Parergon: Group-Dynamics of Virtue Signaling (Covering Fire, Purity Spirals)

An afterthought to my Social Matter essay about virtue signals.  There, I said:

A good solution to this is to never send any virtue signals.  Not only do you avoid conferring moral authority on your opponent, but as he starts to learn you aren’t a dancing monkey and won’t do tricks, he gets discouraged.  (Attacks are exhausting when the victim fights back.)  The disadvantage is that you lose your virtuous reputation: bad monkey, no banana.  Now you are literally Hitler.  

But of course, this has compensating advantages.  Once you are literally Hitler it’s not as though there is any further damage they can do to your reputation.

This covers the individual consequences you face after you refuse to counter-signal, but in some ways the more important ramifications are collective.  Your sulfurous reputation not only protect you from further attacks (if only because you’ve hit bottom!), it also provides cover for anyone nearby with similar views.

  • They know you’re literally Hitler so they can always say “Hey, I’m bad, but at least I’m not literally Hitler, right?”
  • Their heresies seem negligible next to yours, and they know they’re safe if the ADL plans to “make an example” out of someone: you’re the canary in the coal mine. 
  • Plus, they all know you’re too evil yourself to condemn them for their heresies, so they can’t be shunned completely.

Your vilification makes sympathizers a bit bolder, particularly if you can endure the smears with panache.  As the number of literally Hitlers grows, the sympathizers even start to forget that literally Hitler is supposed to be a bad thing.

Because of all these tactical advantages of losing one’s reputation (commitment, covering fire, normalization), it may be desirable to throw it away proactively, especially when most of the reputation-damage can be contained to one social sphere or, better yet, one pseudonymous persona.  (Hi!)

This personal apotheosis is the purpose of counter-signals. If the virtue-signal a leftist expects is “Remember the six million! Never again! We’ll take in as many Mexicans and Afghans as you want, Mr. Soros!”, the corresponding counter-signal is “Hitler dindu nuffin’! He a good boy, he turnin’ Germany around.”  Maybe you believe this or maybe you don’t; the point isn’t the factual content of the counter-signal, but whether it outrages your bolshy persecutors and transforms you into a hateful, irredeemable, deplorable Trumpkin.

So insofar they help isolated, persecuted dissidents band together, the initial group dynamics of rejecting virtue-signals can only be good. Once the group has formed, things get a bit more complicated.

Once there are enough literally Hitlers to form a real movement, and particularly once literally Hitlers who are strangers encounter each other in public fora, counter-signals begin to take on an inverted character: they still outrage leftists, but to right-wingers they signal commitment above all — as well as boldness, selflessness (these are due to the personal risk the counter-signaler takes), open-mindedness… and of course when it’s a particularly effective counter-signal, also intelligence, creativity, and taste.  

Within a party, counter-signals typically function the way virtue signals function for normies.  As a certain counter-signal becomes common and then routinized, sending it no longer signals boldness and creativity, but may still communicate reasonableness, loyalty, respect, or at minimum familiarity with the norms of the movement.  When partisans are constantly (counter-)signaling demonstrate partisan loyalty, they accelerate the boldness>loyalty>familiarity process, weakening the information their signals carry, forcing them to find fresher signals, fueling the acceleration: this is a signaling spiral or purity spiral.  

The advantage of such a spiral is that it normalizes and disseminates the counter-signals.  To some extent it also reverses the hemorrhage of moral authority.  The problem with purity spirals is that they imply the partisans are having trouble cooperating and forming ties (thus all the futile signaling); the resulting spiral is likely to make this worse. Partisans typically judge purity spirals based on (a) their own preferred stance on an issue and (b) how much they enjoy the ensuing LARPing, absurdism, and bickering — but it is better to diagnose a purity spiral as a symptom of an underlying problem.

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