Jordan Peterson, Donald Trump And The Power Of “Vice Signaling”

There’s a popular phrase in the right-wing corners of the Web that spend their time railing against “social justice warriors” and other boogeymen of diversity: “virtue signaling.”

In short, it means the display of an opinion that’s designed to enhance your standing within a social group. So to the_donald centipedes and other fellow travelers, expressing opinions like “the depiction of women in media can be sexist” or “police violence is disproportionately directed towards Black people” doesn’t demonstrate actual concern, but rather a desire to ingratiate one’s self into a social group.

Obviously this argument is fallacious — plenty of people have legitimate concerns about these subjects, especially the people affected by them. “Virtue signaling” is simply a linguistic trick to push back against social change, something conservatism has been deploying for centuries.

That said, for every virtue there must be a vice, and it’s instructive to see how the power of publicly espousing contrary opinions can make a star out of the most unlikely figures.

Take Jordan Peterson. The Canadian philosopher is experiencing a media moment following the publication of his self-help tome “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos,” in which he exhorts his readership to stand up straight and keep their rooms clean. Not exactly the kind of mind-blowing advice that we’d expect from such a lauded thinker, but Peterson’s fame doesn’t come so much from his ideas (or his clinical work), but rather from some expert and well-timed vice signaling.

Peterson’s fans don’t flock to him because of their deep desire to explore Jungian archetypicality. They don’t watch his droning YouTube lectures out of a desire for self-improvement. Instead, he’s been adopted as the top thinker of the Pepe set because his initial foray into the public sphere came as the result of his refusal to address transgender or agender individuals by their chosen pronouns.

This is an absurdly popular position among Internet trolls, for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it upsets people. In a culture that’s always in pursuit of the lulz, striking at a core tenet of somebody’s identity can yield the kind of aggrieved reactions that spike endorphins in a troll’s brain. Gender identity, like race and sexual orientation, is considered “off limits” in polite discourse because it’s not something that individuals have conscious control over. But the whole point of vice signaling is an overt rejection of polite discourse.

Peterson’s public stance against pronouns brought him to the attention of the Gamergate and new-right crowd, who amplified him the same way they did the other charlatans and grifters that were willing to blame feminism for the world’s ills. Because he was willing to signal his opposition to something that is considered a basic courtesy in the liberal West, he was adopted by them and began to tailor his rhetoric towards them. Now YouTube runneth over with clips from his lectures titled things like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS Clueless SJW,” viewed hundreds of thousands of times by his acolytes who thirst to say the same things.

It’s more than fair to say that these groups’ support of Peterson and his work isn’t anchored in his actual philosophy. They latched onto him not knowing anything about him other than his vice signal, and he became one of the movement’s many /ourguys/, a movement that would messily climax with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. These people weren’t looking for a self-help book or an exploration of Jungian archetypes. They wanted someone to piss off the libs with, and he gleefully acquiesced.

It’s been observed that the core policy of Trump’s support base is incoherent animus at best — some are hardcore libertarians who believed that as President he’d cut regulations and legalize weed, while others are midwestern Evangelicals lusting for him to criminalize abortion and homosexuality. What unites these people beyond ideology is their shared interest in speaking the unspeakable. It’s a strictly reactionary philosophy based on inflicting as much suffering as possible onto those outside of their group.

Trump’s campaign was an extended bleat of blatant vice signaling. “Muslims are terrorists. Mexicans are criminals. Women want to be sexually assaulted.” All of the opinions that this group of Americans have been dying to say out loud as their white country eroded away from underneath them, broadcast on cable TV by a guy allegedly richer than Croesus. Trump’s vice signal struck a chord amongst people who felt they couldn’t express these opinions publicly.

In the intervening years, we’ve seen a cottage industry of vice signaling in academia and media spring up, from Bret Weinstein at Evergreen to the New York Times’ inceasingly lunkheaded contrarian op-ed writers. Their adoption by the online Right doesn’t come with any interest in their actual scholarly work. Instead, it’s simply their willingness to torment their political opponents that makes them relevant.

It’s ironic that Peterson’s pivot to the mass market is in the form of a self-help book, because the essential message of a vice signal is that it’s never you that needs to change — the world needs to change around you. The messages of virtue signaling are aligned with improving the body politic, treating others with the same respect you’d like to be treated and creating a more equitable culture. But vice signaling says that the health of others is less important than your own individual comforts. It’s an expression of true selfishness, which in a world rapidly screeching towards total collapse is the ultimate vice.

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