Performative Piety

In Mr. Ed Steinhauer’s recent Streets.mn post, “Confessions of a Virtue Signaler” (please read it first, if you haven’t), he recounts a wide-ranging conversation with a friend named Seth. Their conversation ranges a number of topics around which people have drawn tribal belief lines, and eventually arrives at climate change, and its prevention. After Mr. Steinhauer outright rejects Seth’s assertion that we require nuclear power in favor of an entirely bicycle centric approach, he characterizes Seth as “unleashing the shiv” when Seth accuses him of “virtue signaling.” This moment, in fact, apparently prompts Mr. Steinhauer to put their friendship on proverbial ice.

So. Was Seth wrong? What is virtue signaling anyway, and was this really an unwarranted accusation by Seth? Mr. Steinhauer correctly identifies pointless and even hypocritical grandstanding and declarations of group affinity as hallmarks of virtue signaling, and for the most part I think he’s correct. But he goes on to imply by a subtle genetic fallacy that virtue signaling as utilized since the “mid-2010s,” and as applied to the discussion isn’t even a valid term, because it’s a term invented by the Right which has transformed to exceed its original boundaries. It was, indeed, popularized in Right-wing circles. In 2017, a writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote that virtue signaling has become “a sort of cultural tic, as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s Syndrome” on the political Left. There is, however, an element of truth despite one’s feelings about the origin and application. I’m not the only center-left traditional liberal who has frequently rolled his eyes at Leftists who exhibit eye-roll inducing extravagant emotional investment with no meaningful attachment or action, in a seemingly transparent effort to gather praise and an aura of righteousness: a feedback loop of “peacockery and narcissism,” staking out not only the high ground, but the highest ground. Recently, according to Mr. Steinhauer, the term “virtue signaling” has metastasized into a way for people on the Right to baselessly attack the purportedly efficacious and reality-based behaviors of people on the Left.

To summarize Mr. Steinhauer’s argument: because he deems the term invalid, and because he claims to be engaging in efficacious action and not empty peacockery, Q.E.D. he is not virtue signaling and is justified in subsequently breaking off association with Seth over the slur. I contend that Mr. Steinhauer’s definition is incomplete. To accept Mr. Steinhauer’s argument, you must first accept his idea that virtue signaling does not include active behaviors, a point I will dispute. Second, you must also accept that the people engaging in the behavioral examples he provides — from cycling vs industrial power to pandemic era measures — do not make exclusions, exceptions, or exaggerations based on non-empirical beliefs for the purpose of reinforcing their own feelings or maintaining in-group affinity. I will contend that just as the best lies contain a grain of truth, the most powerful and durable virtue signals contain a small element of behavioral efficacy. 

When Seth said, “Ed, all you’re doing here is virtue signaling,” I contend that he was applying an accurate term of brevity to say “Ed, you’re dismissing and even opposing the most effective climate solution in favor of a belief in something that makes you feel good about you, which deep down you probably know isn’t actually going to do much of anything, and I think we both know that the math is on my side, but I don’t know what else to say because no amount of empiricism is going to shake your belief that nuclear is both unfeasible (and possibly “dirty”), and that we can just pedal our way out of this problem. All I can do is sigh and say that you’re virtue signaling.” It probably felt like a shiv because truth hurts, especially when it pierces actively lived and practiced Evangelism. From Seth’s perspective, Mr. Steinhauer is not only doing little while engaging in peacockery about it, he’s also opposed to real solutions. That alone would have a considerable overlap on a Venn diagram with the definition of virtue signaling given by Mr. Steinhauer. Additionally, if he had gestured to my own garage — full of my bikes that I use all the time — and told me (with a beatific smile) that the solution to climate change is “right there, in the garage”, I might actually roll my eyes hard enough to risk injury. I get where Seth is coming from.

Background and Definition

Virtue signaling may have been recently popularized in the fetid sewers of social media, (I thankfully killed all my own social media accounts a few years ago), but it is an old behavior that is not unique to the political Left. I grew up in Kansas around a fair number of Evangelicals whom I often accused of a behavior that I labeled as “performative piety,” which amounted to signaling their goodness as Christians and people while doing nothing to help anyone, or even while engaging in hateful behaviors that were contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to His apostles. (Jesus also said “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.”)

