you want everyone in your organization to share it, so, potentially, it could have a very wide audience—the social media friends of everyone in your organization! But, really, is that actually your audience? Or is it a bit more specific than that? If the event is a charity fundraiser, you probably want people to attend the event who have some disposable income and are amenable to donating it to the fundraiser.

And speaking of donating, what is the purpose of this post? You want to let people know about this event, but more specifically than that, what is the action you want people to take after they read the post? You want them to actually participate! And eventually, hopefully, give to the fundraiser. But does the poster let people know how to attend the fundraising event?

No, it doesn’t, because it’s a fake example I engineered as a teaching tool. The big place this piece of communication fails is in the purpose. If you want people to actually attend the fundraiser after reading the post, just saying, “Your Computer!” is the location isn’t quite specific enough. You’d need to give a link to the Zoom meeting or to the online ticketing service you’re using or whatever so that people know how to participate.

Identify Your Purpose

Understanding your purpose when you sit down to write and communicating that purpose clearly to your audience are both crucial parts for successful communication. But how, exactly, do you do that?

Well, it’s tricky. Especially because documents can have more than one purpose. Take for example meeting minutes—those documents that get sent around after organizational meetings that explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, what was discussed at the meeting. What are the purposes of those minutes? Here are a few I came up with:

  1. To have a record of organizational activity. Sometimes organizations need to refer to these things later on.
  2. To let people who couldn’t attend the meeting know what happened. Folks who didn’t attend can read through them to know what decisions were made and what tasks may have been assigned to them at the meeting. And speaking of tasks….
  3. To remind attendees what they agreed to at the meeting. I used to work as an editorial assistant at an academic lab that developed curricular materials for engineering education classrooms. I regularly referenced the lab meeting minutes to remind myself of all of the projects that needed my attention each week.

One way to think through your purpose for a document is actually to begin by thinking through your audience(s). Once you’ve identified your audience(s)—the topic of another post—you can think through what you want each audience to do after they’ve read your work. That’s your purpose.

Next up: Audience

Next time, we’ll take a deeper dive into identifying your audience for a piece of communication. But for now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever come across a piece of communication that failed in it’s purpose like this example? What about one that misunderstood its audience? Feel free to share examples in the comments below!

Rhetoric is Not a Four-Letter Word

It’s literally an eight-letter word. But you know what I mean.

Politicians like to throw the word rhetoric around like it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. They pair it with adjectives like hateful, divisive, or violent. They use it to talk about why their opponents are wrong or bad.

These are not incorrect uses of the word rhetoric. But here’s the thing. Calling out someone else’s rhetoric is, in and of itself, an example of rhetoric.

Academics (and recovering academics, like myself) like to quibble about definitions of rhetoric. They’ve been writing about it pretty much since writing became a thing. Socrates didn’t care for it. Aristotle thought it was a core component of civic life.

But what is it?

Aristotle said that rhetoric was all about persuasion, but I think it’s more than that. Rhetoric is about the choices we make whenever we communicate, not just when we’re trying to be persuasive.

If you believe that, then you start to see rhetoric everywhere around you—and that’s a good thing. Learning more about rhetoric can help you become a better communicator. It can also make you a savvier consumer of contemporary media. It can help you see when you’re being manipulated, and it can help you identify fake news.

It’s also a great at removing warts! Just kidding.

Rhetoric 101

Hopefully by now, you’ve been persuaded by my rhetoric to keep reading and learn more about, well, rhetoric. There’s a lot to cover, so while I’ll give an overview of a few concepts in rhetoric in this post, it’s just the beginning of a whole series on rhetoric. I’ll do some deeper dives into particular topics, and I’ll dissect rhetoric as I come across it in the wild.

To start with, in this post, I’ll cover the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals.

The Rhetorical Situation

Any time you communicate, you find yourself in a rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation consists of four main parts: an author (or speaker), an audience, a message, and a context. Let’s take this blog post as an example. I’m the author, you’re the audience, and you’re reading the message. The context is that I want to talk about rhetoric to people outside of academia.

Let’s take another example, though. Say you’re writing a cover letter for a job you want to apply for (incidentally, something I can help you with). You’re the author, and the message is the contents of your letter—the experiences you share to illustrate your qualifications for the job in question. But who’s the audience?

That’s actually a more complicated question than you might think. You’re probably trying to get it on your future boss’s desk, but before it makes it there, it makes a few other steps along the way. First, it might go through an ATS, or automated tracking system. ATSes skim application materials and use machine-learning algorithms to select a few candidates out of several hundred to be forwarded on to HR. Then, someone in HR will likely look at it, and then finally, your cover letter might make it all the way to your (hopefully) future boss. So, your audience is not just your future boss, but also the HR department. You could even consider the ATS to be part of the audience!

