First a definition.
Virtue signalling is not talking about a virtue one has. It is claiming to have a virtue that one does not. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Gautama Buddha or Jesus Christ can't be called virtue signallers since they tended to walk the walk and readily admitted their flaws.
A generation ago, the most common virtue signalling involved the family values and sexual morality crowd. The falls of US televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were the most entertaining, plus the much lamer recent scandal involving Colin Craig here in New Zealand. Far more sinister were the falls of New Zealand moraliser and paedophile Graham Capill and the Roman Catholic Church on a near-global scale.
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This century, though, the worst virtue signalling has concerned issues like employment arrangements and labour standards, the health and safety attributes of products, the environment generally and climate change specifically.
Environmentalists use the wonderful word "greenwashing" to describe this behaviour in their field.
Just as with family values a generation ago, the most shameless advocates for such issues have been found broadly in the entertainment industry. From Meryl Streep's false alarm about apples and alar in 1989; to those flocking to the #MeToo movement despite having covered up for Harvey Weinstein; to Emma Thompson flying first class from Los Angeles to London to join the Extinction Rebellion; to this week's revelation that Joaquin Phoenix is saving the planet by wearing a tuxedo more than once: movie stars and other performers have always been the world's most ludicrous virtue signallers.
Comedian Ricky Gervais calling them all out made this week's Golden Globes the most splendid awards ceremony in the industry's history.
As Gervais highlighted, the most common characteristic of people in the industry is their stupidity about anything outside it. Many were child stars who never really went to school. Just after Theresa May became Conservative Party leader in 2016, more than 40 years after Margaret Thatcher, I recall a conversation with a leading New Zealand entertainer – one taken very seriously on politics and feminist issues by the current liberal establishment – who was astonished the British had finally selected a woman prime minister.
Some interpreted Gervais as mocking Greta Thunberg when he told the Hollywood luvvies that they know nothing about the real world having spent less time in school than the 17-year-old climate change activist. In fact, his message was more likely the opposite: that Thunberg has taken time to broadly understand the issues about which she speaks and operates with an intelligence and integrity unbeknown to Hollywood stars.
We should never have taken entertainers so seriously on matters beyond their expertise. Gervais' intervention hopefully means they will be ridiculed next time they pop up lecturing us on any topic, from family values to food safety.
The more important target of Gervais' remarks were the companies that have disingenuously put virtue at the heart of their brands. He named Apple, Amazon and Disney but his list could be expanded to most of the corporate world, including surely the majority of New Zealand's so-called Climate Leaders Coalition.
The reality is that companies all too often sign up to such initiatives not because their pledges reflect their activity but as a substitute for action.
The same is true politically.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the leaders of the National, Green and NZ First parties boast about the world-historical nature of their Zero Carbon Act but the country's biggest greenhouse gas emitters have been happy to go along with it knowing it does little more than set up a perpetual working group in the form of a toothless Climate Commission.
So too Ardern's Poverty Reduction Act, which is entirely about overpaid bureaucrats writing reports rather than overworked social workers helping the marginalised.
Likewise, not a single new project will go ahead because the Government has set up a new Infrastructure Commission. Its political purpose is to provide an excuse for inaction.
Whether climate change, poverty or new roads, railways and pipes, there's nothing a politician likes more than to kick for touch by saying "that's something about which we're getting advice from the commission".
The commissions, of course, are made up of the same bureaucrats responsible for the problems in the first place, but with new business cards and coffee machines. Their writing a new report enables the politician to signal an intention to make a decision without ever having to do so.
Thunberg has her critics, both genuine and creepy, but, like Gervais, is at least willing to call out corporate and political hypocrisy. Speaking to the UN's 25th annual climate change jamboree in Madrid in December, she even confessed her own climate strikes had achieved nothing since emissions had continued to rise. Not to worry, the 25,000 governmental, NGO and corporate delegates who jetted into Madrid will be back together again in Glasgow this November.
Gervais highlighted the hypocrisy of the world's most stupid people but the more reprehensible dishonesty is among those smart enough to know better. We should remember his message the next time an airline claims to be saving the planet by planting a few trees, a food manufacturer describes its product as artisan or supporting world peace, a fast-food joint replaces plastic spoons with wooden ones, a retailer says buying its products helps put out bushfires, a celibate cleric is preoccupied about sexual morality, or a politician proposes a new talkshop as a substitute for decisions.
It's almost always bullshit: an attempt to associate with a virtue the speaker has no intention of upholding. Gervais' performance should motivate us to become more discerning and demanding in both our political and consumer behaviour.