home > this article
What "virtue-signaling" is really all about
By Robert Bidinotto
I take this NFL controversy as a big, fat, giant footnote for everything I have written about the overriding importance of the quest for meaning, purpose, identity, and self-image in people's lives -- a quest that can trump considerations of money, career success, popularity, and other "practical" factors.
Yes, this course is suicidal for entities such as the NFL, ESPN, and the players participating in these exercises in "virtue signaling." But -- and this is crucially important to grasp -- these people have linked in their minds their core sense of Selfhood with the specific tenets of leftist dogma. And so when they suffer financially for their loyalty to these dogmas, they feel virtuous. They feel like martyred saints. Because this is all about feeling like heroes, in their own concussed skulls. They feel self-righteously defiant about this, because their cause isn't really police brutality or racial inequality or any of the bumper stickers du jour. Their real cause is to demonstrate to themselves that they are people with a Cause. They are no longer mere football players, or entertainers: They are Significant in their own minds. They have a mission, a purpose, an identity beyond football.
This is about the supreme, all-important power of a positive self-image in people's lives. No one can live easy with the image of being a loser or louse. All people -- even criminals, even the worst despots -- need to sanctify what they are doing with excuses: with some theory or story that justifies it in their own minds.
That brings us to the role of "Narratives" and ideologies in our lives. The Narrative is a primitive, core morality play that purports to explain or reflect the truth about how the world works, and our personal meaning, purpose, and identity within the world. We all acquire a core Narrative, from childhood. Many of us buttress them in adulthood with ideologies and theories, to lend our Narratives intellectual gravitas and credibility and persuasiveness. But the key thing here is that our self-images and self-esteem become intimately tied to these stories, and to the ideological abstractions that support them.
He who writes the Narratives for a society, owns that society. In offering people explanations of the world, and a heroic path to personal meaning, they set the moral compass for a culture. And I need not emphasize that the authors of Narratives today are overwhelmingly on the political left. Their Narrative is based on the primitive, zero-sum worldview of Victimizer/Victim, Oppressor/Oppressed, and tribal warfare for supremacy of one side over the other. So they promulgate endless variations of the Robin Hood myth, where the downtrodden victims rise up against their oppressors. And those who buy in to their hand-me-down fairy tales feel heroic and meaningful and idealistic when they join The Resistance.
That is the stupid, primitive fairy tale we see playing out in the NFL. The grotesque absurdity of minority athletes made rich by American capitalism sincerely protesting America's "oppression and injustice" is a measure of the power of a Narrative over self-evident reality. The spectacle of them irrationally proclaiming that raising fists or taking knees in protest of the National Anthem has any coherent connection to such things as "police brutality," is a measure of the triumph of a Narrative over logic.
To tell these protestors to rise to their feet to honor the flag and the nation it represents, is -- in their minds -- to tell them to betray their very identity as heirs to the Robin Hood mantle of heroic rebellion against oppression. This is about their souls, you see -- and many of them would sincerely take a major hit in their bank accounts before they would "sell out."
If you grasp this, then you understand the futility of trying to argue about the economic foolishness of their virtue signaling, or how they are unpopular, or the logical disconnect between their stated causes and their means. To them, that is all irrelevant; and adhering to their "cause" in the face of all of these criticisms and losses makes them feel even more virtuous. I'm sure Colin Kaepernick fantasizes that he's a combination of Jackie Robinson and Jesus.
It goes without saying that everything said here about athletes applies in equal measure to other entertainers, such as the denizens of Hollywood (in fact, virtue-signalers throughout society). Many celebs, who are now having their personal corruption exposed, cling to their Narratives and supporting ideologies with a zeal commensurate with their sins and crimes. The Cause exonerates them, you see. Sure, they might be pretty bad or superficial people, but they dry-clean their self-images by holding a fundraiser for Bernie, stripping for a PETA ad, insulting Trump from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night. And then you achieve instant Significance and Stature and Gravitas, a superiority which you can then flaunt before the world and all the little people in Flyover Country.
Politics is such a cheap, easy substitute for personal character (just ask the Clintons). Why, you can even Virtue-Signal seasonally, only at annual awards ceremonies or, better yet, every four years during presidential campaigns. The rest of the time you can continue to behave like, oh, Harvey Weinstein and his many friends, colleagues, enablers, and (in some cases) compliant supplicants. Personal character, by contrast, requires a daily, ceaseless commitment to achieve and maintain. And how boring is that?
The way to fight this is to challenge the storyline of the primitive zero-sum, tribal Narrative, which dominates our culture -- yet which, laughably, is called "progressive." But criticizing it is not enough. Humans need a Narrative to grant meaning and purpose to their lives. Depriving them of the only one they lean on is impossible: They will resist and hate you for trying.
No, what we need to do is change the Narrative -- and that means replacing it.
Robert Bidinotto is the bestselling author of the Dylan Hunter political thrillers series, including "HUNTER," a #1 Kindle Bestseller. It is available on Amazon at: http://amzn.to/2yfBIfl You can connect with him at "The Vigilante Author".