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'Virtue signalling' and other slimy words



Election campaigns are carnival times for dodgy words. Politicians and their hacks dog-whistle them out of their lairs, summon them from Shakespearian lexicons and haul them back from used-word graveyards. The most noxious of them slither noisesomely in, sleazing and sliming their handlers.

Hand caked with slimeThe slimy words are those that convict their targets of simulating virtue. They include the old favourite 'bleeding hearts', the perennial 'political correctness' and the most recently minted 'virtue signalling'. All these phrases began as commendation.

The original Bleeding Heart was Jesus' heart seen as a symbol for compassion: Bleeding Heart Tavern in London originally had a sign emblazoned with a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The phrase was then applied to people who were compassionate and open-hearted. As such, of course, it was appropriated by politicians to describe themselves as genial and generous. That vanity provoked cynicism, leading the phrase to be used as an insult by acerbic journalists. In the United States, for example, Wesbrook Pegler described as bleeding hearts the supporters of a federal bill to impose penalties for lynching.

'Political correctness' was coined to commend people for acting consistently with their ideology. Their opponents, disagreeing with their ideology, then turned the phrase to imply that their actions were not based on reasoned argument but on party loyalty.

'Virtue signalling' was also first used to describe actions that expressed a religious faith or way of life. Convinced Christians, for example, who visited people in prison might be said to signal virtue through their actions. Critics then turned the phrase to describe the motivation of the action and not its effect, and further implied that it was done to look good or draw applause, not to be of service to the people visited.

When people speak of bleeding hearts, political correctness and virtue signalling today, they do so to attack their opponents and the opinions they commend. Bleeding hearts are soft-headed, sentimental and weak. Their arguments may be dismissed because they are driven by emotion, not by reason.

People who are politically correct are motivated by the desire for approval of the crowd, are self-regarding, lack an intellectual centre and are not serious seekers after truth. Their judgments may also be dismissed because they do not reflect intellectual argument but acceptance of majority opinion. People engaged in virtue signalling are driven by the desire to look good. Their positions may be dismissed because they do not arise out of honest reflection on the issue at stake but out of either vanity or ulterior motives, such as seeking commercial advantage through endorsing a popular cause.


"When elections draw near, truth, respect and rationality are as rare and endangered as rainbow coloured butterflies in a dust storm."


The reason why these phrases are slimy, slithery and sludgy is that they purport to be counters in rational argument but dismiss opposed arguments without engaging with them. They rely on destroying the credibility of the argument by insinuating the personal unreliability of the person who makes the argument.

This frees those who have recourse to these phrases from the bother of careful analysis of their opponents' positions, still less of demonstrating the motives attributed to them. They display a fundamental lack of respect both for their opponents and for the discipline of argument. In the vernacular, they play the man and not the ball, or more precisely, they take out the man behind the play.

If you drag slimy creatures along the floor you make it slippery, making it likely that you will slip on it. So it is with resorting to slithery phrases. If you define a conversation by the use of phrases such as virtue signalling, you are essentially claiming the high moral and intellectual ground. Your opponents are driven by emotion and not by reason, by the desire for popularity and not for truth, by the search for advantage and not for truth or integrity. You, on the other hand, are the stern representative of pure reason, hard love and disinterested judgment. On that claim your argument stands or falls.

In this case it inevitably falls, because the rhetorical style in which it is made is characterised neither by disinterest, love, the exercise of reason nor virtue. It is an exercise of power in which opponents are crushed by scorn and innuendo not by rational and respectful engagement. It is not a trial of opposed ideas which is followed by judgement discerning the truth of the matter. It is a judgment that disregards truth and the respect due to the search for it, and substitutes for the trial. Those who resort to the use of such oleaginous arguments are besmeared by the slime that attaches to them.

No doubt when elections draw near, truth, respect and rationality are as rare and endangered as rainbow coloured butterflies in a dust storm. Concern about slithery arguments will seem a little delicate when walking through grasslands full of hyenas, jackals and funnel web spiders as well as snakes. Still, a proper attentiveness to the decent use of words needs to start somewhere.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, political correctness, virtue signalling, election 2019



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Existing comments

Your penultimate sentence is a beauty, Andy. When referencing the use of speech in regards to elections we all have had experience of meeting the politician who is listening to our words and thinking of the response 'he/she wants to hear' before articulating their reply. Politicians usually have to condense their comments to quick, sharp replies in news broadcasts or dismantling their opponent's arguments quickly. Election campaigns do not lend themselves to reasoned argument but the need (from their point of view) to land the knockout blow quickly. Thus, the use of phrases and words not really fit for purpose.