So there’s more to the rhetorical situation than meets the eye. I’ll talk more about each component of the rhetorical situation in future posts, so stay tuned!

Rhetorical Appeals

If we think about rhetoric as persuasion, then one problem we have to solve when communicating is how to persuade. Rhetorical appeals are tools for persuasion.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle talks about three rhetorical appeals, using some Greek words to describe them. These Greek words have stuck around since his time, so I’ll use them here, too:

  • Logos: Appeals to logic
  • Pathos: Appeals to emotion
  • Ethos: Appeals to credibility

As examples, I’ll talk about some popular commercials that use each appeal. Analyzing commercials is a great way to hone your ability to spot rhetorical appeals, by the way. And getting better at spotting them helps you get better at using them yourself.

Logos. Verzion makes several appeals to logos in this commercial. They say switching to Verizon makes more sense than “settling” for less 4G coverage.

Pathos. Old Spice has been the king of comedic commercials for awhile. Here’s an example of an Old Spice commercial appealing to pathos, or emotion.

But joy isn’t the only emotion that can be appealed to. The SPCA used to have a commercial featuring sad animals set to Sarah MacLaughlan’s song “Angel.” To this day I can’t watch it; press play at your own risk.

Ethos. Trident uses two main appeals in this commercial. It’s a funny commercial, so they’re appealing to pathos, but the phrase “four out of five dentists recommend…” is actually an appeal to ethos, or credibility. Dentists know what’s good for your teeth, so if four out of five dentists recommend it, then it must be good!

Rhetoric is an Eight-Letter Word

To recap, rhetoric isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can certainly be used for causes we disagree with, but it can also be used for good. Have you ever donated to a cause you care about after seeing a post on social media about it? That’s rhetoric at work!

Rhetoric and communication exist to get things done in this world. If you want to get things done, stay tuned for more discussions of rhetoric!

The Science of Good Writing: Taking Action

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

What’s the difference between these three sentences?

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.
  • Did you even notice that I baked a cake?

The first sentence is active voice; the second sentence is passive voice. The third sentence is passive-aggressive voice. *cue rimshot*

Okay, okay. “Passive aggressive voice” isn’t a thing. That one was a joke. But passive voice is real, and it plagues a good many writers. A lot of writers have a general sense that passive voice is bad, but they have trouble identifying it, explaining why they shouldn’t use it, or fixing it.

I have some news for you, writers. What I’m about to say may shock you. It may fly in the face of everything you’v ever been told about passive voice.

Passive voice isn’t inherently bad.

Shocker, I know. But it’s true!

Getting rid of passive voice is one of the techniques Gopen and Swan suggest for improving your writing. In most cases, I don’t disagree. There are a few instances where you, as a writer, may find passive voice to be useful. In this post, I’m going to explain passive voice–talk about what it is, how to identify it, and how to get rid of it. Then, I’ll talk about those times that you should consider using it.

Why is it called passive voice?

Okay, so what is passive voice? For that matter, what is active voice? Well, let’s think about the meaning of those two adjectives–passive and active. What does it mean to be active? No, not active in the, like, exercise sense, but if the analogy helps, let’s go with it. To be active means that you… do things. You take actions. You run, you swim, you hike, you bike.

Now, what does it mean to be passive? Being passive means that you don’t take actions. Things happen to you, things that you don’t necessarily have control over because you’re not acting.

Consider the following sentence:

Screenshot of Pokemon Go mobile game. The screen shows a black and yellow pokeball with the caption, "Bidoof was caught!"

So, who caught this Pokémon? In other words, who did the catching? Who completed the action? I did, but you wouldn’t know that from this sentence, because it’s passive voice. I’m not saying the Bidoof didn’t do anything while I was catching it. Actually, it was rather annoying, jumping around on the screen and hopping out of the ball the first two times I caught it. But I was the one who did the action “catch.”

This is an extremely petty gripe, I know, but I do not understand why the screen doesn’t say “You caught Bidoof!” Maybe it’s a translation issue? Oh, well. I’m (mostly) over it.

Subjects and Verbs and Voices, Oh, My!

Enough Pokémon chat already. What exactly are active and passive voice?

Here are the textbook-style definitions:

  • In active voice, the subject does the action expressed in the verb of the sentence.
  • In passive voice, the action expressed in the sentence is not done by the sentence’s subject.

Fun fact, those sentences are also in active and passive voice, respectively.

While Gopen and Swan talk about passive and active voice in terms of action, another book talks about active voice in terms of both action and characters. In their book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup ask you, the writer, to think about a sentence in terms of it possible actions and characters. Actions are things that can be done, and characters are people, places, things, or ideas.

The way to write in active voice, say Williams and Bizup, is to make sure that characters are the grammatical subjects of sentences, and that actions are the verbs of sentences. Here’s a quick refresher if you need a reminder of what’s a subject and what’s a verb.

