After watching a single video by H. Bomberguy, YouTube started recommending a bunch more, like this one:
For those who don’t care to watch: H. Bomberguy makes humorous and informative videos mocking anti-feminist youtubers. This particular video addresses the concept of “virtue signalling”, apparently a buzzword in the alt-right/manosphere. The alt-right accuses their opponents of “virtue signalling” as a way of saying that their opponents are just doing things to make themselves look good, possibly to get women to have sex with them.
I am not nearly as entertaining as H. Bomberguy, but I want to address a point he missed: signalling is a real concept in game theory, and the alt-right clearly doesn’t understand what it means or how it works.
In game theory, signalling is a strategy that effectively communicates information about yourself. In the case of virtue signalling, it is a way of effectively communicating that you have virtue. Note the word “effectively”. That means, if you signal virtue, you probably actually have virtue.
Why is signalling effective? Well, you could lie about your own virtue. But the whole point is that lying is costly. The more costly a signal is, the more effective it is at weeding out liars.
The particular phrase “virtue signalling” was popularized by a 2015 article in The Spectator. This article clearly also doesn’t understand signalling:
If George Osborne says he wants a higher minimum wage, then to keep your ‘positional good’ as a person who cares more about the low-paid than others, you have to demand a higher minimum wage. So there is a bidding war. If he wants £7, you want £8. If he wants £8, then you up the stakes to £8.50 or — to hell with it! — £10! You will not be outbid when it comes to your kindness.
In the scenario described, advocating for a higher minimum wage is costly, because you lose support from conservatives, and public will complain if you fail to hold to your promises. Thus, advocating a higher minimum wage effectively communicates the truth that you care more about low-paid people. Yes, it is virtue signalling, and that is a good thing because it indicates real virtue.
Of course, there are things to criticize about virtue signalling, particularly when people signal badly, or are bad at reading signals. The Spectator article claims quite correctly that when Whole Foods has a sign saying “values matter” it doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t cost much for a supermarket to put up a sign like that. And when Nigel Farage claims he is not a racist, that also doesn’t mean shit.
I’ve previously talked about signalling in social justice language, and there are some critical things I could say in that area too. First, you have to make sure that you’re reading signals correctly. Signals don’t follow a coherent set of rules, they follow constantly shifting conventions. Second, I think there is too much emphasis on teaching other people to signal correctly. The value of signalling is precisely that it is hard to do. Telling someone that they should stop saying “the gays” is not nearly as important as telling them to not to think of gay people as a monolithic group.
According to the alt-right, virtue signalling is a way of getting women to have sex to you. Having sex with women doesn’t sound like a desirable outcome to me, but I still maintain that virtue signalling is a good thing when done correctly.