Fathom Mag

Published on:
October 9, 2019
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4 min.
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Virtue Signal Boost

Lord, hear my prayer: let me live long enough to reclaim a few words from the scrap heap.

In the back-and-forth that passes for cultural conversation, some repurpose phrases to suit their own ends. I can’t possibly handle the power surge that accompanies operating from my own dictionary; I only want to see terms thick with potential realize the full range of their meaning. I hunger for a world where we ask better questions of our running commentaries: “Did I mean what I just said? Is there more wrapped up in those words than I know?”

Take “virtue-signaling.” We drop the term in conversations, mostly online, as shorthand for suspicion. Encountering people whose walk and talk seem further than a few feet apart, we rhetorically rap their knuckles for voicing what’s easier said than done. 

I understand the reflex—the world needs more service, less words serving the self. But a quick invocation of virtue-signaling causes two problems as it seeks to solve one. First, the term lets us dismiss someone’s perspective as soon as it hits the atmosphere. A conversation-stopper, not a conversation-starter, it releases us from the hard labor of dealing with another person. 

The problem isn’t that we virtue signal, but that we rarely stop long enough to ask if we really believe in the virtues we signal.

Second, it denies the rhythm of reality: We all signal toward virtue all the time.

David Foster Wallace’s writing held open the door for a school of thought. And I just keep showing up for classes, taught by David Dark, James K.A. Smith, and Karen Swallow Prior as well as poets, prophets, and pop stars. The theme which threads their lessons together: every moment of our lives is religious in nature. 

We trace liturgical lines—what we call out and respond to, sit down and stand up for, the words we recite and add our “Amen” to, tell the story of what we worship. And, as Wallace first made plain to me, we never cease worshipping. Our lives line up behind our loves, and our loves always point us in one direction or another.

If this religious impulse proves true, if God writes worship across our DNA, we must wrestle with the daily significance of our lives. Everything we say and do expresses the virtues we hold dear—or lack faith in—and reveals which people, places and things we value. 

The hard conversations I engage, and the ones I duck out of, cast light on my courage. Whether I say “yes” or “no” to another beer reveals the current state of my relationship with temperance. What outrages me to the point of speaking up—and the sort of people I’m prone to speak up for—underlines my definition of justice.

The Sunday-morning preaching I receive. The song lyrics I post on social media. Where I send my children to school. The decision to walk fifteen minutes to work on a fall morning rather than drive. Dropping the needle on a Thelonious Monk record instead of something smoother and tamer. The battles I choose to fight with my son versus the ones I forsake to fight another day. The votes I cast. The verses I memorize and mouth to myself. 

These elements and more shape, and are shaped by, my sense of what is good, righteous, and beautiful. They gesture toward some expression of virtue, some picture of the good life I hold in front of myself day after day. When we wake up to this, the nature of our dilemma changes. The problem isn’t that we virtue signal, but that we rarely stop long enough to ask if we really believe in the virtues we signal. 

Lord knows our world regularly runs short of virtue. Against this backdrop, I don’t mind existing as a signal, lighting a path with aspiration. The virtue we speak into the world, even without hearts fully on board, preaches a better word than our silence. I can barely count the number of times a friend or acquaintance spoke into the social-media void with, to me, a somewhat obvious statement. An outpouring of response from others, who desperately needed to hear those words, reminded me that we need to keep repeating the “obvious” until it actually feels natural. 

The smoke we send out into the world, in rings and curls, through tweets, statuses, and statements of purpose means little unless it begins from a burning in the belly.

And if these little sermons pierce our hearts as much as those within earshot, perhaps the virtues we behold will become real and abiding. Faith, hope, and love always accomplish something.

But this outside-in approach only takes us so far. Virtues aren’t something to take on and off, the names we give the set of rules we follow. They are little fires set by a God who burns his perfect virtue into every inch of creation. 

His care expressed in widely and deliberately loosing these virtues means we won’t always find them in the church, often discovering them instead through a pop song or novel. But they should burn hottest, brightest, and longest within the hearts of believers who chase virtue because it leads them into the arms of the God they adore. As Dark would say—or perhaps already has said—the true virtue signal is the inner virtue signal. 

The smoke we send out into the world, in rings and curls, through tweets, statuses, and statements of purpose means little unless it begins from a burning in the belly. We begin to reclaim virtue-signaling when our lives bend like arrows toward a divine person whose virtuous appearance never conflicts with his loving presence. Instead, one begets another in an eternal cycle, making him more beautiful to us and perhaps, through us, more beautiful in the eyes of anyone looking for a signal, for just a sign.

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

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