Over the course of my upbringing, I developed a revulsion for faith-based smug tribalism and hypocrisy. I couldn’t stand listening to the pious prattle on sanctimoniously and “humble-bragging” about their superior virtue while looking down their noses at everyone else. My jaw hung in disbelief when they would deny any number of empirically verifiable facts because of an in-group interpretation of a 2,000-year-old text, or perhaps a blustering AM radio host. (These were the halcyon days before Fox News.) In a way, growing up in this environment formed my liberal, and almost rigidly empiricist, identity. At least, I used to think I was liberal, but I’m not so sure anymore. Turns out maybe those definitions are relative based on context, and the liberal virtue signaling I’ve encountered since moving to Minnesota elicits the same revulsion in me as the performative piety I grew up around.

Performative piety, now known as virtue signaling, is more expansive than the limited definition given by Mr. Steinhauer. I define it as having any or all of the following components.

  1. It is a declaration of in-group identity. The veracity of the claim or message is irrelevant; it identifies those who are willing to accept the group’s message, and those who are not. It delineates the acceptable lines of ostracism and exclusion.
  2. It is a selfish behavior intended to draw praise and attention to the virtue signaler, in addition to the self-congratulatory preening. It can also be disingenuous, in an effort to accrue power, but is commonly a proclamation of genuinely held belief.
  3. It is intended to passive-aggressively condemn others for their sins and shortcomings by implication, and in doing so make the virtue signaler feel prouder of their righteousness.
  4. However, like any signifier of an ideological in-group schema, it can underpin direct confrontation.
  5. It can be a behavior that actually accomplishes something, but which the virtue signaler inflates to outsize proportion to enhance their feeling of righteousness. It can also be a meaningless gesture or symbol that does little more than signal in-group identity. At the worst, it can metastasize into a form of blind pious hypocrisy that does active harm. 
  6. It is an expression of faith. Even if the behavior or idea has empirical antecedents, it moves beyond those boundaries and is willfully blind to empirical, epistemological or ethical challenges when it becomes virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling, liberal or otherwise, is antithetical to classical Western liberalism and Enlightenment ideals, especially when it manifests as tribal behavior.

Additionally, the transactional insularity, passive-aggressive judgment and especially the platitudes that are part of liberal virtue-signaling all arguably harmonize well with “Minnesota Nice,” a digression I will return to at the end.

Image credit:  British GQ. 

A Friendly Debate

Mr. Steinhauer glossed over a number of discussion topics around which people have drawn tribal and faith-based lines, without including the full context of the conversation. Having had conversations on these very subjects with a number of Leftists around here, I can and will make suppositions regarding the breadth of their climate change discussion beyond what Mr. Steinhauer wrote in his supposedly practical dismissal of nuclear as a viable option, in order for Seth to finally level the charge of “virtue signaling”.

For starters, I hear strong hints of what I’ll call The Bike Sermon in Mr. Steinhauer’s recap. I’ve been there for it, and when I was younger, might have even veered into one myself. The Sermon is more than the knowledge that riding your bike is a small positive thing. The Sermon sets it up as a sweeping panacea, a great and mighty truth that the virtue signaling cyclist has embraced and found salvation in. The Sermon either implies, or explicitly states, that if the great mass of benighted fools would also simply see the truth and convert, then everything would change. It’s all we really need, and the problem is the sloth and ignorance of those masses, who can’t see the simple fix before them. The preacher of The Sermon gets to feel righteous for his world-changing pedal turning, righteous for every act of attempted soul-saving and righteous for every soul saved. All while doing nothing more than something he enjoys anyway . . . and virtue signaling about it. But this is far more harmful than mere irritating piety.

A narrative that centers climate change impacts on small personal behaviors is one that has been pushed deliberately and ruthlessly by oil companies in order to stave off the threats posed by macro-scale political and industrial solutions. Cigarette manufacturers once employed this very tactic. It is also a narrative that has found a receptive audience with self-satisfied “virtue signalers” due to its emphasis on personal goodness or sin. Saying that we don’t have the agency or the power to make big change but only have the agency to be personally virtuous (saved?) is precisely what the oil companies were aiming for, and is a very authentic Evangelical message. Mr. Steinhauer is doing the work of “Big Oil” for them, with Evangelical, virtue signaling zeal. The oil companies know a truth about nuclear power that Seth also knows.

