First things first… I’m using BS in the title as short for bullshit, and VS as short for virtue signaling. What brought me to this tentative claim? A conversation with my husband earlier today highlighted a pattern which I believe contributes to gridlock we experience everywhere.
A complex problem presents itself, and someone or a small group of people shows some real dedication in proposing how to advance the situation. The way I look at this from a figurative 30,000-feet perspective is this: energy would like to flow in a life serving manner, and “the problem” is in the way of that, which requires a resolution, so it can flow.
If you have ever attempted to solve a complex problem with many moving pieces — say, trying to have 20 people agree on a location for an outing, everyone with their own preferences and restrictions — you may appreciate that this is difficult as it is.
Imagine being the person who has accepted the responsibility of working on a solution. For the energy to flow, you have thought about it, and come up with a provisional way forward. For argument’s sake, let’s say your proposal for the “20-people outing problem” is to suggest three locations, and have people vote.
You begin implementing the solution, and the initial feedback is something like 8 people favoring one location, and one person each favoring the second and third. And then the VS happens:
Someone, who may have truly good intentions, pipes up and says something like, “I voted for the majority location, but I think it’s really hard for everyone else, because they may feel excluded.” — and importantly (for it to be VS), they leave it at that.
What happened? The person makes a seemingly innocuous (and true) observation. Why do I call this VS? Well, from the perspective of everyone in the group, this clearly shows care and respect for the people, no? Maybe it does, but it seems to show little respect for the time the person who proposes the path forward has put into it, and — in the absence of offering a better solution — seems to put the ball back into that person’s court. Surely, that person remains responsible for improving the solution, yes?
More importantly, however, it provides an immediate opportunity for what I might call an “energy blockage”, or at least an obstacle and restriction for energy to flow. Part of the blockage comes from the oppositional nature of the contribution itself. The person who made the proposal may feel the need to defend themselves, potentially diverting precious energy into useless quibbling, or maybe demoralizing everyone around.
That’s why I call this form of BS, well, VS. It looks like a genuinely positive contribution while in reality creating rather than removing obstacles for energy flow. And other than regular BS, which with a little intelligence can be relatively easily dismissed, VS seems really to come “from the heart” and provide a true and potentially important contribution. So how can you argue with it?
I would now like to offer two practical considerations — mostly for myself, but as a hypothetical approach to anyone reading this post — for how to improve the flow of energy in their life in such situations. The first consideration is about when I, myself, feel tempted to “speak up” and point out an aspect of a proposal which I could plausibly defend as a drawback.
Going forward, I want to ask myself these questions: Does what I have to offer improve the flow of energy in life affirming ways, or does it rather restrict energy flow? Is my contribution made to prevent a grave mistake that might otherwise seriously endanger my or others’ well-being? And finally, is it possible that one of the reasons I want to say something is to receive some form of a “pat on the back” from others? Conversely, am I willing to actually exert energy myself to improve the existing proposal? Really?
The second consideration applies to situations where I, personally, or as a member of a group, propose a solution, and someone else offers something that, at the very least, provides an obstacle for the proposal to go forward. Similar questions apply, and if I sense that the obstacle might be a form of VS, I want to consider calling this out — ideally first in private — to the person making the contribution. Maybe they really can see something I cannot see, and their contribution prevents a big mistake on my part.
But in any case, I want to feel comfortable enough to approach someone who brings up such an obstacle with the suggestion of, “well, how about you help me or us solve the problem?” If at that point the person’s interest dissipates — say, by giving a vague excuse of being too busy — it then at least seems that their initial care and concern was rather superficial. They are not willing to put their money where their mouth is.
That, to me, is the ultimate source of VS: the tendency in current debate culture to get away from a situation with a clear reward (the proverbial pat on the back for having the right attitude and “contributing” care and consideration to a problem) for a contribution without ever having to shoulder real responsibility for it.
So long as I let myself (and others) get away with that feeling of “having done the right thing” for merely stating the obvious — a complex problem is almost always impossible to solve optimally with a single-shot approach, and there will inevitably be downsides to any initial proposal — I believe I am contributing to the dysfunction of our collective problem solving capacity.
Instead, I want to become more aware of VS and call people out on it. And, of course, what’s important is doing so in a way that doesn’t, in itself, become a form of VS. Because just saying “That’s VS!” is exactly the same issue. So, what can I do better than merely contributing VS? Offering an incremental improvement to what’s already on the table. And if can’t do that, then maybe best not say anything, unless my contribution really does prevent major harm somewhere.