Bike helmet with a bicycle in Minnesota sticker on the side

Confessions of a Virtue Signaler

I have an on-again, off-again friendship with a high-school classmate I’ve known for 40 years. Seth has the type of strong, commanding personality that can be both compelling and off-putting. We reconnected on Facebook, and, just like in our adolescent days, I was taken in by his acerbic wit and forceful opinions. He would hold court on issues such as the war in Ukraine, celebrity billionaires who are really a-holes (spoiler: all of them) and idiotic climate deniers. We agreed on a few things, disagreed on many more and ultimately parted ways again. Seth burns bridges, sometimes with glee.

You would think that climate change would be a place that allows alarmists to come together. The world is burning. We have set in motion forces we can’t control, and the future looks bleak. Seth and I would differ on the efficacy of personal behaviors versus macro-level projects. I favor the former — changes we are able to make ourselves, like personal consumption and the use of active transportation. Seth prefers a cut-to-the-chase, large-scale approach. “There’s only one thing we should be doing,” he maintains, “build more nuclear power.” And there’s the heart of our conflict: agency versus impact; the things that need doing, and the things we can actually do. “You can’t build a new energy facility,” I’d say, “but you can drive less!”

We would go back and forth like this. Renewable energy can’t pack the punch of nuclear power, he asserts. Electric cars won’t save us. Even if our entire fleet of passenger cars were to go electric, the percentage of greenhouse gas reductions wouldn’t amount to that much. But what about the humble bicycle? “It’s right there, in the garage,” I say. “Just take it to the grocery store with an empty backpack the next time you need to buy milk and bread. You might save a quart of gas and a kilogram or two of carbon emissions!”

That’s when he unsheathes the shiv. “Ed, all you’re doing here is virtue signaling.”

Stacked signs that express social justice convictions, such as "Science Is Real" and "Black Lives Matter"
Photo by Ed Steinhauer

If you are one of the lucky few who has avoided all social networking, never looks at the comments section on the digital edition of the newspaper and avoids all personal connections with opinionated people like Seth, you may be unfamiliar with the term. “Virtue signaling” is a pejorative term describing any behavior meant to showcase one’s opinion on a subject, but which engages neither in meaningful action nor dialogue.

Virtue signaling may take the form of a lawn sign, a T-shirt, a flag or banner expressing solidarity with a group, or a bumper sticker. If you were to walk your dog by my house, you may not be struck with the sudden conviction that, indeed, “Black lives do matter,” but you will certainly know where I stand on the issue. Likewise, I may have no reason to doubt a politician’s patriotism or citizenship, but seeing a flag pin on his or her lapel during a talk-show appearance convinces me of . . . neither. A virtue signal changes nothing. It merely identifies the wearer with a group, as if to say: “I am an upright person, within the standards of my affinity group.”

Image by Khana Ennis,

“But wait,” you say, “if a signal is a sign, a flag, a sticker, a T-shirt or a button, how can an action be a signifier?” That’s where things have changed since the term came into widespread use in the mid 2010s.

Sticks, Stones and Second Guesses

I first noticed the term “virtue signaling” being applied to behaviors in the early days of the pandemic, when mask-wearing, one of the two weapons we had against transmission (the other being isolation), became a polarizing activity. Rightly or wrongly, those who were quick to pick up on mask-wearing were identified on the political left. Skeptics derided how quickly some people adopted those behaviors. Those who didn’t were confronted in public spaces, and often ostracized. The mask became a symbol, a sign, for acceptance of behaviors that many others were slow to embrace. To those on the political right, wearing a mask became a virtue signal, a sign with a questionable effect. Years later, it’s still not clear how well mask wearing prevented COVID transmission. Does wearing that surgical mask keep me and the people around me safe from illness? That depends on which study I read last.

So unsurprisingly, the term “virtue signaling” has become a way for people, mostly on the political right, to dismiss the actions of people, usually on the political left. More image than substance, more talk than action. Wielding the term is a way of asserting power over a movement by saying, “Your activism amounts to nothing.”

Many of us take perverse pleasure in letting our feathers get ruffled on social media. I certainly do. I work in a school setting, where I see kids at recess gravitating to playground games in which “people are always cheating!” 

“Are you having fun?” I’ll ask the kid with the scrunched-up face.


“Have you thought about playing something different?”


He’s having fun, in his own way, I will say to myself, and leave him to it.

I am someone who invites those conflicts, and I let them get under my skin. Yes, I could let those little slights go and join in a different playground game (as it were). But the “virtue signaling” barb remains, and the sting still hurts. It mingles with my own doubts and misgivings. What if Seth is right? What does it all amount to? Do individual actions yield discernible benefits?

