In a political era driven by social media and moral grandstanding, it is not surprising to see more and more progressives falling victim to their own unrealistic ethical demands. Can the left fight for social, economic, and environmental justice without shooting itself in the foot?
CANBERRA – In 2015, journalist James Bartholomew coined the term “virtue signaling” to describe “public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice.” As a pithy phrase that perfectly captures a widespread phenomenon, the term became instantly popular. But virtue signaling is not just an act of performative self-righteousness. It has also become one of pure hypocrisy.
The gap between public virtue and private vice used to be most obvious on the part of right-wing politicians and conservative religious leaders, so many of whom have extolled the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, only to be caught engaging in (sometimes same-sex) extramarital affairs. But in the age of social media, it is those who regard themselves as progressive who seem disproportionately vulnerable to moral hypocrisy. And it doesn’t take much for progressive virtue-signalers to be caught with their slips showing, predictably triggering an eruption of schadenfreude.
Global Warming and Hot Air
The problem is especially evident among environmental activists. Britain’s Prince Harry has been jet-setting around the world to warn people about global warming. Yet The Guardiancalculates that “a UK citizen taking a single flight can have the same impact on the climate in a few hours as a person in one of the world’s least developed countries does in a whole year.” Worse, Harry often travels by private plane, which “is likely to generate as much as an entire village.”