SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: I’ll match your customary gesture politics and raise you a spate of virtue signaling.


As noted last evening …

New Albany city council, this Thursday: “Resolution Expressing Solidarity with the People of Charlottesville, Virginia, and a Public Condemnation of Racism, White Supremacy, and Neo-Nazi Ideology in Our Community, the Nation and the World.”

Déjà vu is not the topic of today’s column, but a song by the great Dionne Warwick never hurt a soul on a featureless Wednesday morning in New Gahania.

However, we’ve all been here before — and only recently, on March 6.

Seize the gesture and read the city council’s non-binding “Resolution Condemning the Promotion of Intolerance.”

Will Scott Blair abstain, citing his oft-stated principle of eschewing non-binding resolutions?

At the time, I spoke about this resolution, and my feelings on the matter haven’t changed, although it’s timely, ironic and depressing that with a human rights complaint of my own ready to file, the once ballyhooed Human Rights Commission remains MIA, its father (Councilman Phipps) having already washed his hands of an entity constituted to fail even as he rushes to support Deaf Gahan’s dismantling of public housing.

Mr. Roger Baylor stated that in the past he has been in favor of resolutions like the intolerance resolution on the agenda tonight. He said he has no reason to oppose it but feels there is some thinking in the community that what we end up doing might be classified as gesture politics. He pointed out that we have a human rights commission that by everybody’s admission seems to be kind of foundering at the moment and is a bit of a laughing stock because there is nothing to it. He said that you now have a resolution about intolerance and he is afraid that sometimes it just looks like symbolic gestures and are somewhat empty until there is some sort of force behind it.

Predictably, Blair’s resolutional resolve failed him on this particular example of a council resolution.

R-17-03 Resolution Condemning the Promotion of Intolerance (Phipps)

Mr. Phipps introduced R-17-03 and moved to approve, Mr. Barksdale second, all voted in favor with the exception of Mr. Coffey who was not present.

Imagine that; Coffey not present for a resolution designed to tickle his nose?

He must have been affixing swastickers* to his peddler’s cart, or perhaps protesting birth control on behalf of the Knights of Columbus. After all, the organization can use the money Deaf’s about to give to it.

So, we belatedly arrive at the point: gesture politics, as used in this paragraph.

The good news is that it’s almost certainly too late for (Donald) Trump and (Australian PM Malcolm) Turnbull to derail the progress that’s being made towards a decarbonised and sustainable global economy. They are engaged in gesture politics designed to appeal to culture warriors on the right, not a serious strategy to revive coal and nuclear power.

Merriam-Webster provides the basics.

Definition of gesture politics: political actions or statements that are done or made chiefly as symbolic gestures and have little or no practical effect. First Known Use: 1971.

Oddly, a 1971 source is not revealed, and many on-line definitions of “gesture politics” quote the phrase’s use in Social Issues and Party Politicsa collection of essays from 1998 — specifically, by Frances Heidensohn.

Reading about gesture politics brought me to a similar and more recent concept. Honestly, until now I was completely unaware of “virtue signaling” as a phrase. In 2015, James Bartholomew took credit for it:

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that 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.

A year later in The Guardian, David Shariatmadari found the use of “virtue signaling” itself to be a form of … well, virtue signaling.

As the Boston Globe columnist Mark Peters has pointed out, “virtue-signalling” has existed in isolated pockets since at least 2004, but was popularised (not, as he claims, invented) by James Bartholomew in the Spectator in April 2015.

Shariatmadari continues.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing in Bartholomew’s idea. Sometimes people do take positions to curry favour, or to burnish their reputations. But that’s hardly new. “You’re only saying that to make yourself look good” sums it up pretty well, it’s less pretentious, and still leaves 90 characters for the rest of your tweet.

His summary:

What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It’s too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments. In fact, it’s becoming indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority.

We’re left with two phrases, both of recent vintage, each addressing human tendencies that aren’t necessarily new. Symbolic gestures have always been with us, as have those who only say things to make themselves look good.

But speaking of gestures, politics, virtues and signalling … addressing all the motives, linkages, posturing, actions, nobility, bootlicking and dumpster fires, I actually do remain proud of an idea that came to me roughly 15 years ago, amid the excesses of W’s first term.

It still states my point of view with brevity and elegance.

Doing the modeling are two beer lovers at this year’s Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin; I don’t know either of them, but thanks to my friend Ted for the photos.

I may no longer be active in the deployment of these particular machines, but I believe they still work in just the way I’ve always described.

* thanks R&A.