You are an actor, but I’ll let you in on a secret…so is everyone you know, and even the people you don’t know. The random strangers you pass on the street or see on the bus, even me. We are all performing, and not in the arts-y “all the world’s a stage” type way. We are all inauthentic, everything we do is formed and shaped by others — the things we say, what we enjoy doing, how we behave — its all to woo the audience. Who is the audience you might ask? Each other, and ourselves.
Take virtue signalling as an example. Virtue signalling is what happens when deliberate performances collide with ‘hot-button’ social issues, it is to disingenuously engage in social issues, not out of genuine concern, but to promote our own self-image. That being said, we don’t all virtue signal. We are actors, but we don’t all use the same techniques. It is a real phenomenon but it has become a catch-all term to label anyone who cares about anything a fraud, and almost anything can be called virtue signalling. The truth is that we live in a post-truth world, where we don’t trust anyone to stand for anything for the right reasons. But virtue signalling doesn’t just occur on an individual level, often someone’s identity or a social issue is used for profit in the form of advertising strategies.
Yes, a digital marketer in a company might care about an issue like racism or feminism, but it is still being put through the lens of profit, and will be scrutinised on how much money it will make. Most companies, therefore, only support social issues after they become massively popular…and therefore profitable and safe. Of course, this is annoying, but it can also be harmful — virtue signalling as a marketing strategy puts a corporate friendly face on social causes, obscuring the actual reality, thus people are bombarded with images that assert the big business version of reality, but that make the individual feel abnormal or inferior. Take as an example, marketing with lesbian couples. Most marketing that includes a lesbian couple depicts one of the women in the relationship as more masculine than her partner, often through haircut or clothing. Now say you are in a lesbian relationship, you and your partner mightn’t necessarily conform to this image, and seen as this is the ‘socially accepted’ one that is sanctioned by big businesses, you may feel somewhat alienated. But often corporate do-gooding is just a distraction from corporate…do-badding? Bad-doing? Shady business practices. In the brand-safe, virtue signalling realm of corporate social justice everything has to play well with a large audience.
The term ‘virtue signalling’ is frequently used against the left, but it is by no means confined to the liberal sphere. The right often virtue signal patriotism and religion, invoking these values in self-interest rather than human concern. An example: Donald J. Trump. Trump is probably the least Christian Christian, but he knows that promoting his ‘faith’ will score him points with the ‘evangelical Christians’ (clearly not enough however as he lost this election by a landslide…but good riddance to bad rubbish). Trump is one of our fellow actors, and his time as a reality TV Show Host served him well, as his technique of patriotic virtue signalling is Oscar-worthy. His claim to ‘Make America Great Again’ was fantastic, because he was invoking all of the ideas of patriotism and love for one’s country, while not caring about the United States or its people at all — yet there are still those who support him.
Our current struggle with virtue signalling partly arose from public relations as an industry. Ivy Lee was the founder of modern PR, having rehabilitated the Rockefeller image through heavily slanted press and a tour of Colorado. Lee has been maligned, being called a “hired slanderer” by Burton St. John III in ‘Press, Professionalization and Propaganda: The Rise of Journalistic Double-Mindedness,1917–1944' and the “poisoner of the public” by Barbara Diggs-Brown in ‘Strategic Public Relations: An Audience-Focused Approach’, mainly because he opened the PR world to the idea of ‘positive spin’ which could rehabilitate the image of nearly anyone or anything.
The trouble with virtue signalling is that many philosophers and sociologists have argued everything we do is a performance, filtered through how we appear to others. That doesn’t make being good…bad, but it just means that people can and will do good things to distract from bad things. In fact, conjoining this with the idea of Political Correctness (PC), suggests sometimes we do good things to excuse bad things unintentionally. Opponents of political correct discourse argue substituting harmful words for more fashionable alternatives doesn’t do anything. Ben O’Neill in his essay ‘A Critique of Politically Correct Language’ argues that politically correct language is pointless as long as social stigma still survives. O’Neill contends that PC suffers from a cyclical bully problem, moving words from a neutral expression, to a nasty expression and then a polite expression, ever repeating. Though words might change to be more politically correct, they risk entering a euphemism treadmill. Take for example the word ‘disabled’. In the cycle of PC, ‘disabled’ becomes ‘physically challenged’ and then ‘differently abled’, but those who intend to use disabled as an insult will just use differently abled instead. New vocabulary is taken up by the same individuals with the same intent.
