In a political era driven by social media and moral grandstanding, it is not surprising to see more and more progressives falling victim to their own unrealistic ethical demands. Can the left fight for social, economic, and environmental justice without shooting itself in the foot?
ANBERRA – In 2015, journalist James Bartholomew coined the term “virtue signaling” to describe “public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice.” As a pithy phrase that perfectly captures a widespread phenomenon, the term became instantly popular. But virtue signaling is not just an act of performative self-righteousness. It has also become one of pure hypocrisy.
The gap between public virtue and private vice used to be most obvious on the part of right-wing politicians and conservative religious leaders, so many of whom have extolled the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, only to be caught engaging in (sometimes same-sex) extramarital affairs. But in the age of social media, it is those who regard themselves as progressive who seem disproportionately vulnerable to moral hypocrisy. And it doesn’t take much for progressive virtue-signalers to be caught with their slips showing, predictably triggering an eruption of schadenfreude.
GLOBAL WARMING AND HOT AIR
The problem is especially evident among environmental activists. Britain’s Prince Harry has been jet-setting around the world to warn people about global warming. Yet The Guardian calculates that “a UK citizen taking a single flight can have the same impact on the climate in a few hours as a person in one of the world’s least developed countries does in a whole year.” Worse, Harry often travels by private plane, which “is likely to generate as much as an entire village.”
Harry is hardly alone. When he traveled to Sicily in July for an A-list climate gathering organized by Google, he was among the delegates who arrived in 114 private jets (there was also a fleet of mega-yachts). As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney put it on Twitter: “Another celebrity environmental conference, another hypocritical display of mega yachts, private jets, and conspicuous consumption while billions live in energy poverty.”
Climate change is the most serious moral and political challenge of our day. Yet the discourse around it risks being infantilized. In the run-up to the United Nations climate summit this month, Swedish child-prophet Greta Thunberg, who refuses to fly, traveled to New York from Europe on a “zero-carbon” racing yacht. But while care was taken to reduce the environmental impact of the voyage itself, the construction of a carbon-fiber racing yacht nonetheless leaves a large carbon footprint. Arguably, the international attention generated by Thunberg’s voyage made that footprint (unlike Harry’s) worth it. But then one would have to acknowledge the whole truth: some members of her sailing crew returned to Europe by plane, while others flew across the Atlantic to sail the vessel back.
Or consider Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a liberal darling who carefully cultivated an image as a global champion of gender equality, diversity, and inclusiveness, even adopting formally “feminist” foreign policies. When asked why he had made a point of instituting gender parity in his cabinet, he replied, somewhat smugly, “Because it’s 2015.” The following year, he would boast that, “I have more Sikhs in my Cabinet than [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi does.” Yet with the end of his term approaching, his political future is in doubt. Trudeau has “talked the talk,” writes Kelly McParland of the National Post, “but failed miserably in the walk.”
s McParland points out, “Relentless virtue-signaling tends to lose its impact when the signals so often prove no more than words.” Over time, Trudeau has turned out to be mostly a show pony, with neither policy nous nor political street smarts. The first evidence of this came with his week-long trip to India in February 2018, which turned into a public-relations disaster at home, because it had all the hallmarks of a taxpayer-funded family vacation. (The Canadian delegation in India dined on meals prepared by an Indo-Canadian celebrity chef who had been flown in from Vancouver at public expense.)It was also a diplomatic disaster, because Trudeau had failed to study up on the Sikh dimension of Indian politics. Blinded by moral arrogance, his office ignored early warnings pointing out that past Khalistani (Sikh-separatist) terrorism remains a sensitive issue in India. And so, during the trip, Trudeau’s wife was photographed posing with Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian Sikh who had been convicted in 1986 for the attempted assassination of a visiting Indian cabinet minister. Worse, Atwal was also invited to the official dinner for Trudeau at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi.
But the affair took an even more astonishing turn when Trudeau’s national security adviser, Daniel Jean, suggested that Atwal’s presence had been arranged by factions within the Indian government, in order to sabotage Trudeau’s overtures to Modi. When pressed by Canadian parliamentarians to say whether he agreed with this conspiracy theory, Trudeau replied, “When one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it is because they know it to be true.” No evidence has emerged to support Jean’s claim.
JUST ANOTHER POLITICIAN
Trudeau’s brand suffered another major blow earlier this year. On February 7, The Globe and Mail reported that Trudeau’s office had tried to pressure then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould – an indigenous woman – to offer a deferred-prosecution agreement to a construction company facing criminal charges for bribery. The firm, SNC-Lavalin, has close ties to Trudeau’s Liberal Party, and is based in Quebec, Trudeau’s home province.
The scandal quickly snowballed. Wilson-Raybould, having been moved to another cabinet position, soon resigned. Her cabinet colleague Jane Philpott, then the president of the Treasury Board, quit in protest. In early April, both women were expelled from the Liberal Party altogether.
