“Purer than you are
Colder than you’ll ever be
broken while your burden’s measured
failure to fulfil your prerequisite
Purpose never drove me
inspiration never choked my muse
Can you pacify the restless beast within?”
– Purer (Libera Nos A Malo), Stigmata
Virtue signalling according to our friends at Google is thus defined:
The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
So what exactly is virtue signalling? And how is this relevant to us in today’s context? I don’t mean just in a global context with cancel culture and the woke revolution. I am speaking more closer to home, in a Sri Lankan context.
With all the carnage, shortages, price hikes, skyrocketed cost of living and future uncertainty us Sri Lankans face day in and day out we are starting to see a greater up rise of communities, of the populace becoming more outspoken and willing to stand up publicly to display and demonstrate their dissatisfaction, disappointment and disgust at the deepening economic turmoil, social conundrum and current state of affairs affecting our island.
Virtue signalling is interestingly enough one of those things that stems from a place of good intentions. Its core, principle feature is to emphasise decency, good moral values and share the said ideologies and sentiments candidly for others to see and hear. The objective is that one will showcase and project behaviour and feelings that inspire positivity, expressing opinions and conducting oneself in a manner that is widely regarded as virtuous and acceptable by others.
We see celebrities, politicians, modern day influencers and corporate brands jumping on the moral bandwagon more fervently and exceedingly.
We see the above said on social media. More people have a voice now, with public platforms galore to share their personal views, opinions and ideologies without consequence. Many have amassed large followings by channelling and influencing others to rally around causes and to ostracise those who have conflicting views or are considered to dilute and deface the higher moral narrative that exists in social and professional circles.
The biggest issue with virtue signalling is that while it’s meant to be a diligent display of nuanced moral fibre, it tends to come across as a superior depiction of virtuous conduct.
When one loses sight of the intention of the cause, and the ends – regardless of how one reaches it – justify whatever means possible then the whole purpose gets lost in the quagmire of the act of advocating a cause.
Let’s look at climate activists, social activists and modern day do-gooders that rally around different and multiple causes in a vociferous and candid fashion. The issue isn’t that they advocate causes that they have a profound moral investment in. The issue lies when they begin to exhibit dishonest mimicry, hypocrisy and double standards. When they are so caught up in their moral standpoints that they chastise and demean those who they feel threatened by or are vehemently opposed to.
More often than not there are collateral accusations hurled at even those who happen to not be actively engaged in the narrative and are just minding their own lives.
What is meant to be an act devoted to empathising with others, being in support, respecting others and fostering a fellowship of unity of standing up for something one deems is ethically sound or morally right turns into a cantankerous spree of demeaning and dehumanising someone else at the cost of looking good yourself.
There is a fine line where the integrity and sincerity of your intent is blurred and smothered by a sense of moral grandstanding of drawing all attention and spotlight narcissistically to yourself, to show the world and those around you how personally invested you are in your cause and belief, and ergo, others should either accept it is also so – it’s your way or the highway.
The verisimilitude of the plethora of bridges burnt due to moral grandstanding is immense. Especially with social media giving a conduit and platform for everyone to express their views without care or caution for the repercussions of belittling others.
To silence a mockingbird
Sri Lanka has recently seen an emergence of its honest – now frustrated – hard working citizens gathering in protest holding candles or lamps in a vigil to plead to the nation’s leaders to cease destroying what is left of our country. The administration’s failure to leverage our present economic crisis, with the sharply felt shortages of cooking gas, fuel and essential commodities, worsened by the frequent power and water cuts has resulted in people from varied pockets of society around the island taking to the streets in independent and organised slogan and candle-lit vigil protests against the injustices, growing hardship and calamities faced by the majority of Sri Lankans.
Perhaps the most popular and visceral imagery is of one of the recent protests is an angry protestor caught on camera carrying a pole with two loaves of bread pierced to it has gone viral worldwide.
The fact that those two loaves of bread could have fed an underprivileged family for a day was dismissed at the grander focal point which is the symbolic outcry in protest.
Listen, no one is disputing that the prolonged utility cuts and the persisting shortages along with the stifling economic climate is not affecting all and sundry.
But we have seen some brandishing their arrogant displays on social media calling those who have not stood in protest or vigil as bootlickers or supporters of the administration. Some have even gone as far as to infer that if one does not join the protests then one is contributing to the national crisis.
A few sanctimonious virtue signallers have exchanged diatribes and depicted with grand verbosity how those who don’t stand for hours in vigil are all privileged, self-centred and morally bankrupt people without a conscience.
How about getting off your high vigil horse for a moment?
Has it occurred to you that time being our greatest currency and asset in life that many of us can’t afford to take hours at a time to stand in protest? That even during power cuts some of us need to hustle and ensure we work. Some have rehearsals. Many have family responsibilities and duties that make it impossible to take such long breaks on a daily basis.
Furthermore what you may have missed in your moral grandstanding projectiles of slander is not considering that not everyone needs to rally and mimic a cause in the same way. Perhaps there are those who share your sentiments and suffer in similar plight who use other means, channels and platforms to make a difference that they truly believe will bear an impact more effectively.
Sri Lanka needs a revolution to change. This I agree on. But revolution needs to integrate with evolution. These are hardened times indeed, but there is more than one way to silence a mockingbird.
I believe that universal, relentless, consistent, focused efforts simultaneously made will bring about change.
For example I use my column to raise awareness on topics of importance. I espouse social media to communicate and engage with others to tap into the collective consciousness highlighting broader issues, key touch points and our daily predicaments.
I use my creative pursuits to bridge the gaps of ignorance and to educate and inform others about the crises that shake our lives.
And like me there are many kindred souls who do the same.
I say kudos to all of you who have the courage, means, the resource of time and impetus to rally in protest. You have my respect.
But those of you who are using these protests and vigils as an opportunity to shine a light on yourselves, leaving your moral claim and virtuous act blinded in the fog of acrimonious debasement – and wanting desperately for others to see how righteous and good you really are… shame on you.
Finally, I cannot emphasise enough how not everyone who believes and stands up for a cause is a virtue signaller. There are many admirable and inspirational people around the world and on our island that walk the walk and talk the walk and practice what they preach, and fight notably and with noble and staunch resolve to enact positive change.
However we know there are individuals and personalities out there; be they marketers that work on behalf of brands and conglomerates, politicians, celebrities and social media influencers who seek to improve the moral beliefs of others by eliciting any outcome possible, via spurring ethical improvement in the world.
Be careful not to be bullied, shamed or coerced into becoming a moral grandstander by virtue of association, public and peer pressure or manipulation.
Some have ulterior motives, some seek personal attention and look to score brownie points, and others still will use any cause. In dramatic flair, using provocative means to display their moral high ground at any cost, often taking the focus away from the moral issue at hand.
These are virtue signallers, and they often employ and endorse moral discourse to incite and influence moral change.
Remember that credibility enhancing displays aren’t always honest and sincere.
And public displays of moral grandstanding at times stem from a hypocritical place where the standards are doubled, with a more sinister ulterior motive hidden beneath a superiority complex of “I am better than thou” grandiosity.
(The writer is the frontman and lyricist of Stigmata, a creative consultant and brand strategist by profession, a self-published author and poet, thespian, animal rescuer, podcaster, and fitness enthusiast)
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.