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Virtue-signalling as a route to social status: instances from the semi-periphery

Two Budapest-based activists give a vivid account of the ideological constraints they are working under, not helped by certain fashionable forms of ‘intersectionality’.

lead lead lead Who gets to represent certain issues and how, is determined through complex social processes. By representing a ‘progressive’ cause, the spokesperson will also come to public attention and can bask in the light of ‘progress’. This is why the audacious display of progressivist virtue signalling is in a sense similar to conspicuous consumption, – it comes to signify one’s belonging to a more ‘refined’ social class.                      

Representing certain issues functions as a signifier of class distinction because those issues are formulated according to class interests. If social problems are presented as originating from the prejudices of individuals rather than as deep-seated structural issues, questions about systemic problems can be avoided. Virtue signallers do exactly this job: they suggest that problems can be solved by raising people’s morale i.e. by making them more tolerant and humane. They can then claim authority over a universal humanity that grants them the special role of civilizing others.

Not all issues are ‘worth’ representing to the same extent. Some issues are presented as the cutting edge of human rights struggle and hence get more media attention and funding. Nancy Fraser’s analysis about how different groups (e.g. blacks, women, homosexuals) are situated with respect to matters of redistribution as well as of recognition, help to explain why groups experiencing more recognition- than redistribution-related injustices have become increasingly central to the human rights discourse of recent decades. Such issues can be more easily presented as mere questions of tolerance and humanity and therefore have more potential to be instrumentalised while legitimizing the current socio-political system.

Thus, while liberal feminist and liberal anti-racist advocacy – masquerading the fact that the injustices these groups experience have a material basis – have become capitalism’s ‘handmaidens’, this material embeddedness makes them less effective handmaidens than groups with issues less directly connected to redistribution, such as LGBT rights.

This has global implications: while these issues are based on culture-specific conceptions, they serve as signifiers of the allegedly singular-universal path of progress, marking out a hierarchy of civilization vs. backwardness. Due to the structural reasons mentioned above, LGBT rights have become an especially effective instrument of the cultural supremacism of economic core countries – a situation to which Jasbir Puar refers by using the term, homonationalism.

Even within the LGBT movement different topics have come to the forefront. Since the adoption of same-sex marriage in the United States, transgender issues have been presented as the struggle’s next frontier. Transgender bathroom use has received immense attention. North Carolina’s ‘bathroom bill’, which legislates that in government buildings people may only use bathrooms and changing facilities corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates has been met with boycott by numerous companies and representatives of the entertainment industry. This issue was a great opportunity for big business, including porn companies to turbocharge their reputations while conveniently turning a blind eye to or committing serious human rights violations.

Virtue signalling thus presents specific material interests as matters of universal humanity and morality while framing those who oppose the status quo as morally deficient. Speaking for ‘progressive’ issues functions as a mutual source of legitimacy for virtue signallers and the global world order.

What makes a virtue on the semi-periphery: self-colonizing discourses

How does virtue-signalling play out on the semi-periphery? As Larry Wolff writes, historically the Enlightenment inserted the ambiguous space that our region has occupied into a West-East hierarchy and thereby invented eastern Europe as a complementary concept to western Europe.

The region’s position in the emerging global economy as sidelong viewers of colonial processes was formative in its role as an incidental background setting to a supposedly universal and singular world history according to Alexander Kiossev. Eastern Europe, simultaneously included in and excluded from Europe, came to hold an intermediary position that was meant to mediate between Europe and the Orient, measuring the distance between ‘civilization’ and ‘backwardness’.

As these lateral cultures did not experience the brute force of colonization, they became less resistant to the symbolic invasion of the colonizing powers: they interiorized their values, ideologies, and hierarchies. Their sense of lacking the whole ‘modern European’ civilization model has driven them to a perpetual struggle to ‘catch up’ with the economic and cultural centre. These cultures have thus created two opposing but symmetrical self-colonizing narratives: westernization, based on the mistaken universalism and progressivism of the Enlightenment, judging human value according to a competition of ‘civilizational achievements’; and nativism, that attempts to uncover and preserve a ‘pure’, authentic’ culture against foreign influence, giving rise to ardent nationalisms.

