I have seen the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ bandied about a lot on social media this past week or so — mostly it seems to have been used by white people against other white people, or companies, who have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’ve been accused of it myself in the past when talking about Disability.
An accusation of ‘virtue signalling’ is code for ‘Shut up! You’re telling a truth that makes me uncomfortable’. It’s an easy accusation to make when you don’t know someone’s background, and an effective one when the person you’re accusing bears no obvious connection to the cause they are supporting.
After all, why else would a white, straight, cisgendered, abled person like myself concern themselves with Black Lives Matter, or Disabled lives, Gay lives, Trans lives, and so on, if not simply to demonstrate to the world how good, how virtuous, how cool, on trend, and generally fabulous they are, right?
I mean, it couldn’t possibly be that they are compassionate, empathetic, open-minded people who care about injustice even when it doesn’t directly affect them, perhaps understanding that, but for the random fortunes of birth, they could easily be the one in that position. It couldn’t possibly be that someone they care about IS directly affected. It couldn’t possibly be that they have had some kind of experience that has opened their eyes. No — it’s as plain as the nose on your (blinkered) face that they’re just shallow show-offs being all politically correct and ‘right on’.
I became a politically correct, right on, virtue signaller when I became the mother of a Disabled child. Suddenly I began to see that the world outside my comfortable little bubble treats some people as though they are unwanted: a problem. Having a Disabled child taught me what it was like to feel vulnerable. It came as a shock. I’d never felt that way before. I’d never been afraid of anyone, and I realised that this had nothing to do with bravery or boldness: it was privilege – I’d been living inside an armoured shell and had never needed to be afraid. Some people are never allowed to have that security, that sense of safety. It was humbling realisation.
I learnt what it feels like when other mothers pull their child away from yours in the playground; what it feels like when people stare at you, watch you, in public places; what it feels like when a perfectly polite and reasonable request to be given the same rights and opportunities that everyone else takes for granted is treated as though you are asking for special privileges or more than your fair share.
So, when I express support for Black Lives Matter, or for Disabled Lives, or Gay rights or Trans rights, etc, it is because I have some small inkling of the microaggressions, the rejections, ostracism, othering and begrudging that Black people, and all people who belong to marginalised groups, experience every single day. And although I have never, and will never, experience the things that they experience, and can never truly understand the struggles they face, I have a … fellow feeling, a sympathy, untutored though it may be. I hear their pain and I know they are speaking the truth. And I continue listening, because I know I still have a lot to learn.
And, of course, I also know that the ethically bankrupt, pseudo-scientific mythology of Race Science that falsely shaped our ideas on humanity is the inextricably-conjoined twin of the Eugenics movement that seeks to tell me that my son’s life is worthless. The world has forced me to take an interest in some difficult subjects these past few years.
While we are talking about the worth of a human life, do not quote to me that trite, cop-out, non-statement ‘All Lives Matter’. It wilfully ignores the fact that, whilst every human life ought to matter equally, SOME lives are treated as though they matter less, SOME lives are endangered purely because of the colour of their skin, or their sexuality, their gender identification, or disability.
It allows those using it to appear as though they are taking the moral high ground on equality when in fact they are deepening inequality by denying those from marginalised groups a voice, by shutting them down when they try to talk about the unique struggles, challenges and dangers that they face. It is just another way of silencing people.
So, if you’ve said either of those things to me, or anyone else this week, please know that I hear you too. I know what you’re saying, even if you’re not consciously aware of it yourself — you are asserting, loud and clear, that your ‘right’ to always feel comfortable matters more to you than anyone else’s rights or life.