Virtue signalling is the new white noise. Between the endless drone of odes to essential workers and pandering corporate pledges of allegiance to BLM, you can’t throw a brick in the media ecosphere and not hit a transparently self-serving proclamation of virtue. Couched in the legally vetted and universally accepted language of elitist groupthink, this latest iteration of white noise follows us everywhere like a persistent scold, mercenary and humorless. Indeed, virtue signalling has evolved over the past few months as the latest and -- by all indications -- greatest ad category ever devised by our technomedia drug lords. Orwell would be proud.
Consider for a moment the many virtues of virtue signalling ads:
- They constantly remind us of the moral superiority of those wealthy enough to pay for them.
- They provide evergreen employment for insufferable celebrities and professional athletes (most of whom live in gated communities with private security) whose careers and award show appearances have been put on indefinite hold by Covid-19.
- They provide welcome relief from the otherwise endless parade of pharmaceutical ads.
- They help us feel like good citizens while we watch TV and stuff our faces.
- How else would we know how Coca-Cola and CBS and Amazon.com and the Sci Fi Channel feel about pandemics and racism?
- Did I mention that they constantly remind us of the moral superiority of those wealthy enough to pay for them?
Up until the digital age politicized everything for profit, news editors had the common sense and ethics to enforce the firewall between opinion and the news. Now, however, that firewall is all but gone. Now the opinion is the news. Thanks to trillion-dollar investments in big data and AI, the commercial technomedia industry has emerged in recent years as all powerful and omniscient, utterly unaccountable and far too big to fail -- by design.
Thanks to virtue signalling ads, the principal truth about commercial media is now self-evident:
The ads are never there to support the content. The content is always there to support the ads.
This comes as an especially troublesome revelation when so much of the opinion disguised as news now consists of politicized soundbyte debates about the science of pandemics and the future of our democracy. To date, virtue signalling ads are simply the truest and purest reflections of Marshall McLuhan's cardinal observation that the medium is the message.
Why is this important? Because many trillions (!!!) of corporate and political dollars have been invested in electronic advertising over the past half century to change the way you and I think and behave. Because advertising works. Because corporate advertising and television emerged decades ago as the single most influential driver of popular consumer culture in America and around the world, and because the essential imperative of popular consumer culture is to obliterate institutional history and replace it with addiction.
“The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.” -- Christopher Lasch
It’s important because -- despite what we’ve been told by generations of addiction recovery experts -- addiction is not the opposite of abstention (indeed, abstention is just another form of excess). Rather, addiction is the opposite of moderation, and moderation is the primary prerequisite to institutional integrity and the quality of life. The center cannot hold without it...
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Verse 1, The Second Coming -- William Butler Yeats
It's important because democracy and civil liberty cannot survive without moderation, especially when secular fascism -- not democracy -- is the natural political bias in the age of electronic media. It comes from both the conservative right and (more ominously) the progressive left, from the uneducated and (more ominously) the over-educated, from the disenfranchised denizens of the rust belt and Appalachia and (more ominously) the over-entitled elitists of Manhattan, Hollywood, Washington DC, the Silicon Valley and academia. But it always emerges in the effluence of excess and deprivation. It always emerges in the absence of moderation...
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Verse 2, The Second Coming -- William Butler Yeats
It’s important because the true language of fascists in the state-sanctioned theater of agitprop is virtue signalling. The new white noise matters because it’s the signature sound of the rough beast, the signature sound of fascism.