Pam | 20 March 2019  

I think most of our current politicians do not want intelligent voters who weigh up all the issues carefully and then vote. Very few politicians have any real vision for this country and its future as well as the future of the world. They want either to retain or gain office and the power which comes with it. Most are happy to dissimulate, using the latest techniques of mass persuasion, to do so. Where do we go from here? I think the game needs to change radically.

Edward Fido | 20 March 2019  

Well said Andrew.

Anne Benjamin | 21 March 2019  

Thank you Andrew for expressing so succinctly why many Australians have become so cynical about our politicians. Another term that is used to put down people apart for "bleeding heart" and "politically correct" is "do-gooder". When these terms are used against people as they are during public debates, they are usually delivered with a cynical sneer. Anybody who has been involved in working for peace, social justice, human rights, fair dealing between nations and people and care for the environment will have experienced this type of put down. However, put downs are not reasoned arguments and people who believe in these values must not be deterred by the hyenas, jackals, funnel web spiders and snakes that exist in the grasslands of our political landscape in the lead-up to the coming federal election.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 March 2019  

Ah! The Use and Abuse of Words - a subject of limitless possibilities. Reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass. "When I use a word, HD, said in a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." I was looking for a word that would describe the process by which words like "political correctness' became terms of mockery, or condemnation, or grounds for not engaging in civilised discussion. Is it Humpty Dumptyfying? Or Humptyfying? Or Dumptyfying? I couldn't come up with a suitable name so I fall back on Weaseling. Weasel words are words of convenient ambiguity, or a statement from which the original meaning has been sucked or retracted. I once participated in an Australian Public Service group preparing a Submission to Cabinet. The subject matter was politically contentious. Various departments contributed the pros and cons and made a recommendation. When it came to a suggested Press Release that the Minister might use one experienced official provoked laughter when he said: "Now let's find some weasel words that the Minister can feed to the Press." I assume today spin doctors in the Minister's office perform this task.

Uncle Pat | 21 March 2019  

Oh dear, having used the slimy word “virtue signalling” on several occasions recently, I went into paroxysms of guilt on reading this article. But then I tend toward the ignorant, am given to shallow thinking, respond to dog whistles with Pavlovian rigour. Andrew tells I am utterly bereft of love and the exercise of reason, resort to oleaginous arguments. But…. but….. there is the endo-psychic principle from the early days of psychology that tells “allow free vent of one’s thoughts of another, and you might safely turn to them and say “thou art the man!” Then wisdom from me mate The Buddha helped alleviate the dark state of despair Andrew’s erudition caste. In The Fourth Noble Truth, Buddha prescribes The Eight Fold Noble Path. One of the eight steps is Right Talk. But then no, as the “elections draw near, truth, respect and rationality are as rare and endangered as rainbow coloured butterflies in a dust storm.” Clearly there is no hope for a hyena like me. But would it help for Andrew to hear once again the priest call clear and true “reach forth thy hand, be not faithless but believing?”

Barry | 21 March 2019  

OK, so what shorthand phrase SHOULD one use to describe positions which are driven by emotion, not by reason, motivated by the desire for approval of the crowd, acceptance of majority opinion and the desire to look good, for example automatically clicking "like" to a popular opinion on social media for fear that not "liking" it will cause one to be ostracised?

Peter K | 21 March 2019  
Show Responses

The term for that would be virtue signaling, and the term is not like by the author of this piece because they are probably a virtue signaler. I myself will not stop calling people out on it. If you don’t wanna be called a virtue signaler stop virtue signaling! Anyone even a child can tell the difference between sincerity and the lack there of. If you were ideological or political you probably lack sincerity.

Sean | 28 September 2021  

One of the dodgiest phrases I have heard from some of our politicians is 'Clean coal', when there is no such thing as clean coal. I prefer to listen to people like Tim Flannery, who is a scientist, not a politician. Please read the following article and take action to help avert the 2C degrees temperature rise towards which we are heading: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/20/tim-flannery-people-are-shocked-about-climate-change-but-they-should-be-angry

Grant Allen | 21 March 2019  

Love this analysis of the arguments and language often used in shutting down an opponent to great effect. It attacks the person rather than the argument. As you imply, it is a slippery slope!