For a prime minister who flaunts his credentials as a social-justice warrior at every opportunity, the SNC-Lavalin affair has been a disaster. After all, at a UN meeting on gender equality in March 2016, Trudeau had promised “to keep saying loud and clear that I am a feminist” and challenged other world leaders to emulate him, by seeking out “those extraordinary women who can be leaders that we need.” In January 2018, he insisted that “when women speak up, it is our duty to listen to them and to believe them.” Yet just over a year later, his office was caught trying to discredit an independent, powerful, and high-profile indigenous female cabinet minister who had resisted its alleged attempts to intervene improperly in a criminal case.
Trudeau’s feminist credentials went up in smoke. He then tried to use his party’s parliamentary majority to shut down investigations of the scandal, but came up short. Mario Dion, the Canadian Parliament’s independent ethics commissioner, followed through with his own investigation and found that Trudeau violated Canadian ethics laws. Bizarrely, Trudeau then accepted responsibility for the scandal, but disagreed with Dion’s conclusions. Acting like more of a tinpot dictator than a paragon of virtue, his office has since been stonewalling an obstruction-of-justice investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
As if things weren’t bad enough, on September 18, Time magazine published a 2001 photo of a 29-year-old Trudeau at an Arabian Nights theme party where he dressed as Aladdin and wore “brownface.” Several additional photos of a black- and brownfaced Trudeau have since come to light. Duly acknowledging the racist history of such theatrical depictions, he expressed his regret and admitted that there could be more photos.
As many have observed, the images are all the more damaging because Trudeau has gone to such lengths to signal his virtue as a defender of inclusivity and diversity. His “preening moral superiority,” notes Henry Olsen in the Washington Post, has made the episode evidence of “a mind-blowing degree of hypocrisy.”
The blackface controversy lends further support to the argument that Trudeau is a political dilettante from a privileged background who mouths politically expedient progressive platitudes. But it also opens a window onto a broader social problem. Taking exception to blackface is understandable, given the deeply racist history of such imagery. But it is quite another matter to issue the same objection to Americans who don sombreros, cheongsams, or sarees, or to authors who write about cultures other than their own. More often than not, such complaints make a farce of what should be a serious discussion.
Among all the contrived grievances voiced by progressive activists today, “cultural appropriation” is the one most likely to lead to hypocrisy. For a highly representative example, consider the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, when the young Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied staged a public walkout to protest a keynote lecture by the UK-based American novelist Lionel Shriver (best known for We Need to Talk about Kevin). An Australian woman of Sudanese origin, Abdel-Magied has a long history of issuing attention-grabbing statements, such as: “Islam is the most feminist religion.”
Shriver’s own criticism of today’s “identity politics” was far more persuasive. “Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’ – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability,” Shriver noted, “are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.” The goal is to ring-fence any experience of the “other” in fiction writing.
Abdel-Magied explained her walkout in The Guardian. “The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air,” she wrote, “and I was reminded of my ‘place’ in the world.” Inevitably, inanity veered into hyperbole: “The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote is … the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.” Facing increasing hostility as a result of these controversial pronouncements, Abdel-Magied eventually relocated from Australia, decamping not to the Islamic Middle East or Sudan, but to the United Kingdom.
Shriver hopes that the charge of cultural appropriation is a “passing fad,” and we should hope with her. If the censoriousness continues to spread, we will eventually reach a point where the only genre suitable for publication is memoir. Much of Shakespeare’s work will have to go.
And in the meantime, the loudest progressive purveyors of outrage will continue to live and work in the Anglosphere, ranting in English to English-speaking audiences about the injustices they suffer, and raking in dollars, euros, and pounds for doing so. As Shriver recently pointed out, Abdel-Magied “has dined out on her rude exit [from my 2016 lecture] ever since,” and has published a novel herself – in English.
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO
Yet another example of self-defeating progressive hypocrisy can be found at the highest levels of global governance. Although UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made a show of appointing women to the organization’s top posts, no number of female assistant secretaries and under-secretaries can compensate for the fact that a woman has never served as secretary-general. In the 2016 race for the position, Guterres could have stepped aside to make way for one of the seven female candidates in the running. He did not.
In my 2015 book The United Nations, Peace and Security, I noted that 33 of then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 66 special envoys were Westerners, even though Western countries accounted for just 13% of the world’s population. By contrast, Asians made up almost 60% of the world’s people but held just seven of these coveted positions. A politics of virtue signaling that focuses wholly on gender disparities will not help to close this gap. The issue that really matters, intersectional justice, has been left by the wayside.
As a final example, in Australia, independent candidate Zali Steggall recently ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott from his parliamentary seat by campaigning on a theme of climate urgency. She also promised personally to switch to an electric vehicle, but has since complained that the government hasn’t done enough to make EVs affordable. Apparently, she wants taxpayers, whose average income of AUD82,436 ($55,620) is less than half of her generous parliamentary salary of AUD211,000, to cough up for a public subsidy.
As Steggall reminds us, it is tempting to take the moral high road when others are paying the toll. But she and many others also remind us that it is a risky road. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, hypocrisy is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the virtue-signaling it feeds on.