There are two big problems with the phenomenon of virtue signaling. The first, which most people immediately recognize, has to do with the “signaling” aspect of it. Whenever an individual or group is projecting or communicating a quality they don’t actually possess, it’s actually just hypocrisy. For example, an influencer on Instagram posts a black box to show concern for black lives when it’s actually the furthest thing from that person’s mind. Many of them are either selfish narcissists pretending to care about an ostensibly marginalized group, or cowards who are just terrified about the risk involved in standing apart from the zeitgeist.
The second problem of virtue signaling, which fewer people notice, has to do with the “virtue” aspect of it. The virtue being signaled is often undermined and harmed by the performance of it. Again, using the example of the Instagram influencers posting a black box, their false support for black lives diminishes actual support for black lives. Instead of protecting and investing in black communities and offering black Americans more opportunities, they denigrate and demonize the very institutions that might accomplish this objective, especially the nuclear family and local law enforcement.
Although the Left quixotically insists the tragedy of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death by police exemplifies systemic racism, it really has more to do with the problem of virtue signaling. Nichols’ story actually began right after the death of George Floyd, when the hive mind of corporate media, the Democratic Party, and leftist activists all declared in unison that American police officers were violent racists who threatened the lives and livelihoods of black Americans. Because of this newfound consensus, defunding the police became the easy way for people to signal their support for black Americans. And with one voice, this goal was foisted upon black communities and, in many places like Memphis, accomplished.
Of course, this was all hypocritical. The people who claimed to champion the black community didn’t really care about black people—in fact, many of them cheered on Black Lives Matter and Antifa rioters burning down black-owned businesses. They just wanted to appear virtuous and progressive with the least possible effort, damn the consequences to those they profess to offer help.
The consequences were substantial. The virtue signaling behind defunding the police significantly diminished the very real virtues of vigorous policing. Those who entered law enforcement to protect communities and fight crime were now actively targeted as racist oppressors. As anyone could predict (and many did), fewer people wanted to become police officers and fewer police officers dared put themselves in a position to be accused. Consequently, police departments would be hollowed out and crime would increase in every major city in the country.
This situation has forced many city police departments to replenish their ranks by lowering their standards and raising their pay. According to Olivia Rondeau at The Post Millennial, this is exactly what happened in Memphis, where the Memphis Police Department offered “$15,000 signing bonuses,” dropped the requirement of having “an associate’s degree or 54 college credit hours,” “lowered the fitness requirements,” and “even offered waivers for felons to join the force.” In effect, defunding the police ironically led to paying even more money for random thugs off the street who could act like cops. And contrary to the uninformed assumptions of complacent anti-police leftists, law enforcement happens to be a difficult job that requires a high level of skill, fortitude, and intelligence.
Sure enough, it was only a matter of time before a suspect resisting arrest would suffer at the hands of officers who lack such skill, fortitude, and intelligence to handle the situation properly. In this case as well as others, however, it’s important for the public to resist the urge to judge the Memphis police officers before all the facts are given. As Eddie Scarry explains at The Federalist, there are many open questions about the attack that still need to be answered.
What should be apparent to everyone in the death of Nichols, however, is how subversive and destructive the “defund the police” movement has been to this country. It continues to bear poisonous fruit. And yet leftist commentators remain committed to this rhetoric, regardless of the evidence about its consequences.
And what would any of them want in place of this supposedly racist institution? It doesn’t matter because they are only trying to virtue signal. It’s enough that people are listening to them and see them as good people because that is their only true objective. As Anthony Daniels argues in The New Criterion, this kind of attitude is the inevitable result of a decadent, postmodern society that confuses a person expressing the right opinion (i.e., virtue signaling) with a person performing the right action (i.e., virtue).
Whatever else comes from the story of Tyre Nichols’ death, it should be understood that virtue signaling about policing is more than just stupid; it’s dangerous. If Americans want to protect suspects from wrongful arrests and excessive force, they need to honor and trust their police officers. That means giving them the proper training, pay, resources, and respect they need to do their jobs well. The alternative is an environment where everyone—suspects, officers, and bystanders—are in danger of becoming victims, and society at large descends into the chaos that’s already beginning to manifest itself in the country’s urban centers.