Trudi Jane Wyatt, MA, RP, CCC
Registered Psychotherapist

Psychotherapy for individual male and female adults in Ontario, Canada.

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416-901-0994 (no text)
130 Adelaide Street West PATH Toronto
By appointment only

Virtue Signalling and The Need to Take Pride in Your Good Character

Last week I first became aware of the popular new term – “virtue signalling” – as distinguished from actually being virtuous. I first heard it on an October 11th news program where the host explained, “These people are not virtuous – they’re virtue signallers. It’s a difference! Being virtuous sometimes costs something — could even hurt your career if you stand on principle.” (1)

This presently trendy, and rather thought-provoking term I find, actually reminds me of some much older concepts – the “Reaction Formation” and “Sophistry” – which date back to last century and even back to ancient Greece:

Dr. Sigmund Freud’s “Reaction Formation” Ego Defense Mechanism

As psychiatrist Neel Burton puts it, Reaction Formation is “An important method of transforming uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings into something more manageable… [Reaction Formation] is the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own”. Dr. Burton explains that “classic” examples of Reaction Formation include “the alcoholic who extols the virtues of abstinence, the rich kid who organizes anti-capitalist rallies, the absent father who occasionally returns with big gestures to spoil and smother his children, and the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy.” (2)

Sophistry, according to Aristotle

Virtue Signalling also reminds me of Aristotle’s conception of Sophistry: “Part of Aristotle’s point [In Nicomachean Ethics] is that there is an element to living well that transcends speech. As Hadot eloquently puts it, citing Greek and Roman sources, ‘traditionally people who developed an apparently philosophical discourse without trying to live their lives in accordance with their discourse, and without their discourse emanating from their life experience, were called sophists’ (2004, 174).” (3)

Whatever the particular era or nuance of the referents of this concept, and whatever the label of the day, the discussion generated underscores the general importance of being well-aware and even proud of (!) your objective virtues, so as not to be susceptible to anyone who would attempt to pull the wool over your eyes and make you think you are guilty of some alleged immorality, when in fact you are not.

Why is this important, to be aware and even proud of your virtues?

This importance is actually demonstrated well by (curiously controversial) author / philosopher Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957, 1985). For example, the character Francisco says to the character Rearden:

“The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced.”

And Cherryl Brooks is advised:

“But there are people who’ll try to hurt you through the good they see in you—knowing it’s the good, needing it and punishing you for it. Don’t let it break you when you discover that.”

The truth is, Cherryl and Rearden are virtuous but they can’t see this clearly enough:

“Lillian [Rearden’s wife] seemed to fit the image he had not known he held, had not known he wished to find; he saw the grace, the pride, the purity; the rest was in himself; he did not know that he was looking at a reflection.”

However you become aware of it – in a novel, in a philosophical text, in a psychology class, watching the news, or reading this post – it is important to be aware of these potentials to make you doubt your own good character. For they can be used by anyone – a partner, a colleague, a friend, a relative, politicians, charities, salespeople, etc. – to their benefit, such as via manipulation, if you are not self-aware and proud enough of who you are, how hard you work, and what you stand for, to stand up for yourself successfully, at the very least in your own mind.

For help with realizing, actualizing, and being confident in your own good character, please contact me to set up a first appointment.

Note that this post is not psychotherapy / counselling; please contact me or another professional if you require these services. If you need urgent support, consider Toronto Distress Centres at 416.408.4357. If you need immediate help, call 911 or go to your local Emergency Room. Note this post is for information only, does not imply that a professional relationship has been established with readers, is not advice, and does not imply intent to provide professional services to readers. Intended audience: Current adult residents of the Canadian province of Ontario only.

(1) Ezra Levant Show, Rebel Media, 11 October 2017.

(2) Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/why-people-are-so-often-the-opposite-what-they-appear, accessed 16 Oct 2017.

(3) George Duke, The internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/sophists, accessed 16Oct2017.

Trudi Jane Wyatt © 2018