When Trumpism Equals “Winning,” I Prefer Being A Failure
Why I choose to be a politically correct, virtue-signalling, social justice warrior
Do you ever wonder what people really mean when they affectionately recall the time “before everything became so politically correct?” When they speak of days gone by and seem vaguely nostalgic for an era when one didn’t have to think so much before speaking? Certainly you’ve heard the accusation “people get offended by anything these days!” Political correctness itself gets accused of being solely responsible for everything from the alleged “downfall of America,” to the election of donald trump.
I wonder — how does the anti-PC crowd remember this country as being before the arrival of political correctness? Can anyone even pinpoint when that time actually was? Which decade? Which year?
I’m no history buff, but I’m fairly certain the anti-PC crowd is wistfully referring to a period (not so long ago) when it was universally acceptable to openly use language or actions that were racist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise heavily prejudiced against minority or marginalized groups. Most of us can agree that “isms” and “phobias” such as these are bad things. If PC culture seeks to minimize the effect that language and actions have in persuading those bad “isms” and phobias, then what is it exactly, that the anti-PC’ers are pining for?
Is it the ability to use — without guilt or consequence — slurs and stereotypes known to be hurtful against these groups of people? Is that what they’d like to return to? Are they resentful for being made aware of their offensive words or actions, since that might cause cognitive dissonance with one’s belief in being an inherently good person? Do they perceive they’re being censored or made to play by some arbitrary language rule book? Are they upset that anyone from these groups had the audacity to take offense?
Maybe the better question is, what was so great about being offensive to others in the first place? And especially, what was so great about being offensive towards those who are already among the minority, marginalized, or systemically oppressed?
It’s 2019; we have a world of information available at our fingertips, for free, yet it seems a whole lot of people don’t understand the meaning of political correctness. It’s not about censorship or losing one’s right to free speech. It’s about showing basic human decency and respect to our fellow human beings, especially when a power dynamic is there.
When you’re a member of a larger group that particpated (whether historically or currently, knowingly or unknowingly) in the oppression of a smaller subgroup, or you’re a member of a larger group that in any way benefits off of the systemic oppression of a smaller subgroup, there’s a power dynamic. And that power dynamic exists whether you personally see it with your own eyes or not.
What it all comes down to is this: attempting to be politically correct is about trying to not be an inconsiderate jerk.
Being a “social justice warrior,” or “SJW” for short, is a whole, separate level above being politically correct, because it involves not just careful, deliberate words and actions, but also, conscious advocacy. Although the SJW label is meant to be derogatory, I will never consider it an insult. Regardless of what trumpism dogma states, advocating for minority or marginalized groups who are less privileged and don’t have full protection or equal rights in society is a good thing. Maybe fighting for social equality isn’t everybody’s thing — and that’s fine — but it should never be confused with being a bad thing.
There’s another, slightly more current version of the trumped-up insults like “the PC police,” or “special snowflake” variety — the one where anyone (but mainly SJWs) attempting to speak up or stand in solidarity with minority or marginalized groups is accused of this thing called “virtue-signalling.”
Like “snowflakes,” “liberals,” and “SJWs,” virtue-signalling is a term of the political insult jargon, popularized around the 2016 election, and primarily deployed as an intended put-down for liberals who resist or reject Trumpism. And dropping the term as a drive-by insult among comments sections seems to be a favored — albeit lazy — online argument tactic of the more politically conservative folks.
The term virtue-signalling (sometimes spelled virtue-signaling) has been a part of our language since at least 2004, though British conservative writer James Bartholomew, in a 2015 article for The Spectator, erroneously claimed ownership for coining the term. Regardless of its origins, Bartholomew undoubtedly helped propel the term to its current standing in pop-culture lexicon.
When properly used, though, the term virtue-signalling could more likely be exemplified by the universal offerings of “thoughts and prayers” following another mass shooting in America, but no willingness to budge on gun control. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with thoughts and prayers, it’s simply not enough to offer them; doing so neither gets to the root of the problem nor attempts to fix it. Yet every time this epidemic spreads across another community, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is issued all over the place.