In the argument he presents, Mr. Steinhauer states that he believes the most feasible solution is to change the habits and culture of millions of people, and also to invest the capital resources to rebuild our cities to make this change realistic. The oil companies know that this is a Sisyphean goal, and that by comparison, converting an entire city’s electrical grid to nuclear is simpler and cheaper. Seth and I know it too. To underscore this point: I am a dedicated cyclist who believes in the positive aspects of cycling for the individual and the community. If you can’t even persuade me, in one of the most bike-friendly municipalities in the U.S. to do more than 10% of my daily errands by bike, which is far beyond the national (and local) average, how are you going to convert the non-cyclists? I harbor no illusions about the barriers to cycling, and I have also written for Streets.mn about the difficulties involved when a family is added to the equation, and about how the most bike-friendly (and liberal “virtue signaling”) cities are often the least kid-friendly. It would help matters If we had viable transit with usable frequency and accessibility, but that would also require a massive capital investment. The transit option is further complicated at present by the fact that Leftists don’t believe in law enforcement anymore, and after things I’ve seen on transit in recent years, I’m not taking my kids on it (or even riding it myself). When I make that complaint around local Leftists, they virtue signal by slurring me with the appropriately culturally charged jargon and insults for having the temerity to point it out. They do not, however, propose any solutions. Apparently I can just solve the problem by “checking my privilege” or any number of similar — ridiculous — ideas.

If The Sermon were to be fully realized with 100% conversion — an impossibility — then a full 1/3 of carbon emissions would be mitigated. However, If we converted the grid to nuclear, at that point nearly 2/3 of greenhouse emissions would suddenly vanish, without changing a single daily habit. Mr. Steinhauer states that converting all the vehicles to electric wouldn’t accomplish much because of where the electricity comes from, but if the electric source was nuclear, then it would indeed accomplish a great deal. In fact, that would be most of the remaining 1/3. Riding a bike instead of driving is worth something, and every little bit counts. But to dismiss clearly efficacious solutions, realistic estimates and empirical data in favor of a self-aggrandizing faith is what makes it virtue signaling.

I will hypothesize that there may have been more underlying a conversation that ended in bridge-burning than this, or more behind Mr. Steinhauer’s argument, that was unwritten. I have had this exact conversation with other local Leftists, and on the far Left, nuclear power is frowned upon for a variety of reasons, mostly ideological. A great deal of the anti-nuclear dogma has been kept on life-support after being handed down by Leftist activists of the 1960s and’ 70s who opposed nuclear power because they believed it was inherently “dirty,” or because they mentally categorized it as a military technology. Beliefs regarding safety were exacerbated by the disaster in Chernobyl and the near-miss at Three-Mile Island. However, if Three-Mile Island had actually had a meltdown along with Chernobyl and Fukushima-daichi, plus a couple of notional meltdowns thrown in for modeling purposes, nuclear would still be far less “dirty” than fossil fuel emissions. It must also be stated that the safety protocols at Three-Mile stopped a meltdown, and safety is even better now. Furthermore, as sad as Chernobyl was, Soviets were just going to be Soviets.

Why should Mr. Steinhauer’s preening about his personal cycling virtue and his demonstrably false notions about nuclear feasibility and efficacy matter? Because they have led him to the point of disengagement from the most efficacious potential solution to climate change, and even to discourage others from supporting the most efficacious solution in favor of a singular investment in a seductively simple idea that will not solve the problem, but that avoids the complicated and hard work of macro-scale solutions while helping Mr. Steinhauer and any converts feel really good about themselves. It isn’t so much God’s work as Big Oil’s work. Big Oil knows that if they can enlist virtue signaling Leftists to oppose, or at least be indifferent to, something like the Department of Energy’s “commercial liftoff” proposal, it will fail to launch. The DoE estimates that we will need to triple our nuclear capacity by 2050 to have a prayer of meeting our climate goals.

