“Of course, virtue signaling from the Right regarding the protests has come in many forms other than writing.”
uring the first few days of the protests over the killing of George Floyd, many monuments, particularly statues of historical leaders were damaged. This happened in the United States and in other countries such as Belgium, where a statue of King Leopold II was brought down. Also, in the United Kingdom, several statues were spray painted or toppled. Most notable among these were statues of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill and philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston, both of which I will discuss later in this piece. In response, many people took it upon themselves to clean up and repair the damages where possible. Several viral videos depicting these cleanup efforts circulated on social media, and they showed those doing the repairs or cleanings being confronted by protestors. In one of such videos, a few men and women are seen washing off spray paint from an equestrian statue of Lord Haig, an English nobleman who served in the British Army in several colonial conflicts and then went on to become a hero of the First World War. These youngsters are confronted by a woman who accuses them of racism for cleaning the statue. The video was watched over 3.5 million times, and it was widely popular among conservatives. The implication is clear: The Left has gone so mad that now even cleaning a statue is evidence of racism. Clearly, therefore, we cannot trust the judgement of many on the Left on anything.
This is just a bit of anecdotal evidence, but I think it perfectly captures many of the dynamics of this seemingly endless culture war. And, of course, cleaning statues is just one manifestation of the broader response from conservatives. The Right is clearly much better at messaging, and there is a small but loud portion of the Left that will give the Right endless material. Now, is cleaning a statue actually racist? I will unequivocally say no. That does not mean, however, that these acts are completely innocent. As much of a truism as this may be, context matters in order to understand in what ways they may or may not be innocent, however.
Let us look at a few other examples that, while different in nature, fit within the same trend of responses from the Right to the recent unrest. Another case that involves a visual display is a widely circulated photograph of British conservative journalist Peter Hitchens standing in the middle of a keeling crowd. Conservative commentator Rod Dreher, editor of The American Conservative, praised Hitchens in a piece entitled “British Courage” in the aforementioned publication. The keeling crowd in London was doing so as a gesture of solidarity towards George Floyd, whose death resulted from a police officer kneeling down on his neck. Dreher’s piece then goes on to describe other issues related to the reaction to the death of George Floyd in the United Kingdom. Among these include the destruction of a statue of British slave trader Edward Colston, as well as the defacing of a statue of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill by labelling him as a racist, an adjective that even Dreher goes on to admit is undeniably accurate. In another article, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at the New York Post and First Things contributor, laments the fact that the iconoclasm and vandalism that he thought he left behind when he emigrated from the Middle East in the middle of the Arab Spring has now reached the United States.
However, the fact that there is this seeming template that so many pieces follow is indicative that something else is going on. This, I believe, is virtue signaling—or in this case it could be called countersignaling—more than anything else.
Many, if not most, pieces like these follow a familiar format: They start by nominally acknowledging the fact that the death of George Floyd was “terrible,” “horrific,” or some other similar superlative negative adjective. Then, they claim that whatever the Left is doing about it is really not related to this issue. This is either because it is simply a vie for power or because there is no broader problem, as many on the Left claim. Finally, these commentators usually conclude by arguing that whatever it is that the Left is trying to do about it will actually make things worse. Now, the fact that the arguments all follow such a predictable form is not, in itself, evidence that they are wrong. I think there are valid arguments for why, for example, abolishing the police in the current context would make things worse—or why violent protests could spark a backlash. However, the fact that there is this seeming template that so many pieces follow is indicative that something else is going on. This, I believe, is “virtue signaling”—or in this case it could be called countersignaling—more than anything else. Anyone familiar with this term might immediately think about activists loudly proclaiming their support for progressive causes, or more recently, the Democratic Party leadership kneeling while wearing Kenté cloth. These are acts performed with a primary (or singular) purpose: To let others know that one holds the morally correct opinions, while not achieving much of anything else. Virtue signaling is a favorite accusation for conservatives to level against the left. As a side note, I find it hard to argue that Democrats, with their track record of Wall Street ties, opposition to basic left-of-center policies such as universal healthcare, and support for foreign military intervention, are left-wing in any meaningful way. They still remain nominally the party that is more to the Left, so, in an American context, I suppose the accusation makes some sense. But now, here are many conservatives doing the same thing.
