If you look up “Virtue Signalling” in the dictionary …

you’ll see a reference to this post by P.Z. Myers.

There’s been a lot of posts about recent words by J.K. Rowling and how she’s now a TERF and a complete transphobe. The point of Myers’ post — or at least the starting point and title — is to point out a couple of sources dissecting her essay on the topic. (I’ve read one and … didn’t find it compelling, although it did raise some questions about Rowling’s views). Anyway, after that gets cleared out in the first couple of sentences, Myers goes on to say this in the entire rest of the post:

As far as I’m concerned, JK Rowling is dead to me and I won’t be reading anything by her ever again.

I don’t find that a particular loss. When the Harry Potter books came out, I was happy to get them for my kids — they were enthusiastic, there was some peer pressure from their friends, it got them reading, although that generally wasn’t a problem with my nerdish offspring. I read the first couple. I didn’t care for them personally. They were just too formulaic — does every book have to revolve around Quidditch, a game which makes no sense — and Hogwarts as an institution was far too offputting, seeming to fit better with the kind of British culture that thinks sending kids off to be tortured for a few years in a boarding school builds character. The movies bored me, and if you asked me now what happened in any of them, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Uh, um, there was a Quidditch match. There were monsters? Harry Potter is tormented, but never seems to do much of anything? I dunno.

She seems to be trying to churn out spinoffs from the Harry Potter universe now. I didn’t care before, I am actively repulsed now. JK can just toddle off to her mansion and her well-earned irrelevance, and the Harry Potter phenomenon can be recognized as the peculiar phenomenon it was.

So, he starts with the general virtue statement that clearly is intended to imply — if not outright state — that he isn’t going to read anything by her again because he finds her views so odious. He echos that later. In between, though, he spends a lot of time talking about how poorly written they were and pretty much implying that he never cared much for them anyway and wasn’t reading any of the new stuff anyway. And then, later, when a commenter accuses him of “aesthetic Stalinism”, his reply is this:

Let’s see…

I bought all the books for my kids
I encouraged them to read them
I appreciated that they seemed to be a good tool for motivating young readers
I don’t condemn my kids for liking them
But I was personally unenthused about them,
and am not going to consume further Harry Potter media.

Therefore…aesthetic stalinism!

But it’s no great feat of virtue — and certainly not one worth making pretty much an entire post about — to stop consuming media you don’t like and didn’t consume in the first place. It’d be like me saying that over some thing that they’ve done I’m going to stop watching the DC cinematic universe. I don’t watch those movies anyway, so what does my claim that I won’t watch them really symbolize? The key point behind these sorts of declarations is to make it clear that it’s their views that are behind the move to not consume their work, and the very public declaration is clearly an attempt to get others to go along with it. Thus, the idea is to take things that you used to love and insist that you won’t or can’t consume them anymore because of how odious the views are. This is what the charge of “aesthetic Stalinism” (and yet another buzzword added to the pile), which is that you are banning — and, if Rowling is to be believed, burning and destroying — works not based on what the books themselves say, but on the basis of what the author believes that you don’t like. This has been the explicit statement of many people incensed at Rowling. They at least don’t hate the books, and don’t find that many problematic themes in them (a number are insisting on rather shaky interpretations to try to generate problematic themes in them, but those really come across as post-facto rationalizations). They hate her, and that’s enough to at least avoid her work, and at most to destroy them.

As an aside, on that theme let me pull out something from one of the critiques of her. After Rowling complains about her books being burned and in one case composted:

She knew perfectly well that as someone who had positioned herself as an LGBTQ ally, people would be upset when she publicly supported someone who literally called trans people “blackface performers.” Yeah, that’s not super hard to predict. Here she performs an interesting trick where she conflates genuine abuse (threats of violence, gendered slurs) with legitimate criticism (contributing to trans youth suicide, destroying books). I have to assume the particularly abusive man who composted her book was considered abusive for some unstated reason?

I’ve been rewatching “The World at War”, and in referencing the Nazi regime it pointedly uses this quote from Heinrich Heine:

Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.

But back to Myers. Myers, like so many others, ends up spoiling the virtue signalling by trying to make it clear that the works aren’t worth consuming anyway. He goes to the furthest extreme — again shared by many others — of insisting that they were never all that impressed by the works anyway. But Myers actually goes one step further by pointing out that he never really consumed them in the first place. So, how is it proof of your virtue to give up that which you weren’t consuming anyway? And he’s made an entire post saying pretty much that: Rowling is so terrible he won’t consume her media … which he wasn’t consuming anyway. Oh, the humanity.

And so it’s clear that Myers wants in on the righteous indignation, presumably so he can get his “Atta boy” for being “on the right side of history”, but doesn’t really have anything to give up to do so. This, then, is the precise definition of the negative view of virtue signalling: doing something publicly to signal his alliance to the side of virtue, while in practice it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. It’s virtue theatre, not virtuous action.

So, anyone that wants to be able to point to an example of virtue signalling when people insist it doesn’t exist, just save a link to that post. It proves it far more aptly than anything else possibly could.

One Response to “If you look up “Virtue Signalling” in the dictionary …”

  1. Capitalism and Using Money as Punishment | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] don’t want to buy her things anymore (aside from those who use the idiotic justification that they didn’t like her stuff anyway). So it’s driven by things completely outside of the transaction, and my comment was about […]

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