These two opposing narratives not only markedly structure Hungarian political traditions but, as Attila Márton Farkas points out, they are embedded in economic interests. Nativism strives to protect existing class prerogatives against the western-oriented rising classes with a reference to ‘ancient’ customs: while westernizers struggle to adjust the country to the actual political-economic centre, subordinating the country to the nationalisms of the dominant powers, which they interpret as universalism and internationalism. They have thus assisted foreign powers in taking economic advantage of the country for a share of a return for themselves. These two opposing narratives complement one another: they both legitimate themselves by referring to the other as the source of the ultimate threat.

The agenda of virtue-signalling that fits so well into the progressivist westernist tradition comes ready-made from its economic core countries. Virtue-signallers mostly commit themselves to issues that the economic centre uses to prove its supremacy. They frame it as such, and they thereby also proclaim the backwardness of their own region when it comes to LGBT rights and the liberal mode of minority protection. Let us track these discourses through two case studies of progressivist virtue-signalling in Hungary.

The lowest common denominator: channelling anger and dissatisfaction

The Facebook page Nem tehetsz róla, tehetsz ellene (NTRTE) (‘You can’t help it, you can do something about it’) and its adjacent blog, A nem az nem (’No is no’) is a clear example of virtue signalling.

The page was started as a reaction to the videos of Baranya County Police, blaming victims for sexual violence, which has caused outrage countrywide. The founders of the page made a counter-video, which in turn advocates chivalry to prevent sexual violence, namely good practice is depicted as a hooded man following and grabbing a lone woman leaving a bar at night and asking her whether he may call her a taxi. Commentators have pointed out that this film is very harmful as it ignorantly reproduces damaging clichés about sexual violence as if it was a matter of good vs. evil and not a complex and structurally embedded social phenomenon, just as the police video had done.

One of the authors of the video and the Facebook page (Vera Mérő) came to be known for a book she had written about the relationship between pornography and female sexuality. The book received negative criticism both for the absurdity of its research methodology and the lack of engagement with the relevant literature. The book claimed that the connection between pornography and sexual violence was unproven. This porn apologism is an example of how the cool girl trope comes to be manifested: through saying allegedly ‘taboo’ and ‘risky’ things and ignoring the reality in a country where the sex industry is widespread (as a country of transit, destination, origin) and where cases of human trafficking connected to the sex industry are often featured in mainstream media.

Moreover, though NTRTE declares that it addresses violence against women, a substantial amount of the content they re-share with their own commentary concerns entirely different matters, with no explanation as to why and how it should be relevant to the stated page topic. There are posts about refugees, people with disabilities, politicians from far away countries, anti-Trump memes, everything Justin Trudeau (sometimes the page seems like a fandom for the ‘progressive icon’), transgenderism, a friend looking for a wife, even memes of cute dogs or kids, and inspirational videos. Meanwhile, their own hashtag initiative (#SheDoesIt  #HeDoesIt) to frame everyday life incidences (such as a woman rowing a boat or a child playing with building blocks) are portrayed as battles in a culture war. 

When it comes to representing ‘cases’, they often show anomalies, bizarre and extraordinary occurrences as if they were representative. For example, on Women’s Day an article was shared about (alleged) sperm-thieving women as a ‘dramatic’ example of ‘violence against men’. These articles often result in tabloid-like sensationalist commentary, such as in a statutory rape case (one high school teacher had sexual relations with 3 male students) they talk about ‘a woman who raped three men’.

Through representing ‘cases’ and often anomalies, the authors of the page attempt to look very thorough, as if juxtaposing all these ‘cases’ and stories together under the umbrella of mottos such as ‘violence is never okay’ and ‘the victim is never responsible’ will eventually lead to something universally meaningful. This approach glosses over the fact that violence against women is not only the product of a certain mode of social organisation but also a tool in perpetuating these structures.  

The main strategy is affective involvement, also an opportunity for the page’s authors to claim the universal validity of their own subjectivities, views and agendas and to promote themselves. For instance, Mérő describes in detail how a bus crash made her cry, or when visiting the court proceedings of a domestic murder case (local feminist NGO ‘courtroom monitoring’ volunteers have been doing this for a long time) she had to post her (admittedly illegible) handwritten notes, just short of a selfie, in order to insert herself into the narrative of the highly publicized case.

By this logic, the page confers authority on itself to exercise censorship and ajudicate in matters of ‘humanity’. The sexist, lame puns of some seedy local bar deserve online bullying, but Nike and Vodafone advertisements are tear-jerkingly profound works of art. Through such means, the page becomes the perfect local replicator of the discourse of multinational corporations seeking to access the markets of the semi-periphery and whitewash themselves with the symbolic representation of ‘progressive’ agendas.