William Dunne | 21 March 2019  

As you say, Andrew. Slippery slide to... Under so many of today's problems there is an epistemological problem.

Michael D. Breen | 21 March 2019  

So Andrew, what about such terms as racist, neo-Nazi, fascist, homophobic, Islamophobic, sexist, misogynistic that the “slimy, slithery, sludgy” PC operatives used to viciously attack those they disagree with? Such nasty ad homien abuse are regularly employed by PC virtue-signallers as substitutes for reasoned arguments. And no one should ever forget the comments that Science Show compere Robin Williams made in November 2012 when he equated climate change sceptics to pedophiles, or to supporters of asbestos use or crack-smoking for teenagers. As Peter K. rightly asks, ”what shorthand phrase SHOULD one use to describe positions which are driven by emotion, not by reason, motivated by the desire for the approval of the crowd ... and the desire to look good” etc?

Dennis | 22 March 2019  

Thank you, Andy. While I did find the epistemological summaries helpful, I do think there is cause for a search through a number of the affects (emotions) at play here. What is it that is driving people to attack each other on social media, on public airwaves and in supermarkets in our multicultural cities and towns? What are some of the emotions that seem to be 'out of whack'? Emotions are signals from the body. They are events within humans that have evolved from the need for survival. These signals are designed to inform us that a particular experience is either positive or negative. Positive emotion is for enjoyment, savouring and sharing. While being mildly or extremely painful, negative emotions are crucial for our survival as a species. What would it be like living in a shameless society? These precious negative emotions have a purpose. They are meant to govern how we interact. Sadly, in cases where the pain is determined to unbearable, they become drivers that cause damage to individuals and society. Individuals are driven to pass on this pain by attacking others, attacking themselves, avoiding contact or discussion or just giving up. And so the scapegoating continues as attacking others generate the most noise and notice. As we desperately scour the voting slip (sheet) for our dream candidate, can we focus on voting for the routing of noise, not an annihilation of the noisemaker?

Vic O'Callaghan | 22 March 2019  

Thank you for your comments on my article. A couple of clarifications. 'Slimy words' are not the only kind of objectionable words that should be deplored in public conversation. Facist, commo, homophobe, idiot, etc are also demeaning labels that substitute for argument, whichever of the many sides they may come from. But though regrettable, these words of straightforward abuse are not slimy'. Whereas they accuse people directly of bad attitudes or behaviour, slimy words accuse people of being hypocritical when doing overtly good things or displaying good attitudes. The accusation leaves no space for reply and substitutes for argument. This particular use of language in debate is equally bad whichever side it comes from, but I cannot think of phrases used by the 'left' of the 'right' that work precisely in this way. Can you? Barry, I am delighted you found support from your 'best mate, the Buddha'. I cannot think of a better best mate to have. On this subject, of course, you might also direct properly to me the Scriptural phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself'.

Andy Hamilton | 24 March 2019  

The advice "Physician, heal thyself" could be dangerous if the physician was a crook doctor!

john frawley | 24 March 2019  

Unequivocally, the finest exchange of views that I have encountered in ES so far! And thank you, Andy, for replying: it showed that you read - and respect - your audience. The past fortnight has been a bad one for those who uphold virtue, while taking care not to use it as a cudgel. Firstly, the sensational Pell tragedy, followed a week later by the horror of Christchurch. Both news events generated their own particular displays of virtue-signalling, sadly in what is generally accepted as the quality media. I was appalled by the number of Catholics last week on Q&A, who fell over themselves to distance themselves from the Church, which in two instances had advantaged them and their careers. Equally, last night I was amazed at the hammering handed out to the Coalition spokesperson, Teena McQueen, who in her incompetence had to be pulled up by Tony Jones for one of her many gaffes, while he gave free rein to a Green Muslim, without making even the most feeble attempt to interrogate her about the obvious gaps between her proclaimed Islamic faith and her Green Party's political platform that is so anathematic to the vast majority of Australian Muslims.

Michael Furtado | 26 March 2019  

Andrew my understanding is that it can only be virtue signalling if the person performing the signally is using words only and not actions.

terry | 11 July 2019  

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