A true virtue-signaller, Emma Thompson was caught sipping champagne while flying first class days after rallying at the Extinction Rebellion protests. Picture: LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES NEWS
A true virtue-signaller, Emma Thompson was caught sipping champagne while flying first class days after rallying at the Extinction Rebellion protests. Picture: LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES NEWS

I do not know how many times I have been accused of virtue-signalling. My wife would say not often enough. It is not an accusation that I would think lends itself to my personality. Not only have I never considered myself overburdened with virtues worth signalling, but if I were I would generally prefer to keep them quiet.

Virtue-signalling, for those who have never felt drawn to the term, is the apparently modern crime of trying to be seen doing the right thing. The implication is that the virtue-signaller does not really believe what they are saying but simply wishes to be admired as a good person. It is most often used against celebs who identify with more fashionable or liberal political causes such as feminism, gay rights, racial diversity or concern about climate change.

One regular whipping girl for this abuse is the actor Emma Thompson, who recently rocked up at the Extinction Rebellion protests to give her support, only to be caught days later sipping champagne while flying first class. How her opponents howled. Not that any of these critics actually object to first-class travel, you understand, they just object to her objecting to it.

Still, it was a bit upsetting, as I’d actually relied on Thompson to be the offset for my own flying and now I suppose I’ll need to use David Attenborough. Then again, if you are going to despoil the environment, you ought to do it in style. No point in trashing the planet in economy.

It is easy to glean hypocrisy in someone who joins a campaign telling everyone that they have to cut back on luxuries, only to scuttle off to the first-class cabin a few days later. There’s no doubt it was an own goal and, intentionally or not, Thompson often seems to exude a sense of moral superiority.

But a more generous interpretation is that she is one of life’s enthusiasts and throws herself into supporting any number of liberal causes without first checking off every aspect of her own behaviour. She has never denied that she flies, but once the virtue-signalling line of attack kicks in, you can never do anything right. Fly and you are a hypocrite, turn your home into a sanctuary for displaced orang-utans and you are just a virtue-signaller. It’s a curious outlook — must all campaigners be fanatics?

But the term is used increasingly to silence those who support causes the critic dislikes. Tellingly, it is never deployed by people who support those causes and who, like Extinction Rebellion in this case, might object to faux sympathisers. It is instead the insult of choice for people who don’t want to have to engage with the issue itself. In truth, what the critic dislikes is rarely the signalling; it is the virtue.

Perhaps what is needed is a counterweight to the term: vice-signalling. This would apply to well-heeled types keen to show how down to earth they are by taking hardline reactionary stances. A vice-signaller always attacks the “London elite”, even if they live in a large house in Westminster and hurry home each night to cook their Hello Fresh meal.

While lots of people walk past beggars, vice-signallers loudly declare that they never give money to the homeless because “it only encourages them”. Fair point; obviously with incentives like that all of us would quit our jobs and sit outside railway stations for some loose change and a Tesco sandwich.

A vice-signaller boasts about sneaking meat into a vegetarian meal. He will rush on to social media to denounce as a “snowflake” any woman who objects to receiving rape threats, or any minority unhappy at a racist joke. Vice-signallers use the word “woke” ironically, in the way they used to say “it’s political correctness gone mad” before they realised it made them sound like Victor Meldrew.

Vice-signallers have understood that there is money to be made in the outrage economy by playing the villain. Perhaps, secretly, they buy their clothes at the zero-waste shop and help out at the local food bank, but cannot be caught doing so lest their image is destroyed.

You can see the problem: “Jeremy Clarkson branded a vice-signaller after he’s caught travelling by train to save the environment”. It could be ruinous.

© The Financial Times 2019