Is silence consent? Virtue vs. virtue signalling

Yesterday, I tussled with some friends over the issue of “virtue signalling.”

In the immediate aftermath of the hideous events in Charlottesville, my social media was flooded with friends passionately denouncing racism and white supremacism. Some of the denunciations included an exhortation for all decent folk to do the same: You must speak up. You must take a stand. You must say something. Silence is consent.

Then followed a wave of irritable scoffers who refused to join in the mass denunciation. Their arguments were pretty solid: Of course we reject racism. Of course we’re anti-Nazi. It doesn’t do any good to say so on social media. The only reason you’d do so is to get your social piety card punched, and that’s just cheap and gross. Tomorrow it’ll be another thing that we’re all required to say. Who can keep up? Let’s just talk about what interests us, and refuse to be pushed around by a mob, even if the mob is correct.

Let’s untangle this a bit.

There are most certainly some folks who latch on to every cause, and their passion never rises above virtue signalling. They never act, but they never stop patting themselves on the back for saying the right thing when it’s popular to say it (and somehow, they never feel the urge to speak up when their cause is unpopular). One day, they’re slapping a flag overlay on their profile picture; the next day, they’re wearing safety pins; the next, they’re insisting that everyone stop what they’re doing and sign a useless petition. And that’s all they do. They endlessly congratulate themselves as they flit from one cause to the next, from passion to passion, never seeming to notice that they stopped talking about yesterday’s all-consuming cause as soon as the hashtag stopped trending.

This is pure virtue signalling, and it’s gross. It changes nothing, it means nothing, and it’s actually counterproductive, as it relieves us from truly thinking, engaging, and acting. It’s the ultimate participation trophy: Hooray, you had the courage to be on Twitter and retweet something popular! Go put your feet up, you warrior, you.

So, phooey on this.

There is, however, another large group of people who were saying things very similar to what the virtue signallers were saying: I reject racism. I denounce Nazis. They don’t belong here; they don’t speak for me. America is better than this.

These folks felt like that had to say something, because they were confronted with something so monstrous and incomprehensible, they could not be silent. They wanted to do something, and there was nothing to be done — nothing but saying something. So they said something.

This isn’t virtue signalling. This is the normal, healthy response of a human being who feels appropriate sorrow, appropriate outrage toward aggressors, and appropriate compassion toward victims. It would be best, and truly virtuous, to follow up a public statement with some kind of action —  praying, perhaps, or getting more involved in local politics, or sending a note to someone who identifies with the victim. But there’s nothing inherently odious or insincere about responding to evil with a loud, public “Hell, no.”

I have heard from people who identify with the victims — from people raising black kids, for instance — that it gives them great comfort to hear a crowd of people loudly defending them. It would hurt, and be frightening, not to hear it. That in itself is good reason to speak up.

I have also heard from people who’ve said, “I have been too timid to speak up in the past. I’ve let racist jokes slide, and I’ve let insults go unchallenged. Now I see where silence leads, and I’m not going to be silent anymore.” This isn’t posturing; this is conversion of heart. Not virtue signalling, but a sign of actual virtue.

Mere words aren’t always empty, even if they’re popular words.

But what about the claim that silence is consent? This is more complicated. We have heard over and over that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. If an individual is silent, that may not mean that he consents to evil, but if every single individual decides that he’s going to sit this one out because everyone already knows that racism is bad . . . well, if that worked, we’d have a lot fewer names to remember on Memorial Day. And Holocaust Remembrance Day. And so on. If everyone is silent except the ones chanting, “Sieg heil,” then yes, silence is consent.

At the same time, when everyone is shouting at the same time, very little gets heard. When the crowd is screaming at you to start screaming, too, it’s hard to think, and impossible to say something more nuanced than “HELL NO.” And sometimes we expend all our energy in screaming, and then it’s hard to feel we have to do something else, such as actually doing something.

So, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people don’t say anything in public. This doesn’t mean they’re cowards, and it doesn’t mean they’re complicit. It doesn’t mean they’re privately rooting for evil.

At the same time, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people feel like they cannot be silent in public. This doesn’t mean they are smug, shallow, social justice warriors who are only in it for the applause.

If it’s wrong to demand that Every0ne Use the Hashtag Now Or Else You Are the Problem, it’s also wrong to demand that Everyone Shut Up Because We Know Why You’re Flapping Your Useless SJW Lips. We would all do well to give each other a little clearance when something horrible happens. People respond differently to trauma. This is a feature of social discourse, not a bug.

When we demand unanimity — either of speech or of silence — we’re making ourselves weaker, not stronger. When everyone is saying (or refusing to say) the same thing, we’re like a flock of cloned sheep: A single superbug can take us all out, bam.

