De­spite ‘virtue sig­nalling’, words tend to fail the Right

The term I coined rapidly took off, but the Left is bet­ter at us­ing lan­guage to serve its ide­ol­ogy

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - JAMES BARTHOLOMEW James Bartholomew is a British com­men­ta­tor and au­thor of The Wel­fare of Na­tions who is vis­it­ing Aus­tralia as the Cen­tre for In­de­pen­dent Stud­ies’ 2018 schol­arin-res­i­dence.

When I coined the term “virtue sig­nalling” in an ar­ti­cle for The Spec­ta­tor, it never oc­curred to me that the phrase would take off. At first there were just a few men­tions of it in the British press — some­times with ac­knowl­edg­ments to me, some­times not.

Then it be­came used more and more. Next it leapt across seas and bound­aries. It ap­peared in In­dia and South Africa. Then it ap­peared in a main­stream Amer­i­can news­pa­per — The Bos­ton Globe, I think. I sub­scribed to Google no­ti­fi­ca­tions. At first I was de­lighted at each in­di­vid­ual men­tion. Now there are too many to fol­low. They come from all across the English­s­peak­ing world every day.

For those who have not come across the phrase, it means say­ing some­thing to in­di­cate that you are a good, moral per­son without ac­tu­ally do­ing any­thing at all.

Of­ten this is done by ex­press­ing anger and out­rage. So peo­ple will say “I hate Trump” to in­di­cate that they are the right sort of per­son who ab­hors things that Don­ald Trump has said and done. I saw a poster at the front of a house re­cently say­ing “Love Trumps Hate”. Im­plic­itly the house­holder be­lieves in love and op­poses hate. Which means they are declar­ing them­selves to be a good per­son. But note that they have de­clared their good­ness without do­ing any­thing.

The term has re­ally an­noyed some peo­ple. The phrase is not nec­es­sar­ily against the Left but left-wing jour­nal­ists have been par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tated, writ­ing in­vec­tives against the phrase and the con­cept. They say it is a weapon of the “far Right” to dis­miss moral be­hav­iour and le­git­i­mate protest.

They choose to ig­nore the fact the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle dis­tin­guished be­tween true virtue — such as look­ing af­ter a dis­abled hus­band through the last 10 years of his life — and state­ments in­tended merely to boast of virtue without do­ing any­thing. The anger is re­veal­ing. It shows that some on the Left feel stung. The phrase has pro­voked them be­cause they re­alise that they have taken a hit in the silent con­flict you could call “word wars”.

These are con­tin­u­ing con­flicts and skir­mishes over the lan­guage we use. They take place without any­one hav­ing de­clared war. They are, in ef­fect, at­tempts to change the way we think about things by al­ter­ing the lan­guage we use.

There are many fronts on which these wars are fought. Sex­u­al­ity, for ex­am­ple.

It was a great tri­umph in the war of words when those who are at­tracted to the same sex named them­selves “gays” rather than any of the ear­lier dis­parag­ing and in­sult­ing words.

Race is an­other bat­tle­ground of words with ac­cept­able words for dif­fer­ent races chang­ing over time. But let’s stick to pol­i­tics.

In gen­eral, the Left has been over­whelm­ingly more suc­cess­ful in word cre­ation, start­ing with “so­cial­ism”. The word is based on “so­cial”, which is a friendly sort of word. It’s vastly more com­pan­ion­able than the term “lev­ellers”, which some peo­ple in Bri­tain with a de­sire for more equal­ity were called in the 17th cen­tury.

The phrase “so­cial jus­tice” was a clever vic­tory for the Left, too. It brought to­gether that friendly word “so­cial” with “jus­tice”. How could any­one be op­posed to that? But, in fact, it was al­ways a de­vice to make left-wing poli­cies sound as though they were merely a mat­ter of jus­tice.

An­other big coup was when, in 1962, a group of so­ci­ol­o­gists got to­gether at a con­fer­ence in Bri­tain. The poverty that ex­isted be­fore World War II was de­creas­ing year by year. The sta­tis­tics clearly showed more peo­ple own­ing wash­ing ma­chines and tele­vi­sions, hav­ing in­door toi­lets and so on.

The so­ci­ol­o­gists wanted to shock peo­ple — or you might say they wanted to keep them­selves in busi­ness — and they came up with the bril­liant idea of re­defin­ing poverty. Even­tu­ally they de­cided that some­one was in poverty if they had only 60 per cent of av­er­age earn­ings. Bingo! Poverty was back!

In fact, it would con­tinue for­ever be­cause there would al­ways be peo­ple on less than the av­er­age in­come un­less the gov­ern­ment de­ter­mined all in­comes at a level rate and own­er­ship of prop­erty was banned.

In other words, un­less some­thing akin to com­mu­nism was im­posed. Their great suc­cess was to per­suade gov­ern­ments — and then in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as the OECD — to ac­cept their re­def­i­ni­tion of the word.

Just oc­ca­sion­ally, the Right has won a bat­tle or two. Mar­garet Thatcher did well by call­ing for “free mar­kets” and “free en­ter­prise” rather than us­ing the term cap­i­tal­ism — a word that Marx and tens of thou­sands of uni­ver­sity lec­tur­ers around the world had suc­ceeded in be­smirch­ing.

More re­cently, the Right has done pretty well with sar­casm, us­ing the term “so­cial jus­tice war­rior” or just “SJW” for short.

In these wars, many terms are cre­ated but most don’t catch on. Tom Switzer, the di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for In­de­pen­dent Stud­ies, tells me he was once in­sulted as an “RWNJ”.

Mys­ti­fied? So was I. It is meant to stand for “right-wing nutjob”. But it is pretty dif­fi­cult to say those let­ters, so I guess the ab­bre­vi­a­tion will be left be­hind on the field of bat­tle as an in­ef­fec­tive weapon.

The Left is now try­ing to la­bel those it doesn’t like as “fas­cists”. I sus­pect that this, also, is a bridge too far. It re­lies on the pub­lic be­ing to­tally ig­no­rant of his­tory and not re­al­is­ing that Mus­solini, Franco and Hitler were dic­ta­tors and that how­ever loath­some Trump may or may not be, he can be re­moved by the Amer­i­can peo­ple in two years at the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Sim­i­larly, if you call Churchill a “fas­cist”, how come he was fight­ing Hitler?

Long ago, though, the Left pulled off a great trick in get­ting most peo­ple to think that fas­cism was right wing.

Fas­cism’s roots were, in fact, over­whelm­ingly on the Left and closely con­nected to trade unions, par­tic­u­larly in Italy. The full name of the Nazi party was the Na­tional So­cial­ist Party. It was “na­tional” so­cial­ist to dis­tin­guish it­self from the in­ter­na­tional so­cial­ists in the Soviet Union.

And so the word wars con­tinue. The Left gen­er­ally has had the up­per hand. But there are many more bat­tles to come.

Long ago, though, the Left pulled off a great trick in get­ting most peo­ple to think that fas­cism was right wing

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