George Maggs works as a constituency coordinator for Charlotte Leslie MP and is a final year PhD researcher at the University of the West of England. He writes in a personal capacity.
While many commentators have remarked on how divisive a year 2016 as been, it has also been marked by a unification which has cut across national, political, religious and social divides – for the most tragic of reasons. We have all been united in sadness and grief at the terrorist atrocities committed in Paris, Nice, Ankara and now yesterday in Berlin too.
But beyond the outpouring of sorrow after attacks such as these, it seems that, as a general rule, the Left is much more enthusiastic about holding rallies, candlelit vigils and protesting than others. Despite abysmal poll ratings, Jeremy Corbyn always seems to draw a crowd; anti-Trump protests continue in America; it tends to be left-leaning individuals who protest in support of the Palestinians and civilians in Syria; and it seems to be overwhelmingly left-of-centre types still protesting here in Britain about our decision to leave the EU.
One explanation for this which has been put forward by some on the Right is that holding such events is a form of ‘virtue signalling’. Some argue that individuals who attend such gatherings are indulging in a kind of ‘conspicuous consumption’. They cannot possibly imagine, they argue, that their protests against Russia’s action in Syria will cause Vladimir Putin to do anything other than chuckle contently to himself. They surely cannot be so naive as to think that by protesting against Trump they can actually overturn the result of the US election? They don’t really think they can stop the building of settlements on the West Bank, or convince the US government to abandon nuclear weapons, surely?
What these people are really trying to demonstrate, so the argument goes, is the impeccability of their lefty-liberal attitudes. They are able to display to the world just how ethically flawless their opinions are simply by turning up to an event and surrounding themselves with like-minded people. By protesting, they convert no new followers to their cause, but simply reinforce their own beliefs and the validity of their own moral principles. Protesting, according to this view, is about the protesters themselves far more than it is about actually trying to change anything.
I accept that this can sometimes be the case, and generally agree that Western society is becoming simultaneously more moralistic and less moral. People are indeed increasingly turning to protest and hashtags in lieu of actually trying to resolve issues practicably. However, I think we need to be careful about taking this ‘virtue signalling’ argument too far. By so doing, we run the risk of making the same mistake as the Left – that’s to say, claiming that opinions and world views which differ from our own lack moral integrity.
A common argument used by the Left against those of us on the liberal-right is that we don’t actually believe in freedom, low taxes, choice and in the preservation of our historic institutions and way of life because they are moral goods. We don’t really believe that the things we espouse will enable people to forge better lives for themselves, provide just incentives and offer a greater attachment to the nation (an essential foundation to any functioning welfare state). All we are really interested in is lining our own pockets and trampling over the poor. We don’t protest because we don’t care about anybody accept ourselves.
As a Conservative, few things agitate me more than hearing this argument. And so I imagine it is for the Left when we use ‘virtue signalling’ as a stick to beat them with. We have to be open to the idea that often, people attend such events because they genuinely care. Now of course we all care about the causes we hold dear to us. And all of us with any ounce of humanity will care deeply about the atrocities being committed in Aleppo, for example, or the fate of Christians across the Middle East. So why does the Left tend to be more vocal?
I think the reason amounts to a fundamental difference in the mindset of left and right-leaning people. Whereas for the Left, principle and the purity of dogma are the overriding values which should govern action, for the Right, it is rationality and expediency. This is why the Left is more outspoken about outrages committed by the Israeli defence forces, or by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen. They see something happening which is at odds with their core beliefs, they feel hopeless and frustrated – and pour out onto the streets.
Those on the Right see the same outrages, feel the same sense of abhorrence, and the same sense of frustration and helplessness, but realise that protesting, more often than not, achieves absolutely nothing. Instead, we recognise reality for what it is. Israel exists. It is a nation and it is not going away. A more expedient way forward is therefore to engage with it and to try to nudge it in the right direction. Likewise Saudi Arabia. Although we can all agree (including, the Saudi Royal Family) that the country needs reform and that its operations in Yemen need substantial humanitarian improvement, the Saudis are an integral part of our intelligence-gathering capability, an ally in an increasingly volatile region, and are conducting operations outside of their territory which are often (tragically) entirely necessary. Furthermore, protesting ‘against’ things often reproduces a sense of victimhood from the recipients of the ill feeling, and rarely makes them more likely to engage with you and move in the direction you would like.
Whilst of course we all have principles, these must be weighed, for the centre-right, against reason and the facts on the ground. We understand we need to pick our battles, concentrate on the things we can change, and when we do spot something we can accomplish, commit to it. The Left, meanwhile, is much less able to let go of principle, even when it runs counter to the national interest or the longer-term greater good. Even when there is nothing that left-wing people can hope to achieve from protest, the fact that they are doing it and the fact they have not ‘turned their backs’ on the violation of their beliefs by others means they have not let go of their principles. The purity of the idea remains.
Both of these positions are understandable, and both have an intrinsic moral character. Yet, more often than not, individuals at opposite ends of the left-right spectrum seem to be talking at cross purposes – or perhaps more truthfully, over the top of each other – with each trying to deny the ethical veracity of the other. Only by accepting that we all hold moral positions, and by acknowledging that we all care about global events, and about each other, can we hope to generate a more conciliatory and less hostile political environment. Few of our actions, in reality, are ever just about ourselves.