Of course, all of the above applies to private people. But if it’s your job to speak out, like if you’re the president of the United States, then you have a clear obligation to condemn specific evil acts and specific evil groups, and silence or vagueness is rightly construed as consent. Damn.

But for the rest of us? You could always just split the difference and let your sousaphone do the talking.

God bless the sousaphone man. More like him, please. And more wiggle room for each other, please, as we hash out our response to the intolerable.

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25 thoughts on “Is silence consent? Virtue vs. virtue signalling”

  1. Both sides were violent, I approve of the blanket condemnation of violence as a separate wrong in itself without regard for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ motivation. Why get into motivations when at the basic level everyone agrees the actions were malicious? Gandhi FTW.

  2. In a perfect world, all conservatives wouldn’t be required to denounce Nazis any more than all African Americans would be required to denounce the shooting of police officers. I don’t expect all African Americans to denounce the shooting of police officers because I know that the overwhelming majority of African Americans are appalled when a police officer is killed. But the world isn’t perfect, and it’s to the political advantage of both the alt-right and the extreme left to portray all conservatives as racists, Nazis, and KKK members. In a situation like that, it’s a reasonable reaction for conservatives to remind the world that white supremacists do not speak for us, are not welcomed by us, are not secretly cheered on by us, have nothing whatsoever to do with our politics, are the antithesis of all that we believe, and have no future in the conservative movement.

  3. I get that racism needs to be decried on social media, but how do you figure out how to start a conversation about it locally?

    I live in a predominantly Hispanic area, and most people in positions of power in the community are Hispanic (school administrations, the mayor, the police, etc). The conversation in my area is going to look very different than it would somewhere else. That might also be apoint to keep in mind.

  4. I think it’s really weird that people think yelling (more) about racism or white privilege or calling alt-right sypathizers nazis may slow down the alt-right’s growth. That is exactly why it exists in the first place! If people want to stop young white mend from joining neonazi movements maybe stop calling them racist rapist white oppressors all the time. Or yell at the imbeciles who do that (read: BLM, Antifa, Feminists, and so forth)

      1. Why, yes. Doesn’t everyone know Germany was overrun with feminists after WWI, which caused all Hitler’s problems? Sheesh, what fake history books have you been reading?

        1. BLM turn them into “white oppressors” and basically everyone to the right of JEB! is today a “fascist”.

      2. I get this is highly emotional. I agree that people need to do something. Doing one’s best to live a holy, sanctified life is doing something, and it is something we can all do.

        What you don’t seem to understand, however, is Krankenschwester has a point: to continually, over long periods of time, accuse people of evil acts that they have not committed, to constantly treat them with suspicion, to deny them the right to speak, or to simply assume by dint of race or sex that a person is always guilty but has no right to justice will motivate them to respond.

        Not all of those responses will be measured and rational. A very small number of those will seek out organizations that affirm their anger. The fact that people came from out of town, even out of state to have enough numbers to have such a rally in Charlottesville speaks to the low numbers of Neo-Nazis, KKK members and White Supremacists in the general population.

        This exact argument (systematic injustice), however, is the basis for Black complaints about the exact same thing: that they are being treated unjustly, and moreover, that that injustice is constant and systematic. To deny the validity of the principle is to deny to them, also, the right to speak about their experience. I doubt anybody wants that.

        In short, unjust treatment gives rise to a response: a backlash. That that backlash may itself be excessive, irrational or unjust does not obviate the original injustice. One can speak against BOTH acts of injustice, and a practicing Catholic WILL speak out against both acts of injustice.

        So while decrying racism and white supremacy movements, we should decry such things on principle, not give a pass to those who are exhibiting the “right kind” of supremacist thinking, the “right kind” of racism, or the “right kind” of any kind of unjust ‘ism.

        White supremacists suck, but so do Black supremacists, Brown supremacists and Orange, Green or Purple supremacists. White racists suck, but so do Black, Puce or Lavender ones.

        The KKK sucks. So do the Black Panthers, and the extreme fringes of the BLM movement.

        I’ll leave this quote as a summary: “One does not fight fascism by becoming a fascist. Indeed, one accomplishes the exact opposite.”

        1. “To continually, over long periods of time, accuse people of evil acts that they have not committed, to constantly treat them with suspicion, to deny them the right to speak, or to simply assume by dint of race or sex that a person is always guilty but has no right to justice will motivate them to respond.”

          Where does the author do that in this article? Where does she suggest that other people should do this or applaud those who have done it? Furthermore what are some examples of this actually happening?

