For a quick refresher on what a logarithmic function looks like, check out the popularity over time of the phrase “virtue signaling” on Google Trends. After years of virtual obscurity, the phrase burst onto the scene last summer. Right around the beginning of January, the term skyrocketed in popularity.
The reason? The number of people searching Google for the term is equaled only by the number of celebrities and politicians embracing this behavior as their latest fad. On Monday even the Parliament of the United Kingdom joined the likes of Meryl Streep and several Super Bowl advertisers and jumped on the virtue signaling bandwagon.
For those of you already lost in a dictionary looking up “microaggression,” “safe space,” and “humblebrag,” Merriam-Webster has you covered! Unfortunately, “virtue signaling” did not make the new words list this year. The term was developed only recently and refers to when people say or do things not to try and make a difference in the world, but merely to signal to their peers that they are virtuous. The man who coined the phrase, James Bartholomew, described it well during an interview with the London magazine The Spectator:
I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
How fitting that Bartholomew’s own government can now be counted among the ever-growing membership list for the Words Speak Louder Than Actions Club. To say that any real action took place in Parliament during this latest case of posturing would be generous at best.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, the notorious spotlight-seeker John Bercow, felt the need for words after Prime Minister Theresa May invited President Trump to visit the U.K. He then indulged in some newfangled virtue signaling and called for a motion arguing that President Trump should not be asked to address Parliament. A day after its proposal, one hundred eighty-nine of the six hundred fifty members of the House of Commons had signed the motion.
Never one to worry about that pesky pillar of democracy known as “majority rule,” the Speaker went on to clarify that his position permits him to simply deny an individual permission to speak on the floor of the House of Commons. He finished his dance by reassuring the world that he would, in fact, be exercising this power in a hypothetical scenario where President Trump was invited to speak, accepted the invitation, and arrived at the doors of Westminster Hall. If that day ever comes, Speaker Bercow will have a chance to back his vapid words up with tangible action.
Maybe the Speaker needed to shore up his poll numbers. Maybe he wanted to signal to a world staring down the barrel of Brexit that he was one of them, not one of the racist bigots who voted to leave the European Union. Maybe he just likes seeing his name in the papers. Regardless of the reason, his statement accomplishes nothing.
Well, nothing besides giving his beloved media the opportunity to use the phrase “Donald Trump Banned” in their headlines. The smugness is stifling.
It looks like virtue signaling is here to stay. Time to call the folks at Merriam-Webster.