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The Epidemic of Virtue Signaling. Why It Happens and How to Shift It

Virtue signaling means you haven’t done the work behind the words you’re saying. So before posting on social media about your latest, greatest contributions to #blacklivesmatter, take private time to understand why you haven’t acted in the past and begin making personal changes so your new actions can have real impact.

Girl with mask of distorted mouth
Virtue signaling says you're hiding something. Photo: unsplash.com/@kc_gertenbach

You’re not fooled when someone merely goes through the motions. Nobody’s fooled. In fact, fake gestures such as virtue signaling are like slinging insults into a fan that get deflected back on the person who made the gesture. If you haven’t seen the I Take Responsibility campaign, it’s a perfect example. Celebs in partnership with the NAACP created it to show solidarity with #Blacklivesmatter.

Backlash to #itakeresponsibility is not pretty. Video clips filmed in black and white show actors speaking (it sometimes appears to be from a script) about how they’re not turning a blind eye to racism any more. They are ‘taking responsibility.’ For a good laugh, check out parodies from Dear White People or Kyle Dunnigan. You won’t find a shortage of criticism and cringes about why this lands like paper-thin effort packaged for publicity.

Necessary but not sufficient.

The entire premise of the effort misses the most important piece. You can’t solve systemic racism – which has existed for centuries and is literally ingrained in how the US operates – by saying a few new words and writing a check. No matter how large a group or far reaching the celebrity influence, these external signals fall short.

Let’s look a little deeper and give folks hailing the virtue flag a break:

  • Yes, new words and checks are necessary, but not sufficient.
  • Yes, outward action must happen to create change.
  • Yes, people with significant influence among many audiences need to get involved and lead.
  • Yes, everyone’s feeling some form of crappy and wants to look good and feel better about it all.
  • Only some people will do what is necessary to be a contributing part of the vital change.

Why virtue signaling happens.

Here’s the real problem. Virtue signaling represents a huge gap in human behavior in general. It reveals the epidemic practice of people turning to the outside to fix what’s happening inside. Again for emphasis, nothing you can do on the outside can fix, heal, or change the ingrained, sometimes unconscious patterns happening on the inside.

To make a real shift, you must focus internally. But you may not have learned how, yet.

Given the majority of people have little experience doing their internal work, it’s not surprising loads of people try to put Band-Aids on giant systemic issues like racism. It’s all they know to do…at least so far.

This is not about celebrity bashing or comparing your movement through this incredibly difficult and tumultuous time to theirs. It’s about recognizing root causes – of racism, white privilege and the plight of marginalized groups everywhere – so we can stop pretending Band-Aids will work and start creating real change.

How real change happens.

Yep, the cliché – it starts with you, with each individual creating personal change. Real personal change happens only when you learn to do your internal work and commit to it for the long haul.

Let’s compare two examples:

NOT LIKE THIS: #Itakeresponsibility shows the external, (mostly*) empty words example. *Mostly, because we don’t know what the actors are doing to create personal, internal shifts. Maybe some are doing their inner work.

YES, LIKE THIS: The second example doesn’t come with flashy social media boasts. Soon after protest began over police brutality and the murder of George Floyd, owners of a Seattle boutique started hosting group conversations to do the work around racism and becoming anti-racists. Participants donate to Rachel Cargle’s The Loveland Foundation and show up for private conversations to move through their inner work and support others doing the same. The group meditates to center and create openness at the start and uses content from professionals and activists working to educate and end racism. A few people participate in multiple groups or lead groups with their own friends and clients. Another person is doing a bias course to understand their unconscious operating.

This fashion business (notice, these are not activists or professionals in diversity and inclusion) and the participants are doing both the external work and internal work. They are gaining skills to have difficult conversations, to find gaps in their understanding, to reflect on blind spots and discover motivations for choices and behaviors they hadn’t noticed previously.

This inner work is not optional. Inner work is a process that happens over time. Writing a check or going to marches are also necessary (external) work, but it’s not sufficient.

So, if you need to be completely silent for a few weeks as you learn how to navigate your inner realm, bravo. Don’t feel shame, please. Don’t feel inadequate because you’re not posting your actions for others to see. You understanding yourself and how you contribute or haven’t stood up to oppression, discrimination and the systems that perpetuate both is the hard work you can’t skip if you genuinely want to be part of the solution.

This isn’t a time for shortcuts or whitewashing (pun intended). It’s a time to dig deep. Change of this magnitude will be unfolding over the course of the rest of your life. It’s a long game of inner work translated into outer actions. As you demystify and commit to inner work, you are fighting racism and all types of oppression and disconnection. Plus, you’re growing yourself.

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