Of course, virtue signaling from the Right regarding the protests has come in many forms other than writing. Consider the two visual performances that I mentioned: the young Londoners cleaning off the spray paint and Peter Hitchens defiantly standing in the middle of a crowd of kneeling demonstrators. The only thing they are accomplishing is conveying the message “I disapprove so much of what these people did or are doing that I will very publicly do the opposite.” I suppose that as a desirable side effect it might “trigger” some on the Left, but, again, none of this advances any meaningful political goal unless the bar for meaningful political goals is much lower than I realize. At least we now know that the bar for “courageous” is extremely low, given that this performative anti-woke display from Hitchens was lauded as a prime example of “British Courage.”
It may be much more obvious in the case of physical performances, but the kinds of essays previously cited are nothing more than a literary equivalent. They may be coated in academic language; however, they perform the same function. It would be impossible to look at every piece of writing that does this, but it is useful to analyze a few examples. As I mentioned previously, they usually can be broken down into three parts. The first of which is the nominal acknowledgment that the killing of George Floyd was “horrific” or some such other adjective. This is, of course, true. So, to understand why I claim that this is nothing more than virtue signaling—and, in fact, this is the only aspect that could not be called countersignaling—it is helpful to understand first the other parts.
The second component is probably the most complicated and also the most insidious. The point is to argue that whatever the Left is proposing or doing is actually not about what the Left claims it is. This is generally because, as the claim goes, the underlying problem does not exist. As such, the proposed solutions are either an attempt to pursue some ulterior, more nefarious goal, or simply due to ignorance. In my view, whether the explanation is the former or the latter mostly comes down to whether the criticism is done in good or bad faith. But both cases logically depend on there being no underlying problem. In this case, said problem is systemic (or structural) racism. A recent piece by fellow Merion West contributor Samuel Kronen makes precisely this case. The piece, characteristically begins with the line “[t]he murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin was horrific beyond description.” A good portion of the essay is then dedicated to arguing that—despite what high profile cases like Floyd’s would seem to indicate—a more nuanced look at relevant statistics disproves the idea of structural racism.
There are several arguments for this in Kronen’s piece. He begins, of course, by stating that an important piece of context is the fact that black men are killed by police officers at higher rates than other demographics but that they are also responsible for a disproportionate share of crimes. He mentions a New York Times article by University of Chicago professor Sendhil Mullainathan that makes the case that the disparity between arrest rates and killings by police is not large enough to justify belief in racial bias. He then cites a study by former Harvard economist Roland Fryer that analyzes police violence and demographics and finds that—while Hispanic Americans and black Americans do experience higher rates of police violence in general—they are actually killed at a lower rate than white Americans. This, incidentally, is the same paper that Dave Rubin cites in his book. Both Rubin and Kronen, however, fail to mention that this is a study using data for the city of Houston and, as such, is not very relevant to a conversation about whether widespread systemic racism exists. Furthermore, other studies with nationwide data do find that black Americans are killed by the police at a higher rate than other racial groups. Finally, Kronen cites a recent article in The Washington Post by libertarian journalist Radley Balko that responds to some common arguments against the idea of systemic racism in the criminal justice system in an attempt to refute them. The specific argument that Kronen cites is an answer to the notion that police killings of black men can be contextualized by black men’s higher crime rates. Specifically, Balko argues that this idea falls apart because there is no correlation between the number of police killings and the crime rates of the neighborhoods in which they happen.
