Virtue Signalling in Disguise

I’ve noticed recently that something keeps happening to me that perhaps didn’t happen so much before.

I get asked my opinion on something and the person asking me doesn’t much like the answer I give.  Usually the question is on a topic which is controversial – Brexit, Donald Trump, the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Gun Control, Barack Obama – but only in the global sense.  What I mean by that is within a certain demographic – European, middle-class, degree educated – these topics are not controversial at all, and everyone is in lock-step agreement on each.

Which is where I think I’m surprising people.  I get asked my opinion on Brexit (let’s use that as an example) and I basically say what I said here: I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory for personal reasons, but on principle I am not unhappy to have seen the Leave campaign win because I think major reforms of the EU are long overdue and these would never happen without some cataclysmic event like Brexit forcing the issue.  This is hardly an extreme view but it causes a shock reaction nonetheless.

The immediate effect is for the person to challenge what I’ve said using the first response that comes into their head (“But the British economy will collapse, all the banks will move to Frankfurt!”).  My response in turn is to refute them using the same information, statistics, facts, and arguments I’ve seen presented elsewhere to the same objection.  The thing is, what my interlocutor has not realised, quite understandably, is that I take a keen interest in certain things and read and re-read dozens of lengthy arguments on these subjects which take place on the Internet.  I also have copious amounts of time on my hands.  A lot of the time I then post my own opinions on this here blog, having taken the time to consider each angle and argument carefully so that my stance can be both clearly presented and defended if necessary.  So when I am challenged on my opinion my responses are effectively prepared in advance and rehearsed, and for somebody who has just dipped their toe into the subject without such preparation they find themselves neck deep in an argument they stand almost no chance of winning.

Which makes me appear a bit of an asshole.  I have been accused of being defensive, aggressive, unfriendly, argumentative, and a whole load of other things basically because I can defend a slightly controversial opinion with quick-fire, eloquent responses which I’ve thought through in advance.  And also, probably, because I am a bit of an asshole.

For a while I thought about softening my stance, but I’ve decided against it.  The reason for this is because I figured out a lot of people who ask my opinion on such matters are not asking my opinion at all, they are looking to confirm their own.  As I said earlier in the post, the educated, European, middle-classes agree almost wholeheartedly on these issues: Brexit is bad and Britain’s economy will be fucked and the people who campaigned for it are stupid cowards and the people who voted for it are thick racists.  If you stated that over lunch in any European white-collar office not a single peep of protest would result.

Unless I was sat there.  Okay sure, I like an argument.  I’d start an argument in a coffin, as somebody once said.  But I get annoyed when people ask my opinion only for the purposes of confirming their own, which would allow them to say that they are informed on current affairs without making the effort to hear solid counter-arguments which challenged their own preconceptions and forced them to perhaps modify their views.  I wouldn’t mind if somebody wants a proper discussion on an issue, but most of the time they want a quick agreement of their own position, not a discussion.  And this is nothing more than cheap virtue signalling, and I hate that in any form.

So my advice is:

1. Don’t ask for somebody’s opinion on something if he writes about it on a blog unless you are prepared to hear something you might not like.

2. When you hear an opinion you don’t like from somebody who writes about it on a blog, be prepared for a pretty robust argument should you challenge it.

3. Pay particular attention to points 1 and 2 if the person writing the blog happens to be a bit of an asshole who likes arguing.

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23 thoughts on “Virtue Signalling in Disguise

  1. I like your attitude. Keep it up.

    Since I’m not a middle-class European, I don’t know what the ‘proper’ opinions are, so I really enjoy your illumination of these topics.

  2. I like your attitude. Keep it up.

    Thanks!

    Since I’m not a middle-class European, I don’t know what the ‘proper’ opinions are

    Brexit: Disaster brought about by racist thickos.
    Donald Trump: Racist, sexist, buffoon who will destroy America. Vote for Hillary.
    The Iraq War: Illegally fought disaster waged on behalf of Halliburton/NeoCons/Big Oil. Principled opposition provided by France, Russia, and lefty academics.
    George W. Bush: Thicko warmongering cowboy. Worst president ever.
    Gun Control: Why can’t these stupid Americans just ban them like us clever Europeans have done? Oh, don’t start me on the Constitution, they could ban them any time they like but so many Americans are stupid.
    Barack Obama: Stand aside Jesus, there’s a new Messiah. Oh, he so intelligent! *swoon*

  3. Your posts often (as in this case) remind me of conversations I have with friends who are also engineers.

    I wonder if there’s a specific mindset to people who are successful doing engineering?

    You know: thinking things through, diligent research, honest intellectual appraisal of alternative viewpoints, all the things that social science/arts students should do

  4. My only quibble here is the title: Virtue Signalling *in Disguise*.

    I think that as far as the people asking are concerned, the questions are intended to signal an opportunity for mutual, explicit virtue signalling.

