We only ever notice the ogres from the #metoo stories, not the nice people that walk among us, pass among us. When the less obvious or the everyday monsters are finally outed, sometimes we will not want to see, choose not to see, because they were always so affable and it is just too difficult to believe such stories about them. Some of the #metoo reports are about people we idolised. All this time, they were simply signalling virtue.
Before virtue signalling became a public phenomenon on social media, we had only ever come across it in family members, or in the people we had taken into our lives as friends and acquaintances. Even though something in their behaviour was grating and other than friendly, we would inevitably choose to ignore it, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Our instinct is to perform virtue, be disarmingly nice to everybody in the everyday theatre that is existence. We didn’t heed that in the absence of the outing of virtue signalling, there were those that thrived on doubt, relying on it to act furtively, knowing they could not be exposed owing to, well, reasonable doubt. In our daily lives, we often fall for the pantomime of virtue in others, because we do it too. This pantomime becomes a substitute for reality and those who watch this daily will never believe the actors were ever anything other than nice.
Now that we have “virtue signalling” thanks to millennial culture and all the labelling of behaviour that comes with it, which some in the older generations rail against; it is a harder world to navigate for many older people when the bullying hyper hypocrisies once taken for granted as a part of normal life is now attacked to the nub by a hyper thin-skinned younger generation, accused of being coddled by paranoid parents, and socialised by screens, not playmates.
Before we became habituated to “virtue signalling” on social media, it passed among us as something casually passive aggressive, without any of us ever daring to pin it down. There was no label for something like the rioting of the showily pious or the puritanical vegan taking offence at chicken soup. The portends were all just inexplicable. How could the overtly good be so mean? Of course, in this new millennial inspired world of “concern trolls”, “humble brags” and “adulting”, the puritan can turn around and say they are being “virtue-shamed”.
Don’t we know many who like to signal virtue in the outside world, on social media apps, but in private signal something a little more insidious? As for their suffering friends and family, their stories are usually ignored, sometimes disbelieved with rancour. The stories are too disorienting, strange even. They do not easily fit into the built-in societal structure to which the virtue signaller strictly adheres. The stories prove costly for those who do the telling, as the virtue signaller has evolved to be believed.
That is why so many of us hide and do not tell for years. We like hiding, it makes us feel safe. Experts have been telling us for some years now that details in memories can be unreliable. Sometimes the only thing you can be sure of is a smell or a very precise horror that happened to you, when all other detail has been misremembered. I can still remember the faint smell of pleasurably mouldy paint from a corner I liked nestling in as a child, though I cannot remember where that corner was, or in which house. I also recall a pleasantly shadowy place under the cobwebs of a formica laminated dining table. The courage of telling is mostly for the foolhardy when the rest of us simply want to escape into the womb of a corner away from those who try to harm us. As they will want to harm us even more, when we tell on them.