One of the strongest accusations you can make about others is that they are “just virtue signalling.” Joining a demonstration, using a hashtag, taking the knee, tweeting your disgust at this or that behaviour. It’s just virtue signalling. The point of virtue signalling is that I can signal my position on something without it actually costing me anything. I can take the knee and it tells people I’m against racism but actually that doesn’t deal with the abuse my friends experience or mean that discrimination ends. I may well even continue to benefit from discrimination and injustice.
The problem with virtue signalling is not that virtue is wrong or that we shouldn’t signal our support and preference for what is good and right. The problem is that we can become hypocrites. Our outer actions, our words and our symbols become out of sync with the inner and consistent reality of our lives and relationships.
Virtue signalling isn’t anything new. It happened in Bible times. God’s people virtue signalled by what they wore, what they ate and the names they gave to people and places. There is a fascinating example of this in Ruth 1:1-5. There we meet a man called Elimelech who is married to Naomi, they live in Bethlehem, and they have sons, Marlon and Killion.
Each of those names meant something. Elimelech literally means “God is my king.” His wife’s name has the idea of pleasantness and Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” So, notice the irony in Ruth 1 when a man whose name virtue signals his trust in God leaves a town named to symbolise God’s bountiful provision. Notice too the shocking lack of trust in naming their sons “weakling” and “sickness”. The names in the account jar with the actions.
And there is the challenge for us. We can express our trust in God, we can virtue signal our belief that he is loving and sovereign whilst all the time, our lives suggest that we do not believe these things. The temptation to try and exercise control over others, our stinginess and lack of generosity with what God has given us, our tendency to worry about the future – all of these behaviours and attitudes jar with our songs that sing of God’s goodness and love and our trust in him.
Good virtue signalling arises out of the reality of our heart attitudes and the orientation of our wills. Is your heart consistent with the virtues you externally signal?