By Gaurav Kale
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard your fair share of news in the past six months. Not just New York Times front page articles either—I’m talking threads of videos on Twitter, weekly texts from Grandma about the newest conspiracy theory, perhaps even the weekly emails from Gene Block about the newest mission statement. There’s been so much sensational news this year that we have come to disregard stories that would have made headlines just a year ago. And while this does bring up a whole other set of issues to deal with sometime in the near future, it has positively brought attention to virtue signaling in politics and our daily lives.
Grand displays that would have previously satiated public opinion are today correctly viewed as empty gestures. When I say virtue signaling is a problem, that doesn’t mean I fault people who want positive social change, or even those that think that posting a flyer on instagram is the way to achieve it. For the most part, people might be a little confused, but they’ve got the right spirit. The real blame lies with the people in positions to make a difference— the politicians and leaders—that have the direct power to help change happen, and yet continue to peddle promises.
On the national political stage, this tactic is nothing new. According to the American Institute of Economic Research, signaling arises from a lack of consequence. The way our democratic system is set up, politicians can make false promises and moralizing claims without any actual plan in place. Even if they fail to deliver, blame is dispersed on the “the bureaucratic system” and responsibility shirked. We’ve often seen candidates run on platforms of exciting promises to ultimately fall short of their lofty goals. The other form of virtue signaling is the one we saw largely this summer, where social issues get pushed to the side, and in exchange the people get a new mural or a changed street name. We saw it in light of the George Floyd protests, where politicians from both parties kneeled for eight minutes forty-six seconds, and then proceeded to do virtually nothing about it in the next six months. Instead of legislation, we got “Black Lives Matter” painted on roads and well wishes in interviews while police continued to throw tear gas at protesters on those same streets. The problem isn’t that these gestures are totally inconsequential, but rather that the people making them have the literal authority to draft and pass legislation for legal change, yet do not.
The problem with virtue signaling extends to UCLA too. I’m sure all of us are tired of opening emails from Admin that talk about “community values” and “standing with social justice,” especially when the same body doesn’t seem to extend the same ideals to its own students. For example, in a recent email regarding the election, the office of the chancellor talked about dealing with stress and current events, and listed CAPS as a resource for students–the same CAPS that is infamous for somehow always being too busy for appointments. Along the same lines are the emails about mental health and financial issues during the pandemic. In the spring, P/ NP courses were offered to help keep students afloat. Yet, for the most part, every department has decreased P/NP availability, which doesn’t make sense considering that many people’s situations have gotten worse over the last six months. Housing is another example. As dorms and apartments went from doubles to singles, students planning to stay in university housing were simply expected to pay thedifference in cost. And for those who didn’t have scholarships or enough aid, the university simply advised “reach[ing] out to our Economic Crisis Response Team for assistance.” Once again, it’s an example of people with the power to make some sort of administrative change saying “trust us, we know what you guys are going through.”
Across every example of virtue signaling, the real problem keeps coming back to consequence. Politicians are historically able to make some sort of symbolic change (attempting to “pass” a bill that they know has no chance of going through, for example), and appease the public long enough to get reelected. Similarly, universities know that students will continue to pay tuition and housing fees, because who doesn’t want the college experience? As long as there’s no threat to their cash flow, universities have no incentive to actually act. Adding responsibility to these institutions has been proven to help somewhat. In the private sector, if a company promises on a goodwill food drive, even if it is just in the name of good PR, they end up needing to invest real money into making that initiative a reality, or they risk losing face. Although the intent might not always be there, some steps are still being taken in a positive direction, and people getting aid.
And perhaps the best way to put the same pressure on our government and schools is to actively take part. As much as protests and revolutionary campaigns help externally, the same pushback coming from within the system forces its leaders to actively deal with the peoples’ problems, or be forced out of office by an incumbent. Fortunately, we belong to a generation adept at navigating between bs and reality on the internet. That’s all the tools we need to identify and act on virtue signaling from those in power.