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Signalling Virtue

The brighter a light shines, the less likely people will want to look at the source and the more at what it truly illuminates

How quickly terms are propagated today. I assumed the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ had pedigree, only to discover it had been coined a few months earlier. Demonstrating to others how much you care for the sake of it is hardly a new phenomenon, but this particular form of one-upmanship has been sharply defined by the advent of social media.


The beauty of virtue signalling, as James Bartholomew – the man who claims to have invented the term - says is that you can show your worth without having to do anything. Posting sympathetic comments on the European migrant crisis on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, can make you look right-on to your friends and acquaintances without having to back it up with action.


Where once such observations might be made to a family member in the lounge watching the nightly news; now they can be broadcast to a wider audience, who can add their own digital sympathy in compound. Many feel this is an entirely innocent process, a natural sharing of concern or disgust, but others are increasingly taking exception, as the growing ubiquity of the term ‘virtue signalling’ suggests. A counter-claim has been made: that stuffy opponents of the sharing of emotion online have merely created their own virtue; one where you consciously do not signal your virtue to others.


The debate is at risk of becoming silly, with both sides determined to make a futile point about the virtue of saying or not saying that they care. It is a fruitless preoccupation many Christians can identify with, knowing how easily the ability to say the right words about God can inoculate you, among your peers, from having to be much of a disciple. Yet those who object to virtue signalling are on the shakiest ground. Do they really think people should never promote their values; share the views they hold most dear? Was Mother Teresa guilty of the most egregious virtue signalling because she chose to work among the poor and was prepared to speak about it?

Perhaps we should distinguish between terms. Virtue signposting is instead the calling of Christians. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). He wants us to exhibit goodness not so others can be impressed with us, but so they will praise God for the work done within us by the Holy Spirit. This is one reason why remaining a secret Christian, one who never indicates by words or actions that they hold a faith, however simply this might be expressed, is self-defeating. Others may assume it is your own personal worth on display; a physical display of virtue signalling. To signpost others is to show them the Way they might take. It draws attention away from the sign to the destination. A motorist values the road sign not for its architectural merit but for what it tells her about the route she needs to take.


There are real risks in this whole debate which lead us to become overly self-conscious. It is said of a sports star that they lose their way when they begin to over-think their game. Much of what they do well comes instinctively; the brain transmitting to the limbs the right signals at just the right time, giving an impression of effortlessness among the best. While Christians are called to serious personal examination, if the result ties them in knots it is a process poorly executed. A light simply shines. The brighter it shines, the less likely people will want to look at the source and the more at what it truly illuminates.



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© 2017 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved