January 7th 2018. At the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, many of Hollywood’s most famous female actors wore plain black dresses instead of the usual extravagant examples of haute couture. Their aim was to show support for the #timesup and #metoo campaigns against sexual harassment. When the same campaign ran during the BAFTAs ceremony in the UK a month later, the Daily Mail newspaper called it ‘virtue signalling: the sequel’.
You may not agree with the Daily Mail’s opinion but it raises an interesting question. It became apparent that many actors were aware of unacceptable behaviour in their industry but almost none of them had spoken out at the time.
That is the essence of ‘virtue signalling’ – publicly expressing a view that demonstrates your good moral character, but not doing anything practical to change the situation. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to join a Twitter campaign with millions of others. It’s much harder to take action when you come across the problem in real life.
The term ‘virtue signalling’ may sound as if it comes from the field of social sciences, but the Oxford New Words Corpus* reveals that it is used mainly by journalists writing opinion pieces in blogs or newspapers, especially those with right-wing sympathies such as Fox News or Breitbart.com. The corpus shows that it is primarily used to denounce politicians who express liberal opinions on issues such as climate change, gun control, Brexit or feminism.
The term is a recent addition to the language with about 150 examples in the corpus since 2015. But if you search for ‘virtue signalling’ on Twitter, you will find hundreds of examples within the last few weeks alone. In fact, on Twitter it seems to have become the new word for ‘political correctness’.
A good example comes from the British journalist, Piers Morgan, who recently wrote: ‘How dare you kill off mankind, Mr Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist.’ This was after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently used the term ‘peoplekind’ to replace the word ‘mankind’.
Not all examples of virtue signalling refer to politics. When the physicist Stephen Hawking died recently, #RIPstephenhawking trended on Twitter. Clearly most people had never met Hawking. It’s also unlikely that they could tell you anything about the complex scientific theories that he had developed. So why did so many people use the #RIP hashtag? The accusation is that they hoped to enhance their public image simply by associating themselves with a great person.
There is something quintessentially 21st century about the use and the tone of the term ‘virtue signalling’. If you look through the list of other words that have recently been added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, it’s easy to see the influence of social media. Among these words are, for example: clicktivism, ghosting, lurker, Remoaner. One of the striking things about these new words from social media is that so many of them are pejorative. If you go to the original source and read the full articles or tweets, the tone of the debate is almost relentlessly negative. Maybe it’s time to start a hashtag campaign to treat each other with respect on Twitter. Or would that just be another example of virtue signalling?
*The Oxford New Words Corpus was started in early 2012 and now totals approximately 7 billion words collected from recently published web pages.
Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.