Rhetorical Martial Arts, Part B: Tactic #12: Claiming moral high ground, Virtue signalling
Futurescapes21C, All rights reserved 2019
Posted March 29, 2019, rev. April 24, 2019
I don't "jump" to conclusions, I arrive at them slowly and often painfully, sometimes after decades of digging and reflection. One is that conservatives, traditionalists and the common sense majority have been beaten into submission and sidelined in the culture war by neoliberal activists and their political enablers. Dissenters or resisters, as we might refer to ourselves, have for the most part been waging ineffectual rear guard actions. While there are no doubt several reasons for this state of affairs, the most obvious has been an inability to counter the relentless bombardment of lies, weaponized language and deception. Let's face it; we have been losing the war of words. Given that dissenters now find themselves struggling to retain the basic right to express an alternative view, it's clear we have no choice. We must fight back.
Our resistance begins with learning some rhetorical self-defence. In the process of countering the assault on things we hold dear, we can also elevate the calibre of political discourse. But we must first recognize the kinds of logical fallacies being brought against us daily. This week, I am examining tactic #12, Claiming moral high ground, virtue-signalling.
Tactic #12: Claiming moral high ground, virtue-signalling
"Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak: and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws." -- John Adams
"But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does." (Matthew 6:3)
The logic of situating a fortress on a mountainous slope or mountain top is obvious. For starters, it’s imposing, and for would-be invaders, intimidating. But the ultimate physical advantage is that high ground transforms gravity into an ally of its defenders and an enemy of attackers. With the advantage of superior positioning, defenders can mercilessly rain down arrows, fire, boiling oil, or some other deterrent on the heads of attackers. The latter meanwhile must struggle with the three-fold challenge of mounting an attack, ascending the slope and fortress walls, and protecting their forces from the deadly assault from above.
The same can be said of strategically positioned political arguments. Political opponents gain a significant advantage by securing the (perceived) moral high ground. And like defenders of a physical fortress, our opponents can hurl scorn from on high down upon the heads of their enemies. Political leaders gain a further advantage in gilding their arrows/arguments with a veneer of high moral purpose, giving the impression that they are the product of (divine) inspiration. Arguments dressed as religious precepts and coming from the high priests of the political theology are likely to bypass critical thinking filters. Thus, like the fortress on the mountain top, they become unassailable.
This puts the lonely dissenter or critic of political orthodoxy at an inherent disadvantage. While court jesters have had their place historically, emperors past and present have also been quick to summarily convict their critics of heresy or insolence. (In Canada, the charges are more likely to be "racism," "hatred" or "islamophobia" or "misgendering.") Clearly, owning the perceived moral high ground confers a significant power advantage to incumbents. But it can’t be taken for granted – the position of moral superiority, once assumed, must be continuously guarded against encroachment. So a strict regimen of daily virtue-signaling must be maintained.
No political leader in my memory has relied more heavily on constructing a political fortress upon presumed moral highground and buttressing it with constant virtue-signaling than Justin Trudeau. Trudeau and his Liberal administration have tapped every possible avenue of virtue point accumulation with near daily claims of “standing up for” some member of the protected classes: members of the LGBT+, community, feminists, refugees/immigrants, Zionists, aboriginals, Muslims. And its stated commitment to "climate change action” provides the Liberals with another basis for moral exhibitionism.
The Progressive virtue-manufacturing model is central to Trudeau’s political strategy, policy lens and personal brand. Journalist, Jonathan Kay, describes how from the outset Trudeau adopted a progressive identity, and, I would add, he wields it like a weapon.
Trudeau's woke identity is something he brought into office from day one. He banned anyone with pro-life views from his caucus, then tried to force recipients of a Canadian summer-jobs fund (including Bible camps) to declare support for pro-choice dogma. When asked why he insisted on creating Ottawa's first gender-balanced cabinet, Trudeau declared, “because it’s 2015” (as if to suggest that anyone who didn't support affirmative action was a misogynist…").
Under the Trudeau government's bill C-16, pronoun misusage could become actionable under Canadian human-rights law. His government has introduced new environmental impact assessments that require project managers to impute "the intersection of sex and gender with other identity factors" in their environmental analysis.(1)
Some critics describe such zealotry as ideological possession. It may well be, but to the objective eye, it's also selective, superficial, self-serving, and ultimately, unsustainable. There's no shortage of examples. In January of 2017, Donald Trump imposed a "travel ban" on seven Muslim countries. On January 28, 2017 at 4.20 pm, Trudeau, seized the opportunity to burnish his star against a contrasting Trump policy backdrop and tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.“
Financial Post columnist, Diane Francis, described it as an example of “irresponsible” tweeting with serious consequences.