Okay, so let’s consider the two cake sentences from before:

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.

In both sentences, both I and the cake are characters. The action is baked. Which sentence is active, and which is passive?

The active sentence is the sentence in which the grammatical subject is a character who is doing an action: I baked a cake.

Finding and Changing Passive Voice

So, then, how do you find passive voice and change it into active voice? Here’s a quick five step guide:

  1. Find all possible characters in the sentence.
  2. Find all possible actions in the sentence.
  3. Locate the grammatical subject.
  4. Locate the verb.
  5. Is the grammatical subject a character who is doing the action located in the verb? If yes, great! You’ve got active voice. If not, you probably have passive voice.

What’s great about this five-step process is that changing passive voice into active voice takes only one more step:

  1. Find an appropriate character-action pair in the sentence and make sure they’re the grammatical subject and grammatical verb.

Active vs. Passive Voice: Ultimate Showdown

Okay, so now you can define, identify, and change passive voice. Great! Here’s a question you may still be asking:

Spongebob Squarepants holds an rainbow between his hands and asks, "Why"

In many cases, active voice is easier on the reader. For one thing, active sentences usually have fewer words than their passive counterparts, which means they’re quicker to read. But Gopen and Swan also point out that it can be much easier to understand the “story” of a sentence if its “players” (Williams and Bizup’s “characters”) are doing the actions.

But is it ever appropriate to use the passive voice? Yes, actually! I can think of at least a couple.

Connecting Sentences with Passive Voice

One reason to use passive voice is to improve the connections between two sentences. Another reason might be to make sure that you’re putting old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, like I talked about in a previous post.

Consider following passages of micro-fiction:

  • “Oh, no!” I said, pointing to the four-tier cake with yellow icing and marzipan decoration on top. “I baked that cake.”
  • “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting the baker who was trying to take all of my credit. “That cake was baked by me.”

In the first passage, I want to put the emphasis on which cake I baked, so I put “that cake” at the end of the sentence. In the second passage, I want to make sure no one is taking credit for my work, so put “me” in the stress position. These are examples from fiction, but the same principle applies to nonfiction writing as well.

Shifting Blame with Passive Voice

There’s something else you can do with passive voice, too.

A couple of months ago, I got a notification from Netflix:

Your monthly subscription rate is rising.

Funny how they don’t mention who’s raising it.

Now, pedants will argue that the verbs “rise” is not the same as the verb “raise,” and that the first sentence isn’t technically passive voice because the sentence is expressing a state of being in lieu of an action. FINE. How about this one:

A data breach was discovered, and your data may have been compromised.

Both parts of this compound sentence are passive voice. Who discovered this data breach? And who compromised the data?

This is a hypothetical example, but companies that have experienced data breaches may choose to use passive voice to obfuscate a few things. If they say, “We discovered a data breach,” they may have to acknowledge that there was a period of time that they did not know the data had been compromised. And if they say, “Hackers may have stolen your data,” they have to acknowledge the presence of the hackers. By using passive voice, they can just… leave those things out.

This is a strategy I myself have recommended in my technical and professional communication classes, but I’m considering changing my stance. Maybe I’ll write a whole post about this one day, but a better PR strategy these days may be to just accept blame and work to write whatever wrong has been committed. And the first step might be using active voice.

And that’s it, folks! We’ve made it to the end of the mini-series on Gopen and Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing. Which tip do you think will be most useful in your own writing? Let me know in the comments below!

If you want, you can also revisit the other pieces in the series:

That’s a Big Word!

When I was young (we’re talking, like six or seven), I had trouble remembering how to spell my middle name. To help me out, my mom made up a little acronym:

  • Danny’s
  • Elf’s
  • Nose
  • Is
  • So
  • Elongated

That’s right, folks. To help me remember how to spell a six-letter name, Mom taught me a nine-letter, four-syllable word. And it worked! I’ve remembered how to spell “Denise” ever since, though I no longer need the acronym, of course.

My point is, I was a precocious little snot, especially when it came to language acquisition. I was thinking about this story recently, and I had a brainwave.

Introducing: my new Youtube show targeted at kids age 3 – 7, That’s a Big Word!

There are plenty of precocious little snots out there just like me who may be stuck inside with their parents all day thanks to COVID-19 (or, you know, just thanks to summer). Why not help them bolster their young vocabularies with a show that’s simple, fun, and educational? So I made a pilot and threw it up on Youtube.

It was a lot of fun to do, and I think I’m going to produce a few more at the very least. If there’s enough interest, I’ll possibly branch off and give the show its own channel and Facebook presence. So let me know what you think about it! Comment here or like the episode on Youtube. And, of course, give it a share if you know someone who’d enjoy it!