Virtue Signalling – Here Be Dragons

A short post to explain why I think that we need to have empathy with the people we hate.

Me At The Centre

One of the things that I find disturbing about the debate on racism is the way it often centres around ‘me’.

I think this brings up a number of issues (perhaps the issue of another blog post) but the one I wish to focus on here is people saying, and believing, something because it shows they are a good person. For example saying ‘I am anti-racist’ implying ‘therefore I am a good person’.

The term virtue signalling has recently been applied to such actions. It’s dictionary definition is:

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.

‘it’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things’1

Although Wikipedia2 says that the term is reasonably modern (2015) I think the idea can be traced back as far as the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE:

“Highest virtue is not virtuous and that is why it is virtuous,” 3

Although it often has negative connotations it is not always a bad thing. It is probably part of our evolution as a social species. We want to be seen as ‘good people’ because this is often for the common good. Even slave traders donated some of their plunder to charitable causes.

Sometimes people will make a conscious decision to say they believe a certain way or will act in a certain way because they want to be seen as a good person. However, all the views we hold and decisions we make are influenced by sub conscious tendencies to want to be seen as ‘a good person’.

Social Conformity

The subject has been extensively studied4,5,6. What we think about the world and even how we perceive the world is influenced by what people around us think. This is true of me as well as you.

It has also been found in other species including great apes, monkey, rats and even fish4.

There is even evidence that people perceive differently when they conform to a group and not conforming to the group produces social anxiety7.

Here Be Dragons

So we now have a problem – a major problem.

Some people think that the good thing to do is to preserve racial purity or to inform on the Jew hiding in the attic.

What we see as some of the greatest crimes of humanity were often carried out for the greater good.  Perhaps we are, at this moment, committing crimes that will be seen as crimes against humanity – e.g. not responding to climate change or disease and starvation in other countries.

Why Can’t People Just Be Nice

I frequently see and hear people say “why can’t people just be nice”. The answer is because they are inherently not. Humans are driven by emotions and needs which are often in conflict with the emotions and needs of others. This is why we have developed a sophisticated system of social interactions and organization. It is not perfect and one of the reasons why it is important to discuss political ideas, and one of the reasons why I am writing this blog, is that we can make big improvements.

To have a world where “everyone is nice” is a wonderful idea but has no place in the real world.

Even with a perfect social system there will be people who will not, or who are unable, to stick to accepted social norms. We as a society need to work out how we deal with such situations, but we do need to deal with them rather than live in some utopian dream where such people do not exist.

Can We Slay The Dragon?

If you were wondering why I suddenly started talking about “why can’t people just be nice” it is because I am now going to say we need to have empathy with the people we hate. I wanted to make it clear that I am not saying that we should just be nice or all you need is love.

By empathy, I mean imagining and understanding how someone might feel not that I have those feelings or approve of them.

The only way I can see of avoiding the dragon is to have empathy – to see and try to understand the way that people think and feel even if we totally disagree with them. This is why I am vehemently against dehumanizing anyone. Once you start to refer to people as cockroaches or the hoard you are saying that they are someone you cannot empathize with.

Until we understand why people hold such views and why they have the disruptive world views that they have, we cannot start to change them.

This applies to people who are overtly racist, paedophiles, rapists and murderers. It is not about making excuses for them. It is not always an easy thing to do but if we are serious about tackling the problems in society it is a process we have to go through.


1 Lexico (https://www.lexico.com/definition/virtue_signalling)

2 Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue_signalling)

3 There are several possible translations and possible interpretations from the original Chinese. This is from (http://tao-in-you.com/highest-virtue-is-not-virtuous-is-lao-tzu-contradicting-himself/)

4 The biological bases of conformity, T. J. H. Morgan and K. N. Laland, Front. Neurosci., 14 June 2012 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2012.00087/full)

5 Quantifying compliance and acceptance through public and private social conformity, Sowden et al, Consciousness and Cognition Volume 65, October 2018, Pages 359-367 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810018301569?via%3Dihub)

6 Following the Majority: Social Influence in Trusting Behavior, Zhenyu Wei1, Zhiying Zhao and Yong Zheng, Front. Neurosci., 11 February 2019 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00089/full)

7 Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation, Gregory S. Berns, Jonathan Chappelow, Caroline F. Zink, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Megan E. Martin-Skurski,and Jim Richards, BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2005;58:245–253 (http://www.ccnl.emory.edu/greg/Berns%20Conformity%20final%20printed.pdf)

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