But Bartholomew turned “virtue-signalling” into something considerably worse. He defined it as a term that describes “the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous” and he argued that much of the moral outrage seen online is mere posturing — that ardent condemnation of social injustice is more a vanity thing, a call for praise and likes, than a truly virtuous thing.
In other words, Bartholomew defines virtue-signalling as a way for someone to suggest that they are enlightened and politically correct, without having to “walk the talk,” so to speak. Bartholomew also stated that virtue-signalling can be more subtle, a dog whistle of sorts. For example, when people say “they hate the Daily Mail… they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded.”
On this notion of virtue-signalling, Bartholomew also made an important distinction worth noting, because those who use virtue-signalling as a pejorative blanket label to describe the actions of liberals (or democrats, progressives, or anyone who rejects trumpism, for example) fail to fully grasp this part, that one of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is:
“it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”
Those who accuse virtue-signalling actually fail to realize that most SJWs don’t just talk the talk, we also walk the walk. Whether we’re writing, speaking, educating, protesting, performing, taking a knee, volunteering our services, or however else we’re using our platforms in order to shed light on social injustice, we are walking the walk.
In Bartholomew’s sense, virtue-signalling is a term with connotations essentially on par with what I’d label as self-aggrandizement of the Trump family. And the ways in which more conservative Twitter users market the term makes it seem even worse than the dominant social media behavior we’ve all come to know as the #humblebrag.
The widely accepted connotations of virtue-signalling are grossly inaccurate and almost comically ironic. Shaming someone who’s trying to do the morally just thing would be unimaginable in any other society not ruled by a donald trump, Boris Johnson, or Vladimir Putin. Shaming someone for attempting to be virtuous is nothing more than a stale, sophomoric slur — one that’s favored by pseudo-intellectuals.
It isn’t hard to decompose typical trumpism manipulation tactics like this one. It’s a simple trick: take words with positive connotations (ex: “social justice warrior”) and create a semantic shift that evolves those words into a kind of new, negative slang — a slang that the inventive, cavalier, foolish wordsmiths hope no one will have the time or patience to thoroughly examine.
It’s important to keep in mind that the use of this label is also a distraction. As used against (mostly) liberals online, the slur “virtue-signalling” serves one potent purpose, and that is to shut down dialogue and discussion.
Anyone (liberal or not) who is capable of making an argument that casts them in a virtuous light is at-risk of being accused of virtue-signalling. Why? Because the term’s very function is not to further discussion, but to try and cast suspicion and doubt, making one’s opposition look shallow and vain. In turn, this may end up putting their opponent on the defensive, and ultimately, it would completely derail any discussion that might’ve happened organically.
If a white person is attempting to educate other white people on the perils of systemic racism and unchecked white privilege, for example, for the person who’s uncomortable with this dialogue, it’s far easier to accuse “virtue-signalling” than it is to just listen and absorb. In this scenario, accusing the speaker of virtue-signalling is a lazy substitute for actually debating or refuting their argument; it’s a way of slamming the door on the subject or just dismissing it outright.
Perhaps even more insidious, shaming others for alleged virtue-signalling is a way of avoiding discussing what we, as a society, should collectively consider virtuous — i.e., good, moral, and ethical — in the first place. For a lot of people, the 2016 election exposed how little they knew each other. And certainly, throughout the 45th presidency so far, things we’d assumed were highly regarded, common American values have been flushed down the toilet, all while enablers of trumpism look the other way, or worse, don’t even notice.
It’s fair to say that at one point in time, Americans pretty much seemed to agree that having empathy and taking a stand for the less fortunate among us was virtuous. Now, such behavior is labeled as shallow, vain, boastful, insincere, hypocritical, or even as a narcissistic, hollow gesture done to make oneself appear elevated in the morals department. It seems no coincidence that caring became an atrocity, a crime, simultaneously with the political ascension of trumpism.
The ultimate irony? Those bystanders who accuse the caring among us of engaging in virtue-signalling are actually engaging in the thing they think they’re calling out and condemning: self-righteous posturing from a self-appointed standing of moral authority. I also have to wonder: if hating social injustice defines “virtue-signalling,” then what’s being signaled by someone who hates those who hate social injustice? What do we call that — degenerate-signalling?