NOAA Sea Level rise model. Future beachfront property if we act on the belief that we can just pedal our way out of this problem. Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts (noaa.gov)

The virtue signaling damage goes beyond cycling vs nuclear. A common rebuttal to the nuclear/fossil fuel debate is to state we should forego both and simply build wind power. Despite the engineering impossibilities of an entirely wind-powered grid, this too has gotten tangled in virtue signaling. How? First, it’s worth noting that Texas produces more wind-energy than anywhere in the country, all because a bunch of Texas energy executives figured out that they could make money from the wind blowing. In the meantime, liberals in other parts of the country sneer at those climate-change deniers in Texas. I’ve spoken with a lot of them here in the Twin Cities.

I don’t want to overly idealize Texas as the vanguard of fighting climate change, but there is something authentic about the fact that profits and practicality have thus far enjoyed the upper hand over the efforts of oil companies and virtue signaling Right-wing figures to fight wind power there. Conversely, I think it has actually been easier to enlist virtue signaling liberals in the fight against wind. Certain Massachusetts liberals had once uncomfortably fought wind-power because they didn’t like the view, but then a Texas oil consortium provided them with a false narrative about saving whales. Now they can use liberal virtue signaling to oppose wind-power with full-throated Evangelical fervor.

Incidentally, Texas is also going to be the site of the new X-Energy SMR nuclear reactor.

Many who ideologically oppose nuclear power believe that we will be saved by pure, provident rays of light beaming upon solar panels. They will, of course, minimize or ignore the fact that expired solar panels are poised to be a greater ecological disaster than multiple meltdowns, and that they are frequently dumped in poor countries with little-to-no regulations, populated by brown people, where they pollute the land and water with heavy, poisonous metals. With zero sense of irony or any self-awareness, they will then maximize or exaggerate the potential risks of nuclear power. Subordinating facts to the cause of maintaining in-group orthodoxy and feelings is, as stated, a form of virtue signaling, and again potentially harms people and thwarts more effective measures. There are, of course, macro-level political solutions to solar panel pollution, and I’m certain the solar industry will eventually oppose them with tactics similar to those used by oil companies.

In the end, a lot of performative piety by those who are the most performative (often mostly online) regarding climate change issues is stopping a lot of real progress from happening.

U.S. Department of Energy chart weighing benefits of different energy sources.

We’re Just ‘Following the Science’

Mr. Steinhauer turns to a safe-place for liberals on this issue — pandemic era measures — which were often, as he illustrates, labeled as mere virtue signaling in Right-wing media outlets. He’s on far more solid ground here because the science clearly aligns with the efficacy of the behavior. However, while I regret yet another foray into the “mask wars,” Leftists could still use a dose of humility when it comes to their often tribal and Evangelical mask-zeal, and particularly their lockdown-zeal. They frequently went beyond “just science” or made exceptions to the science in the name of self-righteousness, belief, and bolstering in-group affinity. Exceeding the bounds of efficacy and empiricism in favor of tribalism gives validity to charges of virtue signaling. Additionally, the virtue signaling around pandemic measures faintly echoes the simple belief of The Bike Sermon; if the benighted masses had merely accepted the path to personal virtue, then everything would have been fine. 

To start the rebuttal, I will state unequivocally that I wore a mask diligently, in the manner and in places prescribed by health professionals. I did my duty by my community as the science indicated. Additionally, I am not debating the actual science, and certainly wouldn’t want a surgeon operating on me without a surgical mask. Mr. Steinhauer does correctly point out that masks became a symbol of political identity, and a tool for ostracism, but because they worked, he dismisses charges of virtue signaling around the social parameters as false. That dismissal is presumptions, given some of the Leftist performative piety around masks.

One day during the pandemic I was riding my bike, sans mask, on a lonely trail. It was just me, for miles, until eventually a mask-wearing woman on a bike happened to be riding the opposite direction. While she could have just ridden by, she needed to take the time to pull her own mask down, swerve to come close, and scream at me about not wearing a mask. I’m certain her zealous performative piety made her feel righteous in challenging the evil heretic, but the fact is that scientific guidance supported my solo, maskless, outdoor recreation. When I watched people — many people, many times — walking alone in parks on lovely sunny days without another soul within 50 yards while sucking on not one, but two tightly cinched masks, it certainly looked like “virtue signaling” to me, for no empirically efficacious reason. Even more so when people I knew quit associating entirely with others simply because of knowledge that they hadn’t “masked up” for even solo outdoor activities. In the latter stages of the pandemic, Leftists and certain powerful teachers unions veered the farthest from science, fighting to maintain mask mandates and school closures in opposition to the recommendations of medical professionals. Leftists charged into the battle over masks, banners held high, with the same virtue signaling zeal as their virtue signaling, zero-mask opposition.

