The Heroes That Do Nothing

If 2020 taught me anything was that ideologies that make people feel good for doing absolutely nothing are a thing.

A lot as been said about the pandemic but one aspect that I haven’t seen explored is how the virtue signaling economy was capitalized by governments to achieve lockdown acceptance. when I say “virtue signaling economy” I’m referring to the use of “feel good” labels, phrases, and symbols that started to be attached to products. Labels like “bio”, “green”, “eco”, “organic”, “sustainable” allow companies to charge a premium because clients get the product AND the feeling of contributing to something noble. Why buy a book and donate to the poor when you can buy a book that says in the cover “1€ goes to the poor”. You’re just saving one step while still being able to say, with a clean conscience, I’m helping the poor. Right?

Most people have noticed this pattern but maybe, like I did, dismissed it as innocuous foolishness. In hindsight, the receptiveness to that strategy was actually showing there was a void and that people were filling it. A desire for noble causes and meaning. Maybe in such a international world, local daily life seems insignificant and these products provide a way to amplify a local action and have an impact at the international stage. I drink ethically grown coffee and that’s like helping farmers half a world away. I use paper straws and save the oceans. Doing this things make me a good person automatically.

Obviously, that appetite is the perfect opportunity for abuse or exploitation because it’s mostly based on virtue signaling. As long as you can generate the feeling of moral superiority without requiring to much inconvenience you can sell something. Either a product or an idea. If additionally your action is visible and can be appreciated by other people even better.

I believe that was an important factor in getting acceptance for lockdowns, as a way to fight the pandemic. The underlying idea is pretty simple: stay home and avoid contagion. It’s true enough, without people to spread to, the virus cannot propagate. But there was a twist in that it was framed differently. The initial slogan was “flatten the curve” which has the same characteristics as other virtue signaling labels. It allows you to hide your defects under the guise that you’re protecting others. It promises to amplify your actions. And it requires no effort (if you can actually stay home). Basically, you can be an hero and help save lives by staying home binge-watching Netflix. What a bargain!

I’m not ignoring there’s a kernel of truth to all these things. That’s part of their attractiveness. Like a good lie. If Starbucks really does avoid sourcing coffee form exploitative farmers then by preferring Starbucks, instead of other brand that does not, you are contributing to a world where no coffee farmer is exploitative. The issue is that there’s an unappreciated difference between being a good person and thinking you are good person. You can convince someone they are being good (or bad) while they are not. An obvious example is war propaganda, were people are convinced that killing otherwise peaceful strangers is the right thing to do. Even if conflict is inevitable, and you’re acting to prevent harm on yourself or others, it’s not always obvious if actual harm exists in any other place than your head.

In a virtue signaling economy the focus is on the demonstration of virtue, that is, the local action and what it means. There are huge incentives to create new “feel good “ narratives and disregard their connection with the real world or outright misrepresent those connections. After a major hurricane that are many campaigns asking for donations to help the people affected by the disaster. You donate and feel good about it. If you later find that the money never reached the area most people will not think “I did not do the right thing” but instead will think “corrupt people took advantage of me”. To the good feeling of donating then you add what is now the good feeling of being a victim. A two hit combo of virtuosity with zero of the intended results.

This cultural shift is here to stay for a little while longer and it helped accept lockdowns. If the narrative ever changes to “lockdowns were catastrophic” people will think they did the right thing and politicians are to only ones to blame. Never will it occur, to most people, that supporting the wrong thing is also the wrong thing, even if you’re convinced of the contrary.