Value Signaling And Other Modern Monsters

Yesterday I wrote about a weird, twisted way in which, we, humans, are complicating our lives, by giving prevalence to signals over facts. Today, let’ focus on a very specific, and quite popular approach stemmed from this confusion, namely “value signaling”.

Simply put, “value signaling” is a specific behavior, in which people need to communicate their (perceived) contribution to the overall good – of the humanity, of the planet, of the local community, etc. It takes various forms, but most of them are just benign shells on top of an identity: changing their social media avatar picture with a ready-made frame in support of a specific case, short form posts like “I am x / je suis x”, or angry / condescending comments to opposing points of view.

Some of them are more consistent, like actually taking part in real-life gatherings, planting trees or cleaning beaches or forests. Even if these seem more consistent, they fall under the “value signaling” umbrella to the extent that they aren’t an actual lifestyle, they’re not a continuous stream of activities, but rather reactive, isolated bursts of outraged behavior. After the rage is consumed (by shouting slogans on the streets) or after the shot of self-gratifying coolaid is consumed (meaning after the beach or forest is temporarily cleaned), the value signalers are getting back to a more or less inactive style of living.

I’m not saying all people who are cleaning beaches or forests are doing this only for value signaling, I’m saying that those who are doing that on a regular basis, those who have this engrained in their lifestyle, don’t feel the need to broadcast it. Why would they? For them, it’s just business as usual, it’s not something worth presenting as special, or spectacular. That’s how they choose to live, day in and day out.

Value signaling is built on top of the same confusion by which we give more relevance to a signal – without checking if there are actual facts behind that signal – like in the example with the bear and the bushes. If we see bushes moving, we may infer there might be a bear behind them. Only this time, it’s on the “positive” side, it’s not rooted in fear. It’s based on the assumption that if we show off something, then we are actually doing that something.

But, as spectacular as it may look from the outside, it’s still stopping at the signal level, and that’s why I consider it a “modern monster”. Because people who are value signaling are genuinely thinking they are doing a good thing, just by signaling they are doing a good thing, without actually doing it, or without doing it consistently. Just because they change their social media picture with a frame, they expect to fulfill their perceived duty as a good person, and, even more, they expect to receive praise and admiration for that.

You’re not a good person just because you change your avatar picture on a social network. If you really stop for a minute and think about it, it’s completely meaningless. It’s just a meager signal in which you are mixing some pixels on a picture. That’s all there is. How many persons will actually live better because of that change? How many shortcomings will we collectively overcome because of that? How many people will get less confused, healthier or, I don’t know, will be able to actually make a living? How many trees are you planting, how many square meters of forests are you cleaning?

They’re just pixels.

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