Researchers Anna Merritt, Daniel Effron and Bimoit Monin have found that one politically correct action gives people license to further infractions, revolving around the concept of ‘Moral Self-Licensing’ — when past moral behaviours make people more likely to do potentially immoral things without guilt, or appearing immoral in terms of other people’s perception of them. For example, a murderer might excuse their crimes because they give to charity and volunteer and such. Imagine a moral bank, each time a person does something that they perceive to be good, they deposit it into their moral bank account. This credit is then used later to balance or absolve future unethical actions. We are such good actors that we convince ourselves, not just others.
If PC is supposed to suture the wound of harmful speech and create a form of language separated from the historical baggage of bigotry, we have to evaluate whether its working. The advocates of PC focus on how the idea that the words we use profoundly impact peoples’ lives — especially the philosophy of language, and Stereotype Threat (the fact that an awareness of a negative stereotype hinders working memory capacity). Our brains are subconsciously aware of the stereotypes that society employed to define us, we are aware of what the audience thinks of us and so we attempt to change our character accordingly. Stereotype Threat is a research-proven psychological phenomenon that proves the idea that words have the power to diminish potential. A choice to censor language as to prevent replicating potential harmful stereotypes may be a totalitarian self-censorship, or it may be a way to avoid harmful language that has a material impact on others, for now the answer remains unclear.
Linked to the ideas of PC and virtue signalling is that of privilege. According to existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, we are thrown into the world as a particular culture, religion, language, and socio-economic status without any say in the matter. These features are what Sartre defines as facticity. Though as actors we may attempt to change our facticity, Sartre believes we have no control over it, but we do have a control over our relation to the world. We determine our existence by defining our purpose, things only have value in the frame of the project we create ourselves, in other words, the motivation for our characters. In his work ‘Being and Nothingness’, Sartre argues even a prisoner has radical freedom. He can choose to attempt to escape, to kill himself, or to change his purpose. The fact he is locked up isn’t what restricts his freedom, but the choice to believe he is unfree. Because the prisoner’s own self-assigned purpose is based outside the 4 walls, it is not the jail that causes him anguish, but his unwillingness to adapt his purpose to his current situation. Freedom is only ever experienced by each particular person in the context of their own project, or as Sartre puts it, “In fact I am nothing but a project of myself beyond a determined situation, and this project pre-outlines me in terms of the concrete situation as in addition it illumines the situation in terms of my choice.” Each person is their own free project with their own situation and quest, just because I may appear to be more disadvantaged in my facticity, doesn’t make me less free — we are free to construct our own ends. According to Sartre, as such there is no superiority or ‘privilege’, because there is no metric to who is more gifted in their facticity to make meaning in their lives — Sartre believes that facticity does not equal privilege. But should we look to Sartre as a rich white man to be an authority on privilege? Perhaps not.
We ought to retire from acting, its bad for us. Yes, it may help us get by in a society where everyone else is constantly performing, but it simply isn’t authentic — we aren’t being our real selves, we are moulding a self that appears acceptable to society, and then convincing ourselves that is us. 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger thought before asking if something truly existed, we must ask the meaning of being. In ‘Being and Time’, Heidegger introduces the concept of the human being as Dasein — a being that stands back from everyday consciousness and recognises its own being, in other words, it is self-aware. However, Dasein isn’t initially aware of its self, rather it is immersed in the world around it, or as Heidegger puts it, ‘Being-In-The-World’. Living authentically requires self-awareness, and an awareness of our own mortality. To be authentic is to have what Heidegger calls your ‘ownmost’ — nobody else can die your death, you can’t share it with anyone. The authentic Dasein is aware of its existence as its own, to be defined by itself and nobody else. To be inauthentic is to lack that awareness, and to be shaped by peoples’ perceptions of you rather than your own, “…In the practical public environment…every Other is like the next. Ones own Dasein dissolves completely into the being of ‘The Others’.”
Yes — you are an actor. You have forged your mask in tune with your environment, but there is still an authentic you under the facade — a you that is aware of your own existence, and of your own mortality, and of your true wants and desires — and all you need to do is to take off your mask, or else risk becoming like everyone else around you and losing your uniqueness. Love who you love, want what you want, believe in the causes you believe in wholeheartedly, and don’t form a sense of your self that is untrue to who you are. Set your purpose not on the basis of your environment or the people who are around you, but on your hopes and dreams. And above all, be authentic.