    To then get a response that is *not* in line with the expected answer (eg. “I do think our NHS is wonderful, don’t you?” “Well actually, I think it is a communist death trap that will destroy our economy if left unreformed.”) thus seems a significant breach of etiquette.

    The fact that these people do so on a blog, rather than in a normal social setting, indicates that they are also rather thick.

  5. I think that as far as the people asking are concerned, the questions are intended to signal an opportunity for mutual, explicit virtue signalling.

    True.

    The fact that these people do so on a blog, rather than in a normal social setting, indicates that they are also rather thick.

    Ah, I should clarify: they don’t do it on the blog, they do it in a normal social setting. Sometimes when they argue about something I’ve written I say “Leave a comment on the blog to the same effect, see if it stands up to public scrutiny. That’s if you’re confident, of course.” None of them has.

  6. I wonder if there’s a specific mindset to people who are successful doing engineering?

    Possibly. Everything I do I try to do in a very structured, clear, and logical manner. Which can be terribly irritating for some people I’m sure. I’ve found in the past having a logical, engineer’s mindset and being very stubborn does not always go down well in relationships. :-/

  7. So when I am challenged on my opinion my responses are effectively prepared in advance and rehearsed.

    And that’s all we can ask for.

  8. Can I ask, what was the last Big Thing you changed your mind about after doing some research?

    I ask because in my experience most people decide first and rationalize afterwards. Whatever facts don’t fit the preconceived idea are discarded in favor of confirmation bias.

  9. “I’ve found in the past having a logical, engineer’s mindset and being very stubborn does not always go down well in relationships. :-/”

    There’s nothing wrong with that mindset in a relationship- it’s the opening your mouth to share your logically-arrived at conclusions that causes problems 😉

  10. Can I ask, what was the last Big Thing you changed your mind about after doing some research?

    That’s an excellent question, and I cannot be sure off-hand. I have certainly changed my mind on major issues having seen persuasive arguments, but these all occurred when I was much younger. But there is every chance I am doing what you describe, i.e. making my mind up first and rationalising later: that is pretty much what I do on my blog, state my argument as best I can and see if it stands up to public scrutiny (or at least, to those who can be bothered commenting).

    If I think of something I’ll put a post up.

  11. I’ll tell you what I’ve changed my mind on. I’ve become much more of a pacifist. Not literally, but in the sense that realising that most wars recently have borne no discernible relation to a vital national interest and therefore shouldn’t have been started.

    There was a case for the first Gulf War, though not perhaps a conclusive one. There was no case for attacking Serbia, nor for Clinton’s cruise missile attacks on various Moslem countries, nor for the Iraq Attack. There was no case for the war of occupation in Afghanistan (though there was a case for a punitive expedition). There was no case for the attack on Libya or the current attack on Syria.

    Going further back, there was a good case for retaking the Falklands, there was no case for Britain joining in the US’s foolish war in Vietnam – happily, neither HMG nor Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition wanted to join in. Good Lord, the ruddy Suez war was more sensible that the recent ones have been.

  12. You forgot to add climate change to that list of possible opinions.

    You don’t know how happy this post makes me. I regularly find myself in exactly the same position. My problem is that I never do anything half-baked so when I get an ill-thought opinion on a topic such as Brexit lobbed at me, I go for total victory.

    I lived in Italy for ten years, (I’m Australian). Almost every single one of my middle class Italian friends made in that time are both in lock step with every opinion you have mentioned and appalled and disgusted with my contrarain positions on the topics. There have been some truly epic Facebook meltdowns.

    A rare few are in agreement with me but are simply amazed that I would dare state my position in public. But then, I too am a public writer so what the hell did they expect?

    Anyway, thank you for your post. I feel slightly less alone now.

  13. @ dearieme,

    So you’re basically opposed to wars with no objective of taking or retaking territory for a specific and clear purpose?

    How very old fashioned of you! Next you’ll be saying laws should not be passed to “send a message”!

  14. I prefer the more English arsehole to asshole.

    I’ve been out of the UK a while and the Britishness smoothed out a little. I use the term arse rather than ass, but prefer asshole to arsehole. In the context of semantics, obviously.

  15. You don’t know how happy this post makes me.


    Anyway, thank you for your post. I feel slightly less alone now.

    Thanks Adam! It’s great to get comments like this, I’m glad I’m of some use!

  16. “that most wars recently have borne no discernible relation to a vital national interest and therefore shouldn’t have been started”

    Quite a commendable new stance, well done.

  17. Tim, nice to see you back . The brexit aftermath has been a clusterfuck of the highest order . The remoaners are having their 30 minutes in the sun with nothing new to say. Our new pm looks like a ghost from narnia with the same intellectual capacity and backbone . I wish someone would provide some. direction. Brink back thatcher 😚

  18. “Quite a commendable new stance”: thank you. It was the prospect of the Iraq Attack that moved me from “I wonder what the purpose of this is?” to “just bloody don’t, you oaf”.

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