To Virtue-Signal or Not to Virtue-Signal

That is  the question.  Whether it’s nobler in our minds to offer proclamations of outrageous support, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.

Dear Pastor John, I am less concerned with your proclamation to your liberal friends about how you would  treat your theoretical lgbt child, should you ever have one, and more concerned with what you are doing for us now.  Here is my question: are you really here to help, or do you just want your ally cookies?

Virtue signalling is the practice of loudly proclaiming your beliefs, often to members of your own, insulated social group, without necessarily owning the responsibility of following through with any concrete action.  Some might say that virtue signalling is the moral equivalent of saying, “Count me in as a good person, because I feel like a good person, and here’s what I might do if happened to me because I am such a good person, not like those other bad people, so give me my free ally cookies for feeling good about myself.”  Personally, I think it’s a bit more complex than that, but that is how it feels on the receiving end at times.

Don’t get me wrong.  Plenty of people out there are proclaiming their hate.  Plenty of people out there literally celebrate our murders.  Plenty of people out there are intent on denying us basic human rights.  Plenty of people out there are happy to openly harass, insult, demean and lie about us. It gets tiring, and some of it borders on terrorism, which is just about state-sanctioned at this point.

It’s real nice to hear words of support contrasting all the hate.  It’s important to have voices of support countering the voices of hate.  It matters deeply that we do not let bigotry have even the appearance of a mandate, or of legitimacy.  It matters that we stand against it and raise our voices in solidarity.

Most of the time, the one making the proclamation means it, really, deeply feels it in their heart.  There’s a big gap between sharing that feeling with your friends, however, and holding your ground in real life, when it matters.  There’s a big gap between stating these things to allies and stating these things when you are in the minority among people who believe differently, be it at home, at work, or in public.

Yes, these proclamations are a good thing.  They signal intent, if not actual actions, and that’s a start.  They add voices to the fight.  They let those of us who are marginalized in this society know that we are not alone.

At least, online it does.  In circles of friends.  In theory.

The problem with virtue signalling, is that people may believe they are actually doing something.  It is good and right that we proclaim our values, loudly and publicly. Certainly the other side is.  But saying you ‘have my back’ is not sufficient.

I admit it.  I’m a bit jaded.  That’s what being ground down by the stupid will do to you. I’ve seen many good-hearted, intelligent, well-educated people fail with their silence. I’ve seen you stutter in your actual support.  I’ve seen you slowly fade away from my life after politely saying how brave I was.  Many of you may not participate in the stupid jokes or comments, but you do precious little to stand against it, either.

The jokes, the comments, the exclusions the micro-aggressions hurt like a thousand paper cuts all over, with the occasional metaphorical knife wound thrown in for good measure.  The silence of almost everyone else, however, was even worse.  That silence, that complicity to abuse, to ‘the way things are’ stung like a big bathtub of lemon juice on all those paper cuts.  That silence let me know that I was alone in my pain.

It’s easy, in a group of like-minded individuals, to say you ‘have my back.’  Confronting the beast face to face, as every marked minority must do every day of their lives, as the starting condition for their existence, is another matter altogether.

Many of you lovely, good-hearted white, straight, cis, reasonably well-off people, especially the men, have never had to face this beast in any appreciable way.  I know, I know, you’ve met some real grass-holes, maybe even had a legitimately abusive person in your life.  That’s real, and it matters.  But it’s nothing compared to the systemic racism, homo/transphobia, misogyny and other forms of bigotry which envelope the lives of marked minorities so completely that we need to create special pockets of ‘safe spaces,’ just so we can feel sane for a few hours of each week.  Just so we can have a few hours of not constantly  looking over our shoulders or trying to be on our best behavior at every moment.

So, in a way, I don’t blame you.  I know your heart is in the right place, but I know the real courage it takes to stand up when you feel alone.  I don’t even blame you for your failure.  But I sure would appreciate your strength.

Not just when I am there, but when I am not.  How many of you, when no good liberals or marked minorities are there to give you ally cookies, will question that off-color joke? That overt slur?  I promise I heard every stupid man-in-a-dress joke before I transitioned, and after, and it all stung.  It all reminded me, constantly, that the world hated me for who I was, and that I was alone.

I don’t need your proclamations of support, though I welcome them.  If I am hanging out with you, or sharing with you on social media, it is probably because I have already assessed that I have a certain degree of safety around you. I appreciate the show of support.  But I need a bit more.

My problem, and the problems of many marked minorities, are not merely of you being mean to us or nice to us, etc.  It’s a problem of systemic biases against us.  These stereotypes are reinforced in a million subtle, little ways throughout our day.  The jokes, the opportunities, the connections.  This is where you can make a real difference, not just in proclamations where it is safe.  This is where we need you.

So, please, virtue-signal your heart out.  But take arms against the sea of troubles marked minorities face, and by opposing, end them.

It’s never been great for marked minorities, but in these days of vitriolic backlash, things are particularly ugly.  Now, more than ever, we need well-meaning allies to step up their game.  Now, more than ever, you have a chance to change the culture itself. You have a chance to make a difference in a real way.

Please do it.

A final note on Pastor John.  If I seem like I’m picking on him, I’m not.  He seems like the real deal, combining statements with real-life ministry that puts his values to work in the real world.  Be like John.  I’m just using his letter, and the frequent spreading of it, as an example to make a point.

Stay active!



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