Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Despite ‘virtue signalling’, words tend to fail the Right

James Bartholomew

07 December 2018

When I coined the term “virtue signalling” in an article for The Spectator, it never occurred to me that the phrase would take off. At first there were just a few mentions of it in the British press — sometimes with acknowledgments to me, sometimes not.

Then it became used more and more. Next it leapt across seas and boundaries. It appeared in India and South Africa. Then it appeared in a mainstream American newspaper — The Boston Globe, I think. I subscribed to Google notifications. At first I was delighted at each individual mention. Now there are too many to follow. They come from all across the English-speaking world every day.

For those who have not come across the phrase, it means saying something to indicate that you are a good, moral person without actually doing anything at all.

Often this is done by expressing anger and outrage. So people will say “I hate Trump” to indicate that they are the right sort of person who abhors things that Donald Trump has said and done. I saw a poster at the front of a house recently saying “Love Trumps Hate”. Implicitly the householder believes in love and opposes hate. Which means they are declaring themselves to be a good person. But note that they have declared their goodness without doing anything.

The term has really annoyed some people. The phrase is not necessarily against the Left but left-wing journalists have been particularly irritated, writing invectives against the phrase and the concept. They say it is a weapon of the “far Right” to dismiss moral behaviour and legitimate protest.

They choose to ignore the fact the original article distinguished between true virtue — such as looking after a disabled husband through the last 10 years of his life — and statements intended merely to boast of virtue without doing anything. The anger is revealing. It shows that some on the Left feel stung. The phrase has provoked them because they realise that they have taken a hit in the silent conflict you could call “word wars”.

These are continuing conflicts and skirmishes over the language we use. They take place without anyone having declared war. They are, in effect, attempts to change the way we think about things by altering the language we use.

There are many fronts on which these wars are fought. Sexuality, for example.

It was a great triumph in the war of words when those who are attracted to the same sex named themselves “gays” rather than any of the earlier disparaging and insulting words.

Race is another battleground of words with acceptable words for different races changing over time. But let’s stick to politics.

In general, the Left has been overwhelmingly more successful in word creation, starting with “socialism”. The word is based on “social”, which is a friendly sort of word. It’s vastly more companionable than the term “levellers”, which some people in Britain with a desire for more equality were called in the 17th century.

The phrase “social justice” was a clever victory for the Left, too. It brought together that friendly word “social” with “justice”. How could anyone be opposed to that? But, in fact, it was always a device to make left-wing policies sound as though they were merely a matter of justice.

Another big coup was when, in 1962, a group of sociologists got together at a conference in Britain. The poverty that existed before World War II was decreasing year by year. The statistics clearly showed more people owning washing machines and televisions, having indoor toilets and so on.

The sociologists wanted to shock people — or you might say they wanted to keep themselves in business — and they came up with the brilliant idea of redefining poverty. Eventually they decided that someone was in poverty if they had only 60 per cent of average earnings. Bingo! Poverty was back!

In fact, it would continue forever because there would always be people on less than the average income unless the government ­determined all incomes at a level rate and ownership of property was banned.

In other words, unless something akin to communism was imposed. Their great success was to persuade governments — and then international institutions such as the OECD — to accept their redefinition of the word.

Just occasionally, the Right has won a battle or two. Margaret Thatcher did well by calling for “free markets” and “free enterprise” rather than using the term capitalism — a word that Marx and tens of thousands of university lecturers around the world had succeeded in besmirching.

More recently, the Right has done pretty well with sarcasm, using the term “social justice warrior” or just “SJW” for short.

In these wars, many terms are created but most don’t catch on. Tom Switzer, the director of the Centre for Independent Studies, tells me he was once insulted as an “RWNJ”.

Mystified? So was I. It is meant to stand for “right-wing nutjob”. But it is pretty difficult to say those letters, so I guess the abbreviation will be left behind on the field of battle as an ineffective weapon.

The Left is now trying to label those it doesn’t like as “fascists”. I suspect that this, also, is a bridge too far. It relies on the public being totally ignorant of history and not realising that Mussolini, Franco and Hitler were dictators and that however loathsome Trump may or may not be, he can be removed by the American people in two years at the next presidential election.

Similarly, if you call Churchill a “fascist”, how come he was fighting Hitler?

Long ago, though, the Left pulled off a great trick in getting most people to think that fascism was right wing.

Fascism’s roots were, in fact, overwhelmingly on the Left and closely connected to trade unions, particularly in Italy. The full name of the Nazi party was the National Socialist Party. It was “national” socialist to distinguish itself from the international socialists in the Soviet Union.

And so the word wars continue. The Left generally has had the upper hand. But there are many more battles to come.

James Bartholomew is a British commentator and author of The Welfare of Nations who is visiting Australia as The Centre for Independent Studies’ 2018 scholar-in-residence.

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