This image is from an article about smoke pollution — another climate change problem — but in the context of pandemic public health…why? Source: Bicycling magazine

Leftists also had a zeal for lockdowns and social isolation that the science was actually ambivalent about. The lockdowns were an experiment, heavily influenced by a model developed by a 14 year old in Albuquerque, and they were always viewed with a measure of skepticism because of the sterility of the computer model. Leftists also maintained their lockdown zeal for far longer than the science ever indicated. However, critically, the charges of virtue signaling over masks and gatherings grew especially strident from the political Right when health officials endorsed large gatherings at BLM protests as being acceptable because of their social importance and significance, while still condemning people for attending church, school or family events. Leftists didn’t flinch at this at all, because they believed in supporting the protests as much as they believed in closing schools and churches. If you’re going to “follow the science,” then you follow all of the science. Ignoring science to enable favored social causes is, by definition, virtue-signaling, and is as tribally ignorant as eating horse-paste (Ivermectin).

Even on vaccines, the Left should do less virtue signaling. As much as eschewing vaccines in favor of horse-paste was Right-wing virtue signaling, so too was some of the Leftist narrative control around the vaccines. On left-of-center news outlets and social media silos, any discussion of “natural immunity” was verboten, despite the fact that it is a real, biological phenomenon. While a strategy to end the pandemic through mass contagion was and is too ghoulish to contemplate, those who got infected did have immunity as effective as that granted by vaccines, and the Leftist refusal to countenance that fact in their quasi-religious vaccine euphoria exacerbated the tribal divide. Leftists often treated the unvaccinated-yet-prior-infected as “unclean” in a nearly Biblical sense. Furthermore, while vaccines were undeniably efficacious, there were also risks and complications, but any heterodoxy on this was aggressively suppressed, to a virtue signaling degree that undermined the credibility of the science and widened the tribal divide. As an anecdote, an acquaintance of mine had a terrible reaction to the vaccine, one which still affects her today. Many of her Leftist friends ostracized her, and accused her of being an “anti-vaxxer” and even of fabricating the entire story. If those same friends had acknowledged what happened to her, then they would also have to engage in meaningful discussion. That, however, would void the virtue signaling.

Minnesota Nice

Mr. Steinhauer writes that Seth is a person who “burns bridges, sometimes with glee.” But I have to wonder: Was it Seth who actually burned the bridge? I have guessed on some of the outlines of the friendly debate, based on similar discussions I have had with local virtue signaling liberals, but I have to say this: Seth was right, even without inferred gap-filling, based solely on what was written. And I think what actually happened is that Mr. Steinhauer “Minnesota Nice’d” Seth, ostracizing him for being too direct and brusque, and possibly even correct. In fact, Mr. Steinhauer characterizes Seth’s “strong” personality as “off-putting.”

This social interaction is the most quintessentially “Minnesota” part of the essay, and is worth special mention. Maybe I’m wide of the mark, but the unwritten outlines of this interaction echo to me of all the times I’ve been “Minnesota Nice’d” for failing liberal purity tests, and for being far too direct and honest. I’ve lived here for eight years, but often visit “red states.” During those visits I’ve had more friendly dinners and drinks with conservatives that I have fundamental disagreements with, than I have had with local liberals who share many of my opinions, but who I also challenge on their faith-based proclamations and their virtue signaling. It is easily on a 10:1 ratio, though I am “home” in Minnesota most of the time. I don’t understand it. Or maybe I do….

Back in Kansas, or Texas, I could have a friendly disagreement, and still get invited out later. In fact, if I met someone and they said “let’s get together sometime,” it would actually happen. I would say that maybe Seth and I could be friends — two people who can’t stomach performative piety, and who have been “Minnesota Nice’d” — but as of now, after eight years here, I’m no longer trying to make local friends. I’m just trying to figure out a way to move back to Kansas. Home isn’t just where you hang your hat; it’s where you understand things. This ain’t it.

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.