It seems it should also be apparent that such an attempt to criminalize empathy is psychological projection of the highest caliber, which incidentally, is another calling card of unadulterated trumpism. To contend that anyone who cares, advocates, and fights for “the least of these” (i.e., the most marginalized, misunderstood, and stigmatized people in society) has some type of narcissistic syndrome is an absolute and complete failure of the human mind.
Martin Luther King Jr. said “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” What ultimately fuels a bully like donald trump who punches down on “the least of these” is the silence of bystanders. It’s not just that their indifference and willingness to stand by and let the bullying happen is bad enough, but the silence of bystanders eventually leads to bystanders becoming enablers, which gives the bully even more power.
When people use terms like “PC,” “SJW” or “virtue-signalling” as slurs, their implication is that nobody could honestly and genuinely care all that much about any of these issues. Which is awfully pessismistic. They’d argue that all SJWs care about is how much their “hollow displays” will make them appear virtuous.
The whole anti-PC movement — those who use the “people are too easily offended” argument — is also serving as a powerful distraction, a way to shut down dialogue. In saying “people are too easily offended,” the anti-PC’ers are putting the blame on our current society in general, and thus, effectively manipulating and deflecting blame off of themselves. Even though they’re the ones guilty of being offensive with their words or actions, by making it an “other people” or societal problem, they can absolve themselves of any guilt for their own words, or any accountability for how their own words further the hurting of already oppressed people.
Personally, I don’t feel like America’s PC culture has made me into any kind of victim. I don’t feel censored in any way, nor do I feel like any rights have been taken away from me. If anything, PC culture has released me from worry over what I say or do. I no longer worry about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, because I don’t say or do those things anymore. Moreover, PC culture has helped me cultivate even more empathy. As someone who has lived with 45 years of privilege on varying planes (like being white, cisgender, heterosexual, growing up Christian, etc.), I don’t experience many microaggressions.
I don’t know what it feels like to be called “well-spoken” (in spite of my race). I don’t know what it feels like to have my gender policed by others in public restrooms; I’m given the benefit of the doubt — always. I don’t know what it feels like to be afraid of holding my significant other’s hand in public, never knowing when someone else might tell me how disgusted they are with my “lifestyle.” I don’t live in a world where everyone, including my workplace, pressures me into wishing everyone a “Happy Hanukkah” instead of “Merry Christmas,” despite the fact that I celebrate Christmas.
I don’t have (and will never know) fears or microaggressions like these. They simply don’t happen to me, because I’m a part of the larger majority group whose skin color, gender identity, sexuality, and religion are favored and perceived as the default norm.
I didn’t become a PC SJW because society told me to, or because it was the “trendy” thing to do, or because I wanted to “virtue-signal.” I was enough of a sh*thead in my younger years to last a lifetime. And that attitude may very well have carried me through adulthood as well, if it weren’t for my husband and I having a surprise third child who’s transgender, after already having a son and a daughter. It was through my trans child that I was finally able — for the first time, ever — to get a glimpse of what life is like for those who are marginalized and misunderstood. And it brought me to my knees.
Understand, I only experience this through a narrow lens of privilege, and yet, that world — the one my child survives in day after day — can still cut deep and rip a parent’s heart out. It forces you to see the world in a whole different light. Which is not a bad thing. Anything that develops human empathy, I believe, is a gift from God.
Those of you who feel brave enough to go forth and signal your virtues, whether through advocacy, protest, or wearing the SJW label like a superhero cape, should feel empowered, not shamed, for doing so.
The rest of the world needs you. People need their hope renewed. They need their faith in humanity restored. Someone right now needs you as their champion. There are people in dire need of seeing how full this world really is of genuinely good, honorable, upstanding, empathetic, courageous individuals.
In a society where trumpism equals so-called “winning,” I will always choose to be a politically correct, virtue-signalling, social justice warrior. Always. And there’s no shame in that.
Martie Sirois, pronounced “sir-ROY” (she/her) is a top writer in Culture, Politics, and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center, for trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
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