The British Military is engaged in Virtue Signaling. That seems to come as a surprise to some; it shouldn’t. What would be surprising if an organisation that has, throughout its existence, engaged in virtue signalling decided to stop.
The @BritishArmy sent a tweet, which as some tweets are wont to do, generated froth in the teacup. In itself the tweet was innocuous but clearly some took exception to this and there then followed what can only be termed a fairly robust exchange of views. So far so good.
This tweet and exchange of views generated some attention from British #MilTwitter which is where I, with customary Colonel Blimp tact and diplomacy dived in with two left feet.
I have to say that I was not expecting the volume of response that I received (I have a small but much appreciated band of 25 followers at going to press) but the type of response was everything that a dialectical junkie such as myself could have wished for.
Before we go any further, a definition is in order. It became very clear very quickly that ‘virtue signalling‘ meant different things to pretty much everyone. To me, virtue signalling is the “open signalling of values to show acceptance of and encouragement for said values“. Mine may not be the most widely held definition of the term, but you are reading (and thank you very much for doing so) the words of someone who possesses neither Facebook nor television – you can make of that what you will.
There’s a reason we send these messages. We are demonstrating our adherence to the values of the society we serve. This is important for a number of reasons, not least where it may be held in doubt. Plus, despite our core values, upheld by the vast majority, and despite the fact that we are the most meritocratic of organisations (at least in my experience), we still struggle to reach out to some of the communities we come from and serve – we can seem exclusionary. A targeted message to such a community and that exemplifies our core values makes sense.
My tweet spanned a number of points, the four main points being:
- The original tweet had gained traction;
- I agreed with the original tweet;
- The British Army was virtue signalling;
- Are we virtuous (or appropriately weighted) in our virtue signalling?
The first two points were largely glossed over entirely in the ensuing froth, not altogether unsurprising considering the medium. The latter two points generated considerable heat though. This is a good thing. It’s a good thing as it demonstrated people engaging positively and constructively in a public forum in support of core values. Mission command in practice or simply doing the right thing? Either way it’s a good thing.
Many took exception to my use of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’, impugning a pejorative slant to the term. Not my intent, but understandable enough. I still stand by my contention that the British Army is virtue signaling. We send these messages to demonstrate that we believe in and abide by our core values: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. In this case we were clearly signaling ‘Respect for Others’.
But we live in uneasy times. Our values are not necessarily all of society’s values, our beliefs as a society are not homogenous. There is a tension between diversity and tolerance and good order and discipline both within the military and within society. There is therefore a need to stake our ground and fight for it. The original tweet did just that, and as both @thepagey and @TheMaverickSgt pointed out, British MilTwitter rose to the occasion, although (and I am guilty of this myself), more supporting fires would always have been appreciated. To me the exchange exemplified what we should be allowing our soldiers to do on social media: engage robustly in line with clearly defined guidelines (in this case Army Values). yes it will get messy, yes sometimes there could be blowback – sounds a lot like combat. That is why I was so pleased that so many jumped on my tweet as it showed both a willingness to engage and a firm stance for core values.
My last point “will we see the same for the end of Lent next year” generated as much heat as ‘virtue signalling’, although not unfairly this time. I will admit that there was a degree of twitter fed dialectical devilry at work in using the phrase, but with a serious point. We live in unsettled times. Arguably we live in a post-religious and relativist society. The old certainties have gone and new challenges have arisen. Uncertainty is stressful, stress breeds fear and fear can be exploited. Our culture is neither homogenous nor settled, it is in fact contested ground. Our societal faultiness are stressed every single day with an aim to exploitation. It therefore seems to me that in our messaging reassurance is as important as assurance. Have we got the balance right in this – or am I tilting at windmills?