Louder Than Words

When the things that give us hope give way to the cold shower of reality, we’re often left with a feeling of futility. I would like to believe that we are on the cusp of a cycling boom. With the cost of cars growing out of reach of more and more people, not to mention the volume of emissions the average car produces, I’d like to think cycling would be a more attractive transportation option than it is. But while annual miles are starting to decline overall in Minnesota, the mode share of cycling as a percentage of all travel trips still seems abysmally low at less than 2% region wide. What’s worse, it hasn’t changed in over 15 years. The use of a bicycle has such potential to tackle so many societal ills at once: fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, cost, health and safety. Dare I say: It’s a panacea! But at the moment, cycling seems statistically insignificant as a climate solution.

The suitably suited cyclist. Image: Cycling Weekly

Statistical significance aside, we cyclists wear our own signifiers: gear. High-visibility jacket in highlighter yellow, helmet (of course) or, for the road cyclists, spandex and clip-in shoes.

The intent is safety, efficiency and heat regulation, but for non-cyclists, the effect screams “look at me!” Drivers and others see it as a performance, especially in places where bikes and cars conflict. To many motorists, cyclists come off as sanctimonious, grandstanding and elitist.

But visibility has its benefits, as well. Just as a T-shirt or a button may open a conversation in our daily encounters, high-vis bike gear serves as an invitation to folk who are curious about our experiences to ask questions. I believe that one of the biggest impediments to a shift in mode share from automotive to non-automotive travel — whether in the form of bicycling, walking, using mass transit or some combination of the three — is the generations-long trend of car dependency we have known for the past century. From street and highway design, to the ubiquity of car ads, to drive-through fast-food chains, to parking ramps, to garages-with-attached-houses-in-back, to the Fast and Furious movies, to Drive Time Dot Com, to 1-800 Ask Gary, car culture has so permeated our lives that we can’t escape it.

Who receives mail at this home: its human occupants, vehicles or The Three Bears? From

It’s not enough to know intellectually that I can move from place to place in anything but a car, for even the shortest of trips. I have to understand from lived experience that such a thing is possible, practical and feasible, as opposed to what I’ve known all my life (and my parents’ and grandparents’ lives). But outside of our own lived experience, we learn from that of others. That’s where you and I come in.

I have had many conversations with people who ask about my bike, about how I get around in this weather (if it’s anything less than ideal), about safety, and hills, and health, and traffic, and e-bikes. When I’m out and about in my bike gear, I am an ambassador for cycling, whether I set out to be or not. So a bus driver I encounter between routes wants to know more about the costs and advantages of an e-bike. I chat with a postal worker who is thinking about those state rebate checks. A young student is curious about my “construction vest.” A nurse at a care facility calls after me to ask where she can buy a bike. She explains that she longs to recapture her youth: “I just want to feel like myself again!” Along the way I meet people who are more or less on this same journey. People who are adapting to car-free lifestyle, bumps and all. Or coworkers and even students who show up at public meetings to advocate for better bike infrastructure. Or that little kid I passed on the sidewalk one day. After exchanging hellos, he said, “I’m riding a bike like you!” We are signaling to each other and to passers-by that there is, in fact, another way to move about in the world. We aren’t just signaling. We are “Norm Entrepreneurs.”

The ever-expanding array of automotive services adds visual clutter to our streetscape.
Image: Florida Department of Transportation

A term coined by legal scholar Cass Sunstein, a norm entrepreneur is someone who is interested in changing social norms, especially ones that have a tenuous hold on at least a plurality of people. If we are successful in exploiting peoples’ dissatisfaction with the status quo, e.g. “climate change or not, you really can’t get around in the world without a car,” we can disrupt that norm. If successful, that may lead to what Sunstein calls a “norm bandwagon” and perhaps even a “norm cascade.” At the risk of evoking a cliche, if you’ve got a light by which to lead, why not let it shine?

We were all assigned just one body at birth. One set of hands and feet, one mind that’s subject to changing, one heart that seeks connection. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, ours is the only body we have any control over. It can be demoralizing when something we know to be true doesn’t catch on as we feel it should. Gosh darn that free will, when other people have it, too! But we’ve also got our relationships, as intimate as our family members, and as random as a passer-by. Each point of connection is a form of influence. The imprint of our lives, our words and our witness leaves its mark in ways we’ll never know. It’s the web of relationships we all carry with us that grants us our biggest impact in the world. It may not be transformative, but it will have to do.

Ed Steinhauer

About Ed Steinhauer

Ed Steinhauer is a teacher and artist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.