How virtue signaling saved my dog’s life

Sep 28 2019

Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him. 

If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.” 

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”

And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month.

There’s a lot of cynicism about “virtue signaling.” In fact, the term is almost always used pejoratively. But the fact is that virtue signaling per se isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It can be used for good—just ask Frazier! Or for bad. 

Want an example of bad? Go check out Twitter. People there spend lots of time signaling to their tribe—which usually means either the pro-Trump tribe or the anti-Trump tribe—that they’re upholding the tribe’s values. Unfortunately, one thing both tribes value is the hyperbolic denunciation of people in the other tribe. And one thing they don’t much value is reflecting on whether the denunciation is warranted before engaging in it. 

One effect of unreflective hyperbolic denunciations is to piss off the other tribe—which in turn increases the value the other tribe places on its own hyperbolic denunciations. Which in turn…well, you get the picture: It’s an arms race of virtue signaling that leads to more and more of the intertribal hatred that people like Donald Trump exploit.

So we are indeed living in a time when much “virtue signaling” deserves to be snidely dismissed. But that’s because of the virtues being signaled, not because there’s anything wrong with signaling per se. Signaling—and the social reinforcement given for signaling—is as vital to healthy moral systems as to unhealthy ones. Any robust moral system harnesses the fact that all of us are at some level showoffs.

So here’s this week’s tip for being a good social media citizen:

When you see somebody in the other tribe showing off in front of their tribe, try not to get annoyed. At least, try not to get annoyed by the showing off part. After all, people in your tribe—including you, perhaps—are doing about as much showing off as people in the other tribe, even if you’re less inclined to notice it.    

I’m happy to add that this doesn’t mean you have to abandon getting annoyed altogether. But instead of getting annoyed by the showing off, get annoyed when the showing off is done in the service of something worth getting annoyed by. Like hyperbolic unreflective denunciation for example.  

And, if you want extra credit: Try getting annoyed when people in your tribe do that as well as when people in the other tribe do it. 

And, most important: Isn’t Frazier cute? And wasn’t it selfless of me to save him? 

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