          (In fact your words perfectly describe how black people have been treated for most of this nation’s history, but that’s seemingly not what you’re referring to. Personally, and speaking as a white person, I have not experienced this or seen evidence of this happening to other groups and it would help me to hear specifics.)

          This article, rather, is about a very specific group of people who glorified the KKK and rallied around the statue of a man who lead an armed rebellion against the U.S. government in order to maintain the right to treat other human beings as property. There is no injustice in anything the author or other like minded people has said about them. By attending the rally they have made their views clear, and anyone who calls those views for the evil they are is giving them their due. That is justice. I find no evidence of the “other” injustice you speak of, besides the injustice of racism. I also see no evidence that those counter protesters protesting racism were advocating black supremacy or otherwise arguing for some kind of alternate inequality, and I’m not sure where you got that from. Can you clarify?

          There is no way to argue that calling the people at this rally racist has made them racist, because they had already demonstrated that they were racist before we started talking about them. I call them racist because that’s what they have demonstrated that they are.

          If you have any evidence that any specific participant in this rally (or anyone else for that matter) became racist because people were unfairly calling them racist and they thought, “Hey might as well just be it then,” I’d very sincerely love to hear the details of it. In my experience people become racist because they are taught to be. If you’ve had a different experience it would help me to hear about it.

          I agree that it’s wrong and unhelpful to expect the worst of people (even if they’ve given you reason to), and I agree that it can lead to negative behavior. But it’s not wrong to call things what they are. In fact it is, by definition, just.

          1. “I call them racist because that’s what they have demonstrated that they are.”

            That’s all white people you’re implicitly referring to, especially the men. There is no scenario in your worldview, and especially in the antifa worldview, in which white men aren’t racist. So stop pretending g you’re talking about a handful of white men who protested the removal of an historical statue. Also, Lincoln wanted that monster Lee to head the Union military and after the war said he consider slavery supporters friend and that he felt bonds of affection for them. I suppose we should tear down the Lincoln Memorial too, since he failed to harshly condemn the vile disgusting purveyors of a vile digesting hideous worldview. Lincoln, what a piece of garbage!

          2. @Krankenschwester If you find it impossible to believe me or take me at my word then there is no conversation to be had. I wish you well.

    1. Krankenschwester has a valid point. Demonizing and devaluing white men only leads them to be defensive and to push back. Why is this not expected? You cannot convert someone to your thinking by tearing them down, but you can by engaging them on common ground and expanding upon mutual goals.

        1. How is it happening then? SPLC said this is the biggest thing like this in decades. What’s your explanation?

        2. “When people demonize and devalue me, I don’t turn into a Nazi.”

          True. The vast majority don’t (the number of “Unite the Right” marchers is so small a number that we’re talking the 5 sigma or higher mark). I don’t, either.

          That said, you seem to be missing the point. Injustice creates a backlash. That backlash does not always exhibit itself as an extremist, violent movement. This lack of universality does not, however, disprove the generality of the principle. One can acknowledge the principle AND acknowledge the evil inherent in the choice of response.

          White men have exhibited any number of a reactions to their systematic mistreatment, including such movements as MGTOW, “Dropping out” (of family life, of marriage, of the work force, etc.) and substance abuse (the new opioid epidemic is hitting blue collar white men especially hard) to name a few.

          Some have turned to extremist and violent groups such as the White Supremacist movement. That not all do, simply speaks to the complexities of the human spirit: it does not disprove the point.

          1. Please don’t call a few Facebook posts of non white males disagreeing with white males “systematic mistreatment of white men.” The feelings you are talking about that white men have is resentment. This resentment is from a sense of an unfair double standard, like affirmative action, but not a systematic mistreatment. I will admit affirmative action is flawed, it is a flawed attempt to fix a grossly obvious imbalance that is the reality that there is a systematic mistreatment of everyone except the white male. Things, like my response to your comment, is not mistreatment, I just refuse to value misplaced resentment as a valid argument.
            I believe something important to note here however is that if your argument is valid, i.e.. “mistreatment of white males makes them nazis kind of because, backlash”, it MUST go both ways. Then, where does Black Lives Matter come from, the feminist marches, and etc?

      1. Demonizing and devaluing brown and black people leads them to be defensive and push back. Why do the gentle conversion tactics only apply when white men are involved?

        1. “Why do the gentle conversion tactics only apply when white men are involved?”

          They don’t. The simple fact, though, is that by setting up a dynamic of “you EVIL, me GOOD!” will simply ratchet the violence up to a higher level, with the consequence of pushing more people into the polar extremes.

          Those extremes include violent, exclusionary, tribal ideologies. Is this a good thing?

  5. God bless that man with the sousaphone! I often think that humor has a way of being disruptive in ways that rhetoric can’t.

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