Demonising Virtue, Value and Ethics 

Or how the right “invented” and weaponised the terms “political correctness”, “virtue signalling”, “woke” and “cancel culture”

As our politics has drifted relentlessly to the right, in recent years, and as the features of neo-liberal economies have increasingly driven inequality and environmental degradation, a part of this drift has been the labelling of virtue as sin. 

Ethics, values and morality are largely antithetical to conservatism in its neo-liberal form though, arguably, not to traditional conservatism in the form promoted formerly by Liberal stalwart, Alan Missen and, to some degree, more recently, by NSW Liberal Minister, Matt Kean.

One cannot promote a form of neo-liberalism that is damaging to the planet and the interests of most of its citizens if you tell the truth about it. And its very nature means that the promotion of ethical values such as equality, equity, justice, openness, transparency and respect are a threat.

In most normal contexts individuals or groups promoting values such as inclusiveness (aka community), fairness, equal rights and similar concepts would be seen as a positive trend and something to be welcomed.

For the neo-liberals, however, those things are a daily threat. That’s why they have created terms that have, largely, come into our lexicon in the last twenty years and which, normally might have been seen as positive terms and virtues, and have used those terms to demonise those virtues.

I give you the terms “political correctness”, “virtue signalling”, “woke” and “cancel culture”. All of these are invoked by the right as terms of denigration. But the real meaning and context of those terms are quite different from the way in which the right invokes them.

Let’s start with “woke”. In normal English parlance “woke” comes from the word “awake”. Except for insomniacs this is a positive virtue. We all regularly tell people to wake up or ask if they are awake. Similarly in almost every context, correctness, political or otherwise.

For the right, the problem with political correctness by which they mean things like support for Aboriginal rights, for human rights, for environmental issues, for inclusive language, for feminism and a slew of other issues, is that they are actually correct. Most people do not want a society that is inequitable, prejudiced, abusive. 

But it’s too hard for the right to actually say they don’t want those things because it’s a bit like saying that you beat your spouse. So it’s easier to try and paint the defenders of rights and equity as some sort of self-righteous wanker. Because no one likes a self-righteous person. Virtue signalling falls in the same basket. 

Consider, Christian morality. Generally it’s about virtue. How do you signal that virtue, by ostentatiously going to church every Sunday and proclaiming your righteousness in front of the community. This is what Scott Morrison does every time he goes to church and waves his hands around. He signals his personal concept of virtue. 

So for the right virtue signalling is fine providing it is their form of virtue. So the use of “virtue signalling” is to critique only the sort of virtues that threaten the neo liberal state and economy and its use as a pejorative is yet another form of gross hypocrisy.

Inevitably the right hates cancel culture because, today, it is used, largely, against conservative figures. But cancel culture has been with us in all of human history, in some form. You can argue for example that the casting out of individuals that offended against traditional indigenous cultures was a form of cancel culture. 

But cancel culture is a part of societal norms. When people are found guilty of crimes the state cancels them. They are consigned to prison where they become a form of invisible non-citizen. 

When our friends’ behaviour becomes beyond the pale we cancel them from our friendship groups. This is a normal and expected part of society designed to keep people’s behaviour within the bounds of what is acceptable to the majority. 

So when we hear critiques of cancel culture, it is a protest by the elite about the way in which modern social media and other publicity inhibits their freedom to exercise their privilege in ways which they have felt entitled, such as the sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.

These strategies are pervasive in our society and we can see them in operation on a daily basis both in the use of language and in day to day settings. 

Why do the LNP dislike Daniel Andrews daily media conferences? It’s only partly because they disagree with aspects of the Victorian Government’s approach to COVID19 but also because his availability, his openness and his transparency stand in contrast to the modus operandi of the Federal and NSW Governments which are about secrecy and confidentiality. 

But it’s not really acceptable to publicly criticise transparency and openness. By trying to make Andrew’s media conferences negative PR experiences for the Labor Government they hope to inhibit these demonstrations of public transparency that contrast with their Liberal counterparts.

It ‘s primarily why Morrison and Berejiklian don’t like giving media conferences; it exposes them to questioning and Andrew’s continued willingness to do so shows them up.

So for me I am happy to be a woke, politically correct virtue signaller who is cancelling the racists, bigots and misogynists.

Chris Harris


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