This week, Reid Duke said something powerful about the benefit of diversity in Magic:



This was also the week in which I learned the term “virtue signaling”. Coincidence? Probably, unless it was the backscatter of his announcement. But it’s an interesting concept and I want to delve into it a bit more.


Side note: I use “backscatter” to talk about the conversations sparked by an event but are not a direct report on that event. Sometimes it’s statements like, “OMG, Reid is amazing,” whereas sometimes it’s just more people talking about the role of judges in creating a welcoming environment. An example of the way I use it would be, “no, I did not see that episode of Game of Thrones, but I saw the backscatter on Twitter and it sounds pretty brutal.” Anyway, it is possible that this is not a widely used term, thus the brief explanation. It’s certainly not on Urban Dictionary! Seriously, don’t look it up.


The basic idea behind virtue signaling is that you’re expressing a view publicly to show that you are enlightened enough to be against something. It is claimed that this concept was invented in 2015, but to say that is like saying that Godwin invented shutting down discussions of the Nazi political context when he came up with his law. People were shutting down those conversations even before there was a cute dismissive term. The coining of this term is in fact its own sort of virtue signaling, and not in a positive way.


See, I come from a background where this has been going on for centuries. In the Quaker tradition it’s referred to as “moral suasion”, and was an anti-slavery tactic. Quakers have always been big into abolition movements. Knowing that when people’s beliefs are confronted directly they harden, Quakers of the time tried to convince their neighbors of the ills of slavery through the public display of an alternate way. The idea is that by modeling morality, their neighbors would recognize their bigotry as the deviation.


Moral suasion is fundamentally the base unit of nonviolent resistance to a social order. Given that, I am not a person predisposed to be friendly to the descriptor “virtue signaling”. It takes an effective tactic of change on the interpersonal level and tars it as being ineffective because it only makes change on the individual scale.


“But Jess,” my straw interlocutor interjects. “Aren’t you practicing virtue signaling by talking about virtue signaling?” The scarecrow has a point. Terms that exist to dismiss are often hard to engage with, because their entire role is to end discussion. We need context.


So let’s go back to Godwin’s Law. We are dangerously close to the outbreak of fascism in America. One of the reasons this is happening is that a decade or so ago, when these seeds were only beginning to sprout shoots, Godwin’s Law became not a descriptive phrase but a prescriptive one. Godwin’s Law, as initially stated, is basically just that people are going to make Nazi analogies when conversations run long. Godwin’s Law became shorthand for “any reference you make to Nazis is inherently invalid, and thus should be ignored.” And as a result, our society has been bleeding from self-inflicted wounds for at least a decade and a half now.


This has materialized in several ways; the GOP has leaned hard into the interbellum Germany playbook. You delegitimize political norms, run your conservative party to the far right in local elections until you slowly take over the party, shift governmental funding burdens down to the local level where they will be unable to meet those commitments, thus shattering faith in a government in which you are a minority party, shifting responsibility to the party in charge. You can turbocharge this process by creating alternate media outlets through which party propaganda can be delivered without a filter, usually with the purpose of blaming racial and gendered groups for all their woes, and by creating a breakdown in law and order such that your dissatisfied citizens will start lashing out in violence. Those are all things that happened in Germany! And they’re all things that happened again in America over the last 15 years.


Unfortunately, whenever a liberal brought up these analogies during the reign of Bush, they were dismissed out of hand on a partisan basis. A term like virtue signaling tends to imply a partisanship, being as its users are themselves doing that which they decry. It’s not virtue signaling when you call someone out for expressing a political thought publicly, because it’s you and your followers against a “social justice warrior” movement run amok. But you never hear someone calling out a racist for virtue signaling. It’s a term meant for use against those whose politics are too manifestly correct for you to assail them from the front.


If we learn anything from Trump, it needs to be this: openly pushing bigotry causes bigots to be more comfortable publicly expressing their views. As their views are inherently harmful to the people they hate, this would be a problem even if it had no secondary effects, and it does. This is how we get to a point where former KKK grand wizard David Duke is again running for Senate, tweeting out bon mots like, “Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!” That is a man who once led a homegrown terrorist organization which terrorized people of color for over 100 years.


Fun fact: the modern KKK was born in 1915, but an older version came into being in the 1860s. It flourished, until it was stamped out by the government and the thought leaders of the time. That’s proof of concept for what needs to happen next.


It is human nature to assume everyone thinks the way you do, and that you speak for a silent majority of people. That is why moral suasion, and speaking out against the rising tide of American fascism, are so important, even in contexts where it seems incidental to the activities at hand. People need to know that they are alone in these harmful beliefs, and given that we now tend to live in politically isolated enclaves, these public forums and hobbies and whatnot are the only real chance some folk have to meet people with different opinions. People who are willing to call them out when they say something biased.


It’s the only way we can isolate these damaging ideas and rip them out at the root.


And yes, maybe part of why I do this is because I cherish the idea that, while I am constitutionally a bad person, I am still doing what I can to live a good life. That doesn’t change the benefit that comes from speaking out, or the main antifascist motivations which have underpinned my politics and temperament since my punk years. I, and probably most people like me (although as stated that is dangerous to assume), am capable of being motivated to do something on multiple levels. In fact, I believe it’s impossible to be motivated on only a single level. There’s always implicit bias and wont working in the background, guiding us on a level we don’t consciously access. And if you’ve ever gone shopping in the summer both because you needed clothing and because there’s air conditioning in the store, you have experienced this yourself.


Having a self-serving motivation doesn’t change whether or not what you’re doing is good. And if you believe speaking out against fascism and bigotry has value, as I do, that act of speaking out matters far more than whatever intent animates it.


Moral suasion, the predecessor term to virtue signaling, is a good thing. It’s the best way to keep exposing our neighbors, fans, and loved ones to positive politics. So when someone tries to derail you with that particular term, remember that they’re only doing it because what you’re saying matters so much that they felt compelled to try to shut you down. Don’t let them.


Your voice is your greatest power. Speak out relentlessly.


Jess Stirba has some philosophical differences with proper antifas.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.