The universalist claim of liberal, ‘progressive’ agendas is taken almost to the level of satire: long-winded polemics about ‘humanity’ are a regular feature, for example they declare that ‘paedophiles can be human as well’ when it comes to sharing an article about plastic sex dolls designed for paedophiles.

They talk as if a Facebook page was some kind of totalitarian authority with the right to  decide whether or not someone is human (or sometimes ‘humane’). Sometimes they act as arbiters making allegedly “objective and subtle” choices between opposing parties. For example, during the recent protests in Budapest against the intended closure of the Central European University, two activists threw paint at the president’s residence and were prosecuted. Taking up the position of a supreme authority, NTRTE scolded both parties, stating that throwing paint at the building was ‘helluva wrong’, but that leading them handcuffed on a leash was a ‘blood-boiling atrocity’.  

The page does not care to propagate any kind of already established feminist knowhow. They pretend no-one in Hungary has ever before engaged in a meaningful manner with the topic of gendered violence (which is obviously not true), and always they return to a bottom line in which it is a question of bad people doing bad things.

The solution is obvious – to follow a reliable moral compass such as them, relying in turn on the wisdom of corporate inspirational media, western politicians, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and so on. They attempt to channel any passing surge of outrage into their own framework, so that besides basing their authority on the ideals of the ‘progressive west’, they can even claim to have a kind of populist base.

Context as ‘exceptionalism’: an extreme form of universalism

Another example of virtue-signalling in Hungary is a network of overlapping activist groups, with a large part of their membership made up of the alumni/students of the Central European University, most of them foreigners.

Since this network is not well-informed about local public discourse and the problems it raises for discussion (most of them can’t speak Hungarian), they are not able to engage with these issues in a meaningful way, and instead they lay claim to agendas and principles they deem to be universal. They apply a globalized activist toolkit independent of any local context, since they do not seek to get to know the latter.

They also fail to address the broader public because they regard locals as a source of threat, uninitiated into their own progressive principles. For this reason most of their actions are addressed to a very limited audience. Even the terminology to be found on their ‘community space’ – (its address kept secret due to 'security concerns') –  enhances this effect. Their ‘feminist self-defence trainings’ came with a long list of forbidden (‘oppressive’) expressions and gestures, and with a strict injunction to stick to vegan food.

Among the many overlapping groups/projects, the most visible one is Rhythms of Resistance (RoR), the local branch of a network of percussion bands that play at demonstrations and protests. The RoR movement was originally started in London, and as the Budapest branch explains, they went on to develop their skills under the influence of the Vienna branch. Besides playing percussion sometimes they organise protests too. The language they use is English but usually they translate event descriptions and invites into Hungarian, although some events have only sported an English title for ‘technical reasons’, the excuse being that it is foreigners who attend anyway. A former (Hungarian) member also told the press at a demonstration in a very condescending manner that Hungarians hardly ever came to their protests. 

This year they organised the local version of the worldwide Women’s Day March. Initially it was co-organised with a local liberal feminist organisation who later withdrew due to ideological differences, among them RoR’s unswerving support for the sex work agenda. The event description was originally published in English and later translated into Hungarian. The translation was riddled with grammar and vocabulary errors. Their failure to engage with the local context was so extreme that they did not even comprehend whether their slogans made any sense at all within a Hungarian framework. For example, some protesters had ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘Indigenous lives matter’ protest signs despite Hungary having neither a sizeable black minority nor a colonial past. ‘Indigenous’ in a Hungarian context is either unintelligible or right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric.

In their video statement featured on Al Jazeera, their first priority was to stand against transphobia and for sex worker rights. These issues are completely alien to the lived reality of most Hungarian women as they focus on tiny minorities from an individualist, identitarian perspective that serves to hide structural issues.

According to the event description, they marched against five things: first against racism (‘discrimination of women based on skin color’ - and yet in Hungary cultural codes are much more direct markers of marginality than skin colour or phenotype), then against borders (‘We will dismantle your fences!’) and then against fascism, whoever the fascists are supposed to be, and against transphobia. See Facebook event and Al Jazeera video here.

Violence against women was the last thing mentioned in both the Al Jazeera video and the event description. Marching against ‘határok’ is an especially unfortunate choice of words, because unless clarified it can either mean state borders or personal boundaries, and in a women’s rights context one would sooner think boundaries than borders - something which should be protected from state interference. 

