I remember with special clarity the moment I accepted Christianity. I was in my 30s and I was reading the Bible all the way through for the first time. And I came to this passage:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (NIV version Matthew 6:1-4).
For various reasons, this is what I needed to read at that time. Over the next few days, I read and re-read the Sermon on the Mount, and it just seemed true to me in ways unlike anything else I had ever read. And imagine my surprise when I finally read the Book of Mormon that the Savior also rehearsed the Sermon on the Mount to the people in the Americas.
I now, almost two decades later, have a printed out copy of the Sermon on the Mount on my desk that I read all the time. I find it comforting and encouraging.
But I also am constantly reminded how often our modern-day culture seems to directly contradict the advice in the Sermon on the Mount. The tone of forgiveness, gentle discussion, sincerity and lack of guile seems to be the exact opposite of the behavior of so many people today. This especially applies to our outrage culture, which I find linked at the hip to the evil of virtue signaling.
What is virtue signaling?
This Wikipedia article summarizes it quite well I think:
Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group. The term was first used in signalling theory, to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue – especially piety among the political or religious faithful. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views on social media; and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.
When I first read Matthew 6:1 in the early 1990s, I immediately thought of the virtue signaling of my day. It was of course not called “virtue signaling,” but in retrospect that is what it was. I had lived in Nicaragua for a few years in the late 1980s, and it drove me crazy when people with left-wing politics traveled there and would make sweeping generalizations about the country and the leaders based on a very little information. Their primary aim was to show their friends back home how virtuous they were because they supposedly cared about the “little people” in Nicaragua. In reality, they would take two-day government-controlled tours and never talk to a poor Nicaraguan, but they would return to Cambridge or Berkeley as an expert. And of course the policies they favored had nothing to do with actually addressing the concerns of the poor in Nicaragua. Their policies were about pretending to care without actually caring.
As I say, given the things that concerned me in the early 1990s, Jesus’ constant warnings about being righteous for outward show really hit home.
I have been watching the political scene since the mid-1970s, but I must say the outrage culture and virtue signaling of today are the worst I have ever lived through. I thought it could not get much worse when some of my best friends started changing their Facebook profiles to rainbow colors to show all of their other right-thinking friends that they supposedly supported gay rights. But I was wrong: now some of my friends are changing their profiles to themselves in outfits portraying female genitals. This is intended, I am sure, to protest something, but, really, is there any doubt that this is all about virtue signaling (completely devoid of any virtue)?
And then there is the outrage. Nothing, it seems, can be discussed on social media without constant outrage if you don’t accept a certain very narrow, constrained point of view. My left-wing friends refuse to condemn anarchists beating up random people because the people getting beat up, they say, have incorrect politics. Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth have replaced reasoned discourse. The newly elected president, these people say, is a danger because he is friendly with Russia. Just a year ago, these same people were rightly criticizing Republicans for trying to drum up hatred of Russia. And when you ask what is it that they actually fear, ie, what the harm could come from a President Trump who is friendly with Russia, they literally have no answer beyond wild conspiracy theories.
There is a perfectly understandable reason for this. Studies show that outrage becomes addicting because it helps people maintain their moral framework and helps people signal to others how virtuous they are. The outrage has very little to do with the supposed victims of harmful behavior. The outrage is for show and is completely selfish. It is focused on how good you (as the person expressing outrage) are, not focused on actually helping other people.
As Jesus warns in 3 Nephi 11:29: “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”
Outrage is about contention, which is literally “of the devil.”
The Sermon on the Mount, instead, makes it clear that we should forgive people and treat them with charity rather than anger.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (NIV version Matthew 5:43-46).
How do we know if we are virtue signaling or just pursuing a just political cause? I would say that motivation is important. Are you adopting a position just to fit in with your peer group? Are you angry and outraged? Can you still discuss issues with people with whom you disagree? How many friendships have been lost because of politics?
Virtue signaling is, of course, not just an issue in politics. Virtue signaling can also happen at Church, and this is another area of discussion that may be worth exploring in another post. This post is long enough as it is.