"Before the tweet, border officials prevented 315 people a month from illegally crossing the border. Post-tweet in 2017, about 18,149 illegally crossed the border, then claimed asylum as refugees — even after entering illegally — and were allowed to stay, get welfare, education, housing, healthcare and work permits. By May 2018, the number of refugee cases pending has jumped to 54,906 from 18,348 in December 2016. That’s the population of Grande Prairie, Alberta or Granby, Quebec."
The surge of refugees at a time of US policy uncertainty brought unprecedented pressure on Canada's porous borders, its immigration processing, and cities unprepared for the influx. Toronto’s mayor described the refugee housing situation in his city as a "crisis," and at least one Quebec politician called for a wall to stem the tide.(2) I have also heard Ottawa’s mayor’s lament that refugees in his city were living on the streets, and read that Manitoba’s premier called on the federal government to provided assistance to relieve the financial burden.
There’s no mystery of course to the transactional, quid pro quo nature of such a moral highground ploy. This tweet brought new migrants into Canada and simultaneously positioned Mr. Trudeau as the friend of Canada’s growing immigrant population. The Liberals will in turn, expect their new fans to support them at the ballot box in the coming 2019 election. It's a time-tested cynical political play that ultimately amounts to corralling immigrant minorities to harvest their votes.
A closer analysis of virtue signaling reveals its dual thrust. In short, it can be used to boost the virtue rating of the sender and weaponized to discredit an opponent at the same time. This is illustrated in a March 15 tweet from Liberal cabinet minster, Catherine Mckenna, following the mosque shooting in New Zealand.
"I spoke to parents at Ottawa Main Mosque today whose kids are too scared to pray & go to school.
Meanwhile Andrew Scheer has to be called out before he can call out Islamophobia.
We all need to stand together against racism, hatred & violence of all kinds. All of us."(3)
The first sentence is the play for virtue points essentially saying: "I'm compassionate and caring." The second is the weaponized portion intended to burn Andrew Scheer for his moral shabbiness. (the boiling oil dumped from the parapet of incumbent power.) And the third sentence affirms McKeena’s high-mindedness as she seemingly wants to bring people together. The essentially Orwellian Newspeak contradiction is inescapable, however, as she is condemning a political opponent (implying you should to) and simultaneously calling for unity. It's social media politics on the cheap and cheap politics.
Here’s a March 27 tweet from the Liberal Party, again demonstrating the sweet and sour nature of a weaponized tweet. (As an aside, my grade nine English teacher would likely have red circled the second sentence as a “run on” sentence.)
“Justin Trudeau and the Liberal team will always support women’s rights and equality. Every Canadian deserves a real and fair chance at success, and its time Andrew Scheer stopped putting politics before people.” #cdnpoll
Translation: “We’re good and he’s bad.”
I often quote a former director from my days working in a provincial agriculture department, a man who possessed the “gift" of satire. Big Dave once summed up the superficial bent of politics and opportunistic politicians with the old axiom: "If you can fake sincerity, you have it made." In the Post Truth Era, politics has been reduced to a science where image-making and optics are everything. Empathy, interest and concern are ingredients formulated and dispensed as needed on behalf of politicians by their PR and communications specialists. Faking sincerity is standard practice.
The problem with moral exhibitionism is that it’s skin deep at best and its conscience more often than not, imaginary. That is, it exists solely in the mind of the claimant. A Swedish TV channel conducted an on-the-spot street test of authenticity in an unnamed city in Sweden. Interviewees were asked what they thought of the influx of refugees into the country and if Swedes should “rise to the occasion” and take refugees into their homes. They were also asked if they would personally consider doing so if the opportunity presented itself. The responses were consistently, “yes.”
Once that was established, the interviewer called their bluff. He then introduced a man named Ali, and asked the interviewee if he or she had room for Ali in his/her home. The excuses ranged from lack of space, commitment to an existing renter and sick children to early morning meetings, busy schedules and leasing restrictions.(4) The exercise may offer some insight into the psychology of Swedes as it relates to their sense of immigration “responsibilities.” Lest we “cast the first stone,” however, my guess is that the perennial gap between affirming a general idea in principal, and as a collective responsibility on the one hand, and taking personal action on the other, is a human trait. Aah yes, humility is a uncomfortable virtue.
The discerning shouldn't associate virtue with external appearances or social position. The wealthy and the powerful (the elite), their pretensions aside, aren't inherently more caring or benevolent. In fact, there may be a negative correlation between such advantages and empathetic behaviour. Dascher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the effects of wealth and power for decades. In one of his experiments, researchers observed drivers at a busy intersection. They found that people in expensive cars were four times more likely to cut off other drivers and ignore right-of-way laws.
“It told us that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes you feel like you’re above the law, that allows you to treat others like they don’t exist,” Keltner said. (5)
One wonders if these same drivers were aware of the distain they exhibited toward fellow drivers or lived in a state of denial.
