For the last two years, me and another buddy have run the Federalist Society chapter at Cardozo Law School. For those unfamiliar with “Fed-Soc,” it’s a dual purpose organization that serves as a lone home base for conservatives and libertarians on law school campuses, and seconds as a diabolical Originalist lab where Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was hatched.
During the last school year, we held several general interest meetings where I would pay out of pocket for bad pizza and give the newbies the rundown on the VRWC (Vast Right Wing Conspiracy): These are the conservative law firms you should be looking at, this is where you should apply for a summer job, these organizations give stipends to libertarian students, this is where the Koch Brothers keep refrigerators stocked with the organs of peasant farmers…
You know, typical career stuff.
At the last meeting of the year, a 1L asked about some meaningless student government proposal that would consolidate all the different minority clubs at our law school—BLSA (Black Law Students Association), LALSA (Latin-American Law Students Associations), MSA (Muslim Students Association), and of course, JAPSA (Jewish-American Princess Students Association). I quipped “what’s the point, don’t they already have a Democrat club?”
The sheer horror—nay, terror!—of my vulgar generalization sent one Latina student into PC apoplexy—this all despite the fact that the outraged apoplectic was (allegedly) an avowed conservative:
“I was very offended by what you said.”
“What did I say?”
“You said all the minority students should be in a Democrat club. I’m a minority and I’m a Republican. It was offensive.”
“Yeah, I didn’t say that. Even if I did say that, it’s a damn joke.”
“You shouldn’t be, and I don’t care. Grow up.”
This is when I realized that virtue signaling—the loud, conspicuous advertisement of one’s virtue, stripped of the obligation to actually do something—has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic, as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s even transformed into something Stephen Daisley has termed empathy patrolling, “the need to police who may feel what and when.”
This, to me, is a byproduct of the atomized society, a culture whose crushing, dense weight creates a synthetic jewel of false morality. The crown jewel of the atomized society is “I-ism,” a feedback loop of peacockery and narcissism; I am great, because I tell everyone I care, and my caring is great, and look at me caring so much, and dammit you’re so awful and everybody look at you not caring! It’s as culturally ingrained as the schoolchild’s mnemonic for grammar. I before ye, because I love me.
It’s unsurprising that I-ism manifests itself through the idiot-medium of our age, the smartphone. One Silicon Valley outfit has designed an application that “monitor[s] news feeds to detect relevant keywords and phrases; such as celebrities tweeting that they ‘have no words’, the sudden popularity of ‘we stand with…’ hashtags,” and other platitudes so gratifying in their meaninglessness that they’re all of them bumper-sticker-worthy.
I-ism attends to the divorce between virtue signaling and any meaningful action. Evgeny Morozov and others have called this slacktivism. Why work the soup kitchen when every Starbucks purchase you make slices off 67 cents to go toward a sustainable Peruvian bean farm? But the bean farm might as well be a neo-Nazi-funding bubblegum factory in real life, because the slacktivists wouldn’t bother to lift their plastered irises from the digital superglue of their iPhone screens to confirm where their 67 cents just went.
But hey, that’s just my take.
My Fed-Soc meeting had been an hour long, I had spoken for 25 minutes of it and answered questions for another 10 or so. The “Democrat” comment was about 2 seconds out of the whole ordeal. Nonetheless, the woman had decided to signal to me, and to several others around her, that I had violated the dictates of I-ism, of PC, and so on. The public nature of it was key.
Yet there was no action. She didn’t decide to ask to become more active in Fed-Soc to fix those painful generalizations I’d inflicted on a sub-section of the ever-reclassified claimants to ever-expanding grievances. My careless utterance didn’t inspire her to go on to found a minority-specific conservative—or right wing, or libertarian—organization.
Nope. She just wanted to let me know my words were bad. Bad words. Naughty, hurty words. But chastisement doesn’t make you a saint, just like loving the sunset in Bali doesn’t make you a better person. It just means “you’re nurturing the weakest trends,” that you’re a thoughtless peon enslaved to culture, that “if hell was ‘in’ you’d give your soul.” (Thank you, Pantera.)
The enslavement to trends—the face-piercing enthusiast of today and the dandy of yesteryear are both the same type of banal, unoriginal, adaptive cultural chameleon—means that acquiescing to and promoting virtue signaling is another sign of conventionality.
So maybe I lost a member of Fed-Soc. I can accept that. What I couldn’t accept, and will never accept, is that young lady’s disposition: Verily, I am offended. I say to thee, acquiesce. Virtue signalers are just our era’s Victorians. But poorly dressed.