Have you heard of ‘virtue signalling? The British journalist and author James Bartholomew claims to have coined it in The Spectator in 2015 after realising that Victorians gave much more to charity than contemporary British people do. He says that it describes:
… the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or UKIP, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
‘I invented “virtue signalling”. Now it’s taking over the world’ The Spectator, 10 October 2015
There are two problems with this. The first is the difference between the Victorian era, which was pre-welfare state, and the current era, which is post-welfare state. In Victorian times there weren’t the public hospitals, public schools, aged pensions, and unemployment support that modern people in Britain and Australia now take for granted. Then the wealthy supported their own chosen and private charities; now all of us contribute to the public good through taxes. If James Bartholomew was really worried about ‘virtue signalling’ he wouldn’t be talking about people hating UKIP, but people who avoid paying tax while making large charitable donations.
The other problem is that accusing people of ‘virtue signalling’ simply seems to be a replacement for accusing people of being ‘do-gooders’. People who care about other people, animals and the environment, and who do something about their concerns, have always been accused of conspicuous charity. Today we are virtue signallers; when I was growing up we were do-gooders; and some of you will remember when we were wowsers.
A wonderful article in The Age from Monday the 8th of May, 1911, reported on an address given by Rev. A. Madsen at the Collingwood Methodist Mission Church titled ‘What is a wowser?’ In it, Mr Madsen said that:
… a wowser was in the first instance a church-going man, a man who believed in the public worship of God, and a man who was not ashamed of being seen going to worship. He was a Bible-reading man, who believed that the message was applicable to everyday affairs. He was a keeper of his own conscience, and a keeper of his own soul …
Mr Madsen also pointed out that the terms ‘Christian’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Methodist’ were originally used as terms of abuse, too, and he predicted that in time ‘wowser’ would eventually be seen to be ‘as significant of noble endeavour and splendid work’ as they are. One hundred and six years later we can see that sadly this prediction did not come true. ‘Wowser’ remains a term of derision, even if one that’s rarely heard. But just as Methodists did not stop being wowsers, even if the forms of wowserism changed over time (Dancing! On church property!) so people today are not going to stop doing good and talking about it, just because we are accused of virtue signalling, no matter how frustrating the accusation might be.
Christians have a specific duty to do good and to talk about it. Every time we baptise someone we give them (or a suitable adult if the person being baptised is young enough to be in danger of setting themselves alight) a candle and tell them ‘You belong to Christ, the light of the world. Let your light so shine before the world that all may see your good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.’ As long as we don’t seek glory for ourselves, virtue signalling is part of being Christian.
As we approach Christmas we have our usual opportunities to be wowsers and do-gooders and virtue signallers. Act for Peace will be collecting money for its work through the Christmas Bowl. Williamstown Emergency Relief will be collecting food for Christmas Hampers. Uniting will be collecting toys. To truly be wowsers we could even give up something and use the money saved. I recently read an encouragement to generosity by A. A. Milne (creator of Winnie-the-Pooh): ‘Ladies may regret their last hat, and a man the new brassie which has not added twenty yards to his drive. The only money which we are never sorry to have spent is the money which we have given away.’
Encouraging private charitable donations might seem contrary to my earlier comments about our taxes contributing to the public good, but while the government keeps cutting down the amount of Australian Aid sent overseas and keeps the Newstart Allowance below the amount necessary to be above poverty line, for those of us who are comfortable simply paying our taxes isn’t enough.
Plus, giving things away is fun. I recently bought three Barbie dolls, because I was so excited to find that Barbie is no longer only white and blonde, and that she now does exciting jobs. But no one I know needs any more dolls. So I can give ‘baby doctor,’ astronaut, and space scientist Barbies to the Uniting Toy Appeal. I get the fun of buying them, and some children will get the fun of playing with them. And maybe I’ll have inspired the next generation of paediatricians and scientists!
So, let your light shine this Christmas! Avril.