The tenets of social justice or at least its applications are riddled with contradictions. Across the border, US-Democrats and Republicans were seemingly outraged by the practice of separating children from parents or guardians (some turn out to be traffickers) during the processing of refugees at the Southern US border.(6) My guess, however, is that support for abortion, a terminal form of parent-child separation accounting for roughly 300,000 unborn annually remains strong among many who protested border separation the loudest. Certainly, that loss to parents and humanity doesn't appear to be a subject of concern on the part of the current President of Planned Parenthood, who bragged on late night TV that she was President Trump's "nightmare."(7)
While the subject of climate change is clearly beyond the scope of this essay, I can offer an easy test of the oft-stated Liberal commitment to “climate change action." Presumably advocates are deeply concerned about weather extremes and the associated costs and consequences to people and the planet. But how deep does the concern go? Are advocates sufficiently concerned to demand public disclosure and an investigation of the effects of the covert weather geo-engineering programs employed by the US, China and Russia for decades?(8)(9) No? Well, alrighty then.
The shallow deceptiveness of do-it-yourself virtue constructs inherent in identity politics seems apparent, and yet millions remain faithful adherents. I have for some time speculated that this kind of observance is suggestive of a religious cult. Journalist, Shadi Hamid, writing in the Atlantic about outrage culture, makes a similar observation.
“This is why identity politics can sometimes seem like a new sort of political theology. Belief and conviction are good things, but only if there’s something to believe in. Identity politics and the virtue-outbidding it necessitates often signal the absence of religion in search of religion—with followers mimicking its constituent elements: ritual, purity, atonement, and excommunication.
In purely practical terms, moral posturing doesn’t usually change anyone’s mind, because people intuitively interpret it “as a form of jockeying for in-group status.” But it doesn’t need to change minds, nor is it necessarily supposed to. Its point is to transform politics into a question of purity.” (10)
It falls to astute critics then to test the authenticity and expose the shallowness of politicians, their politics and their policy proposals where applicable. I’ll go farther in fact and argue that it's our civic duty. The underlying question is: Are they aimed at genuine policy solutions or winning the purity or virtue competition? We also are also obliged to expose the destructive outcomes of politic and policies essentially based on good intentions. History demonstrates just how often the politics of good intentions has led humanity down the road to hellish outcomes. For a cautionary highlighting of several of those occasions when the truth of the proverb was born out, see Ewan Morrison's article, "The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions"(11).
Sometimes, straightforward truth-telling is all it takes to penetrate the spell of human delusions. I am an ardent admirer of the young boy who, standing at his mom’s side, pointed out the nakedness of a vain Emperor parading in the public square in his imaginary new "clothes." HIs childish instinct spared the entire village the indignity and the insanity of pretending the emperor was dressed in finery just to satisfy an imperial delusion. I am similarly indebted to those who expose the hubris of today's naked emperors and their enablers in high places(12). Without them, it seems, we risk being forcibly immersed in a world of delusion and darkness. I doubt there has ever been a greater need for such heroes to emerge in the West than now.
Diane Francis called out Trudeau's irresponsible "send me your troubled masses" tweet contending he should repair the damage it caused. In other writing, I have called attention to the inherent hypocrisy in Trudeau’s stance on immigration and its obvious contradictions. A simple test of the authenticity of his proclaimed concern for refugees is this: “Since the majority of immigrants are created by US-led regime change wars in the Middle East and beyond, what have you done to stop or at least impede Washington’s war machine? Did you stand up for Syrians under attack by mercenaries from 40 countries? What are you doing to protect Venezuela from a regime change coup? (Or, I see. You're supporting the coup?) And, “When will you tell the regime changers to abandon the provocative anti -Iran and anti-Russia war propaganda?”
Critics of Trudeau’s handling of the SNC Lavalin affair have exposed the contradictions in his feminist posturing. Specifically, he flaunted his progressive virtue when appointing what were, presumably, “strong, independent” women to his cabinet. But when one such person, Attorney General Jody Wilson Raybould refused to grant SNC Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement, she alleges she was subjected to a lengthy pressure campaign and veiled threats from Trudeau, his Minister of Finance and numerous government officials.(13) Ultimately, Wilson Raybould was demoted to lesser role in the Trudeau government. In her analysis of Trudeau's conduct in the matter, Conservative MP, Michelle Rempel described Trudeau as a “fake feminist.”(14)
Jonathan Kay described another apparent contradiction this way.
“… it is impossible to reconcile Butts' attempt to discredit Wilson-Raybould's narrative wholesale without making nonsense of Trudeau's woke 2018 claim that "when women speak up, it is our duty to listen to them and to believe them."
Irish journalist, Danielle Ryan sees a commonality in the façade of political correctness of Trudaeau and Macron.