All of these arguments that Kronen makes are commonly articulated among those on the Right, so my critique is not exclusive to Kronen’s piece. I do think, however, Kronen’s piece makes for a good example because it is much more detailed than others. Again, however, I do not think these kinds of arguments amount to anything more than signaling. Let us start with the last part. Kronen argues that geographic correlations are irrelevant because black crime en masse makes blacks more likely to encounter the police. I find this argument baffling. The absence of systemic racism would surely imply that police do not hold any bias—explicit or implicit—against people based on demographic characteristics. This means that certain demographic groups could still have a higher probability of encounters with the non-systemically racist police if and only if that rate matches the crime rates of that demographic group in that geographic area. But Kronen is effectively arguing that the crime rates in other areas for the same demographic group justify higher rates of police interaction everywhere. Essentially, he is arguing that police officers are justified in profiling subjects in specific contexts based on a nebulous general average that does not apply to the specific population in question because they happen to be of the same demographic group. This sounds almost exactly like the definition of (let’s call it) demographic-based prejudice.
The rest of the argument does not fare much better. Now, of course it is always important to contextualize statistics. However, if we are going to contextualize killing and arrest rates by mentioning crime rates in an attempt to disprove systemic racism, is it not also logical to contextualize crime rates? Even if we were to completely ignore the centuries-long history of slavery, segregation, and redlining to focus solely on the present, there are still glaring omissions. School funding, for example, largely comes from property taxes, which means neighborhoods with lower property values will always be at a disadvantage in terms of quality of education, for example. This means that equality of opportunity, which is so often touted by conservatives, does not apply to many black neighborhoods. But even a more nuanced look exclusively at criminal justice issues reveals that the issue is more complicated than higher black crime rates. When it comes to offenses that are stable across demographics such as drug consumption, black Americans still have a disproportionately high arrest rate. Black Americans also receive harsher sentences for equivalent crimes. So even if we were to exclusively focus on law enforcement, proper contextualization does indicate biases.
Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—even if we were to accept the idea that higher crime rates explain higher the probability of police killings, this argument is still both methodologically and morally wrong. Now, the police do have the authority to use deadly force but clearly not as a substitute for arrest. Officers can use deadly force in self-defense—or if it is the only way to prevent a potential criminal from killing someone else, for example. Kronen cites the fact that young black men are responsible for about 50% of all homicides. But black men still have a much higher chance of being killed by the police even when they are unarmed. To put it another way, they have a higher chance of being killed by the police even in situations when the police do not have any justifiable reasons to use deadly force, as was the case with George Floyd. This, incidentally is why I think the nominal acknowledgement of the horror of his dead is just signaling. What starts off with acknowledging that an extreme moral wrong has occurred ends up largely mitigating—if not justifying—George Floyd’s death. After all, he was being arrested for an alleged offense, and is the argument not that black Americans committing a higher proportion of offenses explains away the disparities in killings? But, of course, this only works if one believes that deadly force is justifiable in a very wide range of circumstances that would include George Floyd’s arrest. My point is one cannot have it both ways: It is intellectually dishonest to condemn Floyd’s murder and then make an entire case for why the situation which led to his death is understandable.
But my claim is not only that the condemnation of Floyd’s murder is virtue signaling but also that every part of these reactions from the Right (or the Center) are. So, what about, for example, these denials about the existence of systemic racism? Kronen’s piece is just one example of this, but there are others, such as Heather Mac Donald’s “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” in The Wall Street Journal. This is a very common argument levied against the Left. For the reasons I laid out previously, I do not think there are any convincing arguments against some form of systemic racism. The problem is that belief in systemic racism seems to be a largely partisan issue. If one believes in its existence, one is most certainly on the Left. A recent article by conservative author David French, in which he describes how he eventually came to the conclusion that systemic racism is a problem, describes how his previous reaction to the concept was essentially visceral: He “was also someone who recoiled at words like ‘systemic racism.’” To me, then, such adamant opposition to accepting that systemic racism might exist is largely about distancing oneself from those crazy lefties because of the seeming ideological baggage that comes with the concept. This, again, is taking into account that I do think that all evidence suggests that there is still some form of systemic racism for the reasons that I discussed above.
