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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Signaling virtue

by Mike Masterson | May 4, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

We're hearing plenty in the national media of the phrase "virtue signaling."

I consider it a euphemism for a person or company that holds itself up as an example of righteous superiority over other Americans who believe and act differently than they insist upon.

I visualize them as waving their arms wildly shouting: "Everyone, look at us! We want you to know our purity of thought and noble action in the game of commerce are woven from golden threads of enviable morals and character. And, by the way, if you don't act as we demand in the game of life, we're taking our ball and going home." describes it: "An example could be a long Facebook post or Twitter thread that self-righteously lectures people on the awfulness of some social phenomenon ... or makes a show of praising a cause."

Yet another valid description from online: "The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue. It's noticeable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things."

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as an attempt to show other people that you are a good person (or firm) by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media. I contend they mostly do it to gain like-minded Twitter praise and Facebook "likes."

Bottom line: It's a phrase of our time intended to make those who choose to virtue signal appear morally superior to millions who fail to share their values and views.

As a devoted virtue signaler, I might proclaim to the world what a wonderfully tolerant, empathetic and compassionate person I am by condoning riots, arson and looting defined by national media as legitimate protests. In doing so, I'd be signaling my purported virtue to those I judge as "unwoke" or "politically incorrect" fellow humans.

Were I to publicly proclaim that police departments regularly assault or kill those of color without provocation, I'd also be holding myself up as a five-star example of virtuosity (although I realize every person's serious encounter with police can be complex and should stand on its own set of facts).

I agree with columnist and novelist Roger Simon who cited Major League Baseball's recent decision to move its annual All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver because Georgia's government approved needed voter reforms that allegedly diminished minority rights.

Simon's headline spoke for many: "Virtue Signaling Replaces Baseball as America's National Pastime." He's also written a related book: "I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn't Already."

Lucia Moses of the Business Insider explained in June 2020 how corporations were virtue signaling. "AT&T is offering reassurances they're 'here for us' during the pandemic, Nike is aligning itself with the Black Lives Matter movement, and Disney and others are yanking ads from Tucker Carlson's Fox News Channel show over his comments about the protests."

I'll always perceive virtue signaling for just what it is: A self-serving public display of bias by one group.

My problem with such an arrogant, often-backfiring affront to peaceful co-existence isn't that groups hold divergent viewpoints. Every person's values naturally will differ in a complex and open society.

I'm unimpressed by the need for some to bully their politicized viewpoint upon others to enhance their own image and/or cause, particularly an agenda that may well be superficial and driven largely by self-interests.

Remember Mikey's proverb, valued readers: Those who repeatedly pat themselves on the back risk breaking their spine.

Praise from Paul

I received an appreciated letter the other day from reader Paul Gray about my column on our thoughtful neighbors, Terry and Kim Baumann and their four children.

"Mike: After reading today's article, 'How we oughta be,' I had to acknowledge you.

"Homeschooled children have had a mixed judgment from our generation as parents. I am 58; my next- door neighbor pastor and his bride homeschooled their four children until about junior high. Rick and Michelle are senior pastors of the fastest-growing church in the U.S. for several years. They are busy people! As homeschooled children, they remind me of your description given of the Baumanns.

"My observation is parents who dedicate their lives to family, raising and teaching family, produce the most respected kids we also have the pleasure to know. These four, today ages 29 to about 23, are the brightest and most balanced young men and women I've met.

"Reading about the Baumanns reminded me how much we love our neighbors. In any crisis, their family would support mine. God bless great neighbors. The Baumanns are what make our country great.

"Thank you. The ADG readers are recipients of great hope and inspiration because of columns like this."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly how you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at


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