My walks with my dog take me to a quiet off-street, with middle-class houses made expensive because they’re inside the Beltway. Their owners are mostly youngish attorneys who work as assistant-deputy-director-somethings in some government department or other.
Two of the homes feature “No Hate Here” signs.
What’s up with that, you might wonder. This is a peaceful, upscale, decidedly un-diverse neighborhood. The greatest threat to suburban peace is the lone homeowner whose lawn looks a tad overgrown. There’s nothing to suggest that anyone is a racist or bigot. So again: What’s going on?
Someone came up with the label “virtue signaling” to describe the psychological impulse behind these signs. The idea is that people who put them up want to tell you how noble they are. But that doesn’t sound right. Virtue-signalers aren’t in any way in doubt about their own virtue. What they really want to do is signal how depraved others are.
It’s about vice signaling, not virtue signaling.
A couple of people on the block are Trump supporters. Those signs are likely meant for them. There’s no interaction between the two groups, and the signs are meant to keep it that way.
A couple of years back there used to be Fourth of July street picnics there. But the shindigs haven’t happened the last couple of years, and I don’t think I’ll see them again soon. Vice signaling breaks up communities, and there’s a lot of it today.
Vice signaling is a defense mechanism, meant to displace liberal guilt. There was a moment, shortly after the 2016 election, when liberals realized that ordinary Americans had turned against them, and that they had reason to do so.
Allied to the teachers unions, the liberals had permitted our schools to descend to Third World standards. They supported an immigration system that imported economic immobility. They welcomed a regulatory morass that gave elites jobs but that placed a stumbling block in the path of those who sought to get ahead.
Liberals saw all that — and then they forgot it. Rather than blame themselves, it was much easier to transfer the guilt to conservatives. That’s how vice signaling became the language of liberal politics.
One of the people on the street is an ex-Special Forces veteran, with a Purple Heart from Iraq. That used to be a real signal of virtue. Now I’m afraid it marks him as a prime example of “toxic masculinity.” He’s the sort of man about whom freshmen are warned in college classrooms across the land.
The courses are meant to help men examine their own biases and behaviors in order to cut down on misogyny and gender-based violence. My veteran friend is a hero, but I expect that progressives would think him a prime candidate for toxic-masculinity brainwashing. Unable to reach vast swaths of the polity, liberals increasingly treat “the other” (to use their own lingo) as pathological.
Those toxic-masculinity classes aren’t really about protecting women, however. They never could do so, but that’s not the point. Rather they’re about vice signaling, about telling us that people on the wrong side of the gender gap are by nature evil.
All this reminds us that the demand for sensitivity can be employed for strategic and partisan purposes. And so it is in the transgender wars.
When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, there were no great protests from social conservatives. What is curious, however, is how social liberals turned on a dime to take up transgender rights. After their victory, they immediately took up the cause of a vanishingly tiny number of Americans, the better to blame their opponents. In the permanent cultural wars against conservatives, there’s always one more river to cross.
What these examples have in common is vice signaling. I can’t see inside their hearts, but what I do know is that the people with their “No Hate” signs sow more division than they do comity. It’s also clear that this constant slicing and dicing of the American people along lines of race, sex and gender makes it that much harder to talk about the common good.
And if you’re a conservative, how should you respond? Not by being defensive. Instead, tell them you have nothing to apologize for. Tell them to look into their own souls.
F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School and is author of “The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed.”
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