Virtue Signalling

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From an interview with Robert Boyers, the editor of the literary journal Salmagundi and a professor of English at Skidmore College, author of, “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt For Political Heresies,

* Your book begins by connecting the increasing focus on the concept of privilege with the idea of virtue. Can you explain how you think the two are connected?

Privilege is a term that has come more and more to be sounded in the culture, and there is no question that it has a meaning we all know—that there is such a thing as privilege, which has to do with advantage. The advantage can be earned or unearned, but certainly there is such a thing as earned or unearned advantage. What’s happened is that the term “privilege” has come to be used promiscuously, so that it has become something of a noise word which is invoked to prevent conversations from heading in directions that people would rather they not go in. So that when a person is making a comment that you don’t like, you raise your hand and you say something like, “Oh, do you realize that you’re exercising a privilege in speaking this way?”

And, of course, when certain epithets are attached to the word “privilege,” like “white privilege” for example, or “male privilege,” they exacerbate or intensify the charge, so that, in many cases, “white privilege” is a term that now is used to signify something that all white people enjoy in the same way, simply because it can’t be enjoyed by anyone who is not white. The problem with that, and I think it’s fairly obvious, is that not all white people are the same. Not all white people enjoy the same privileges. Not all white people have the same backgrounds and experiences, and to think of white people in this sort of indiscriminate way and to invoke the term “privilege” to talk about what they enjoy is to be completely misleading about the lives of white people.

* What’s the connection between that and virtue?

Well, if you constantly speak about people in that way, you are signalling your own virtue by indicating that you are alert to the privilege that people enjoy, with the implication, of course, that all of the privilege they enjoy is unearned—even if these privileges that you’re speaking about are, in fact, earned, or earned by people who have worked hard, people who have spent many years in educational institutions to get where they are. And so you’re signalling your virtue by accusing people of privilege in that way. And there are many other ways of signalling your virtue by pointing out to people things that they should not have said, things that they should not have thought, and, in that sense, virtue signalling has become a common feature of life and the culture, most especially in academic culture."