“But the Macrons and the Trudeaus of the world are monsters in disguise - and they are just as dangerous. They exhibit extreme arrogance, running around lecturing the world on right and wrong, claiming a position on the moral high-ground. It's all a bad joke.” (15)
Licia Corbella, in a March 30 Calgary Herald article, offers more insight into what lies beneath the disguise and the moral posturing. She notes that the contents of the taped phone call between Wilson Raubould and former head of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick is proof positive that "the PM and many of the people around him have lied throughout this controversy. She (Wilson-Raybould) has proof. They have lies" (italic added).(16).
Canadians have just seen the limits of PR-manufactured sincerity so popular with 21st century politicians. Sure, you can coat almost any surface with it, and it might look okay for awhile from a distance, but when the heat is on, it flakes off like cheap paint. And when it does, one is left with the uninspiring realization that ultimately, your PM and his officials bullied and lied for the basest of all political motives: to ensure their government would be returned to power.
The intent of this piece was to dismantle one of the most powerful tactics employed by neoliberals in the current culture war; that of seizing the moral high ground and attacking from "above." The advantages conferred by this positioning and the protection it provides incumbents from the slings and arrows of political criticism are no doubt underestimated. There have been a lot of casualties among the citizenry. I suggest millions of Canadians have succumbed to the daily bombardment of smears --- "racist," "bigot," "hater," "xenophobe," "misogynist," "anti-immigrant" and other disparaging terms. And the significance of the loss of their participation in the political debate shouldn't be underestimated.
This analysis has revealed a few other things. Resisters should now realize that the moral high ground smear attack is only fatal if we give credence to the charge by cowering and acting as if it's true when it isn't. It only succeeds if we hang our heads and retreat to fearful silence. It's time to stand up, re-engage and counter the assault. The best responses will expose the shallow, selective, self-serving and hypocritical nature of manufactured virtue. As the The SNC Lavalin case and others have demonstrated, the leaders of the current regime are mere mortals with feet of clay. And yet, they continue to parade before us in their imaginary finery soaking up the praise of their enthralled followers. And what about that imposing neoliberal political fortress of virtue towering above us? It turns out that it's nothing more than a mirage, every bit as illusory as the purity and the piety of its defenders.
1. Justin Trudeau’s latest scandal shows the perils of ‘woke” governance, Jonathan Kay, Quillette, Signs of the Times, March 7, 2019
2. Trudeau's holier-than-thou tweet causes migrant crisis -- now he needs to fix what he started, Diane Francis, Financial Post,
3. Horrible: In absolutely disgusting move, Mckenna Mckenna tries using aftermath of New Zealand mosque shooting to score political points against Andrew Scheer, Spencer Fernando, March 16, 2018.
4. Virtue signalling: Swedes say they should house and refugee, but refuse once given the opportunity, Signs of the Times, March 22, 2019
5. Studies show the wealthy and powerful are more likely to lie, cheat and steal, Blacklisted News, March 25, 2019.
6. Trump administration scrambles as outrage grows over border separations, The Guardian, June 19, 2018
7. Planned Parenthood president brags that she's 'Trump's nightmare,' True Pundit, March 22, 2019
8. Geoengineering – a short history, FP, September 3, 2013
9. With Operation Popeye, the US government made weather an instrument of war, Popular Science, March 20, 2019 https://www.popsci.com/operation-popeye-government-weather-vietnam-war
10. Bari Weiss and the Left-Wing fascination with taking offence, Shadi Hamid, February 17, 2018, outrage politics
11. The Road to hell is paved with good intentions, Ewan Morrison, Psychology Today, April 15, 2019
12. The Emperor's New Clothes, HC Anderson Centre, http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html
13. Wilson-Raybould says she got ‘veiled threats’ on SNC-Lavalin, BNN Bloomberg, February 27, 2019
14. Michelle Rempel blasts Justin Trudeau as "fake feminist," Global News, February 25, 2019
15. Surprise! ‘Progressive hero’ Justin Trudeau is a fraud and a hypocrite, Danielle Ryan, RT, February 28, 2019 https://www.rt.com/op-ed/452696-trudeau-corruption-scandal-fraud/
16. Corbella: Wilson-Raybould's version behind scandal is indisputable and nuclear, Calgary Herald, March 30, 2019, https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/corbella-wilson-rayboulds-version-behind-scandal-is-indisputable-and-nuclear
For the better part of the last four decades, I have been encouraging people and organizations to anticipate the shape of their futures and plan accordingly. It can be daunting, but it can also be immensely practical. It can be as practical as using a set of binoculars to scope out a distant slope when hiking or winterizing your car before winter’s onslaught. Organizations that develop foresight capabilities are, among other things, creating a kind of organizational radar. This enables them to integrate discernible elements of tomorrow into today’s strategies and decisions.