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. 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.
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.
 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.