Their lack of knowledge about local matters was criticised not only from the right but also the left of the political spectrum. The organisers’ answer was that these critics come from the perspective of so-called ‘Hungarian exceptionalism’. ‘Hungarian exceptionalism’ is a non-existent concept in social theory, modelled on ‘US exceptionalism’ as if replacing a word in it would be enough to understand Hungarian society. (For a comparison: Hungary’s population is about 10M. It never had any overseas colonies, and played no part in the transatlantic slave trade. During its history, it was occupied by the Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, Soviets.) Despite speaking to international mass media and organising public events, they denied they were representing anyone. (The video itself seems more like it was made for an international than for a Hungarian public.)

They had no compunction in accusing of ‘nationalism’ the person who dared to bring up the question of representational legitimacy or their inadequate knowledge of local issues. We can assume they would not dare to do this to black or third world women – to speak over their heads without adequate knowledge of local historical specificities, yet the semi-periphery is not thematized as ‘oppressed’ within this mediatized branch of intersectionality theory, therefore it is easy to stigmatize Hungarian criticism of western universalism as nationalism.

This women’s day march has provided the Hungarian right with an ample opportunity to forge their own political capital. Hungarian anti-gender mobilizing gained momentum in February and March this year when the right-leaning media, among them publications controlled by the government, started to report that one of the largest universities in Hungary is opening a gender studies department. Certain right-wing politicians followed suit, wanting to stop the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and reasoning that it was the Trojan horse of ‘gender ideology’.

This women’s day march was a great opportunity for the right-wing to parade their ‘gender ideology’ conspiracy theories. Some of the agendas (decontextualising identity and choice in an individualist framework) promoted by the march’s organizers indeed serve the needs of global capital, but these organisers have neither the resources nor the skills the right-wing adversaries of ‘gender ideology’ attribute to them.

The significance of this women’s march organized by a handful of people comes from right-wing political actors finding it significant. Obviously the problem with the march is not that they propagate issues opposed by the right-wing, but that their framework is hinged on the supremacy of the economic centre, whose symbolic agendas they adapt and then represent without any critical reflection as if it was ‘left-wing’ ‘anarchist’ ‘feminist’ activism.

This does not only reinforce but even deepen the dichotomy between progressivism hailing western universalism as redemption and a guarantee for women’s emancipation, and isolationist nationalism rejecting any ‘foreign’ intervention, thus making it even harder to gain a foothold outside this framework.

The corollary of virtue-signalling: reproduction of dichotomies

There seems to be a big difference on the level of rhetoric between the two case studies: certainly in the way that they relate to global financial capital. The organizers of the women’s day march claim to be anti-capitalists and anarchists, very much unlike NTRTE, who devote an enthusiastic blogpost to the merit of a marketing gimmick of a Wall street company, and take about every other corporate lean-in ‘feminist’ PR stunt at face value.

Cheering for a Wall Street marketing stunt as a terrific work of art.Despite this seeming chasm, both their respective discourses are individualistic: instead of looking at how a given phenomena is socially embedded, they promote individualist survival strategies and defense mechanisms as a means of emancipation through the decontextualization of identity and choice.

They also claim to speak for humankind and to represent each and every justice cause under the flag of tolerance and inclusion and/or in the name of an intersectionality theory that has been vulgarized into mathematical formulas purportedly encompassing all forms of oppression.

With this approach they smoke-screen the fact that, as resources are not infinite, if we advocate for material interests, other interests are going to be hurt.

Obscuring material interests, they claim to speak in the name of some transcendental goodness and truth. The mechanisms of legitimization are also strikingly similar in both cases: they act as the local governors of ‘Western progress’ in the ‘backward East’, as the local advocates of values and practices deemed universally significant.

With this strategy it is easier to carve themselves a space in the liberal public sphere. Through this they reproduce the dichotomy between the self-colonizing narratives of the progressive west and the backward east while convincing themselves that they stand on the right side of history, and with their actions they contribute to the shrinking of the already limited space for efficient advocacy beyond the symbolic agenda.

About the authors

Dalma Feró is a writer and a feminist. She holds an MA degree in Gender studies from Central European University. She currently works with migrants on gender equality issues.

Orsolya Bajusz is a Budapest-based artist, cultural worker, and anonymous feminist.


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