I read a really disturbing article in the Washington Post today about raising cats by talking and referring to them by gender-neutral terms.
Charitably read, the article was less about the cats and more about the author’s attempts to lessen the use of gender-binary specific descriptors when dealing with people. Her quest started when she mistakenly referred to her female cats as males, a mistake the author attributes to her 50-year history of owning male cats. This ended up spiraling into her own personal experiment of referring to her own cats with descriptors that avoid the gender-binary paradigm with the hope that it would help her avoid the gender-binary paradigm.
For those unfamiliar with the LGBTQ+/fourth-wave feminist lexicon, ‘gender-binary paradigm’ is the overarching social pattern of using male or female descriptors to describe someone without acknowledging both the biological and psychological variations from this norm, which indeed exist. Transgender people exist, which makes cis-gendered people exist ispo facto.
But the author makes use of the term “cis-gendered privilege”, asking her readers to “look … up” the term in a parenthetical side remark, and this act alone makes the whole piece an act of virtue signaling.
Virtue signaling, itself, isn’t bad. It’s a plethora of behaviors and utterances both online and off which indicate what you believe to be a matter of ethics (or virtues). We all do it, especially if you have an online presence. It’s about the only thing you can do in some outlets (e.g. Twitter). Some have even relegated it to the realm of outdated or inaccurate due to its ubiquity.
But the term is meaningful, because many substitute virtue signaling for discourse. We’re not investing the time and effort needed to honestly assess mostly complex issues, like gender-identity. We’re not analyzing concepts and social norms associated with gender at all. We’re coining vacuous neologisms to bolster problematic concepts, instead of actually engaging with the problematic concepts (i.e. the work of discourse.)
And discourse is hard work. It’s not social media friendly, and doesn’t produce immediate palpable results. But it gives rise to movements both directly and tangentially. Put simply, discourse lays the foundation for the virtues we are free to signal, and not vice versa.
This is because virtues without a discursive foundation don’t usually survive basic scrutiny. In my view, substituting virtue signals for actual discourse is brought on by the advent of social media and the twilight of critical thinking education in the United States. Simply because 18,000 other people share your opinion, doesn’t mean your opinion is a good one. It certainly doesn’t mean that your opinion is a fact.
While coming up with trending hashtags is a skill, analyzing and interacting with an idea is a much more important one. Skill, gumption, intellectual honesty and humility, and interacting with ideas and evidence are all necessary (though not jointly sufficient) conditions of discourse.
Intellectual honesty demands that you are familiar enough with a concept to be able to explain it to your readers without imploring them to “look it up”. Lauren R. Taylor failed this test because she refused to explain the concept of cis-gendered privilege to her readers. Her reasons may have been as trivial as editorial space concerns. But I don’t know if she understands the strengths and weaknesses of the concept she’s presenting to her readers. I don’t know if she views cis-gendered privilege as a fact, concept or opinion. I can only interpolate that she views cis-gendered privilege as fact, given the context and tone of the article.
This problem of substituting virtue signaling for honest discourse explains the 2016 presidential primary vitriol (on both tickets), Gamergate (on all sides), and many other faux controversies. Virtue signaling makes it easier to get distracted from substantive matters because you feel your virtues are being questioned. Adulthood is all about having your virtues questioned. It’s uncomfortable and inevitable. If you aren’t prepared to have your virtues questioned, then you weren’t properly prepared to participate in the political process, or adulthood in general.