Is this not equivalent to Peter Hitchens proudly standing among a kneeling crowd? After all, by kneeling, the crowd was saying “I believe systemic racism is a problem.” By standing among the crowd, Hitchens was saying “I hold the opposite belief.” As I said in the introduction, I deny the claim that this type of signaling (or the spray paint removal to which I will get later) is evidence of racism, but it is not completely innocent either. The fact that some on the Left immediately resorted to labeling these displays as racist does speak to a broader messaging problem on the Left. But to use Hitchens’ case again, could he not have simply walked away? How necessary is it really to signal loudly one’s belief that systemic racism is not real in the midst of a context of heightened racial tensions? One would need to be completely oblivious not to see why some people might find these displays at least ethically questionable. I sincerely doubt anyone who has engaged in displays like these or defended those engaged in them is oblivious enough. This, of course, also applies to written arguments. After all, I do think conservative beliefs on the subject can be legitimately held, even if systemic racism exists. I doubt, for example, that David French is now a liberal, let alone a leftist. In fact, I think putting so much weight on trying to explain away systemic racism to justify certain ideological positions speaks more to the flimsiness of those positions.
The first part only serves to shield the author from accusations of racism, while the latter serves to signal to the author’s in-group that they are not one of those crazy lefties.
Finally, what about the last part, namely, the claim that whatever some on the Left are doing will actually make things worse? Again, of course, there are valid arguments to be made for why abolishing the police entirely might have unintended consequences—and that torching small businesses might alienate people from one’s cause (though it must be said that a majority of Americans believed that torching the Minneapolis police precinct was justified). Yet is that really the issue that merits the most attention? A recent piece published in Quillette exemplifies this clearly. In the piece entitled “Condemn this violence without equivocation,” Brown professor Glenn Loury predictably opens by writing:
“I thank God that the brutal and senseless killing of George Floyd—an unarmed black man—by the white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was captured on video for all the world to see. That shocking episode provides irrefutable evidence—yet again—of the callous, corrupt, and inhumane practices that are being used by some of those to whom we have granted the fearsome authority and weighty responsibility of policing the streets of our cities.”
Yet, the violence that we should “unequivocally condemn” is not the “callous, corrupt, and inhumane practices” from the police but, rather, the protestors’ actions. Much ink has also been spilled regarding the defacing or destruction of monuments. In “British Courage,” the previously mentioned piece that opens with the invocation of Peter Hitchens’ image, Rod Dreher denounces the fact that protesters targeted a statue of Churchill, an instrumental figure in the fight against Nazism in Europe. Now, Dreher does acknowledge that Churchill also held deeply racist beliefs, but he questions why self-identified anti-fascists would deface a monument to someone who literally fought a war against fascism. Dreher argues that we should recognize that historical figures were complex characters with often contradictory characteristics, rather than demonizing them. This much is true, but this also applies to lionizing historical figures, and I think it is fair to say that someone like Churchill is much closer to being in the latter category. I think it is safe to assume that most people think about the wartime Prime Minister who defeated Hitler when they think of Churchill, rather than the colonialist Prime Minister who brutalized India. In that sense, why is a time when conversations about racism are happening not precisely the time to call attention to the negative aspects of these figures, even if one disagrees with the methods?
This concern with the consequences of the protests—or the Left’s proposals to address police violence—suffers from the same issues that the denials of the existence of systemic racism do. Cleaning a statue after it was spray painted during a protest is not racist. However, it is at best suspicious to devote one’s energy to very publicly restoring a statue that was barely damaged during a protest against systemic racism, while, at the same time, staying silent on the subject matter of the protest. In the same manner, condemning the protestors’ actions without offering anything constructive to address the grievances being protested appears as little more than moral grandstanding. What is the point of writing superlatives to express horror at the death of George Floyd only to then forcefully condemn those at least trying to do something about it? The first part only serves to shield the author from accusations of racism, while the latter serves to signal to the author’s in-group that they are not one of those crazy lefties.
Again, I do believe one can legitimately believe that more law and order is the answer to police violence. One could argue, for example, that the answer is greatly to strengthen internal affairs departments. I would disagree with such an argument, and I believe it is too timid; however, that, at least, is a conversation worth having. And note that I am not advocating, for example, that white people should just shut up and listen, or anything like that. But once again unless all of these performances and arguments against the Left’s positions come with something concrete and actionable—rather than pure concern and skepticism about the Left’s position—they amount to little more than in-group virtue signaling and moral grandstanding.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.