Flat White

When appearing virtuous kills virtue

22 May 2022

1:10 PM

22 May 2022

1:10 PM

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

As overused, meaningless phrases go, that’s one for the ages. It’s also blatantly untrue.

We spend our lives judging books by their covers, both as we browse the shelves of bookshops (which is admittedly rare these days) and when we pass strangers on the street. We do it because it makes sense to do so, and it’s biologically ingrained.

When you know nothing else about a person, (or a potential predator, as it were, in our ancient biological history), appearance is all we have to work with.

Certainly, we can revise that impression further down the track, but at the outset covers are king. Alternatively, we may find that our first impressions were correct. Sometimes running from the shady figure with the rusted knife is best. Sometimes reserving judgment and assuming that there might be a ‘peace-loving’ Jane Austen appreciator under the hood is unwise.

No, it’s not discrimination, it’s common sense. Covers are useful in our society, simply from a pragmatic standpoint.

Take the police officer for instance. Law enforcement dons a uniform for many reasons, but one of these involves signalling. The uniform lets the general public know that the person wearing it has the authority to enforce the law, and bears the responsibilities and rights which come with that. It allows us to adjust our behaviour accordingly. If we’re in need of assistance the sight of the police uniform is a relief. If we’re the rusty knife wielder, the blues are a warning to ‘hit the road’.

Obviously, there’s the other side to this. Should a regular person suit up in police attire, despite bearing none of the associated capacity or authority, things become messy. It goes without saying that when you’re in need of law enforcement, you don’t want the drunk teenager dressed up for Halloween!


Signalling is useful for the observer, but the signaller can benefit from societal superficiality too.

Consider a job interview. We dress for the job we want by putting on corporate attire, grooming carefully, and shining our shoes. We’re sending off signals that we’re respectable, conscientiousness, and enthusiastic. We’re telling the interviewer that we wish to be taken seriously, and that we take their company seriously. The ‘cover’ streamlines the selection process. Although a candidate may be disingenuous, it shouldn’t take the interviewer long to discover if a crisp suit hides a high-school dropout.

Used in good faith signalling can be a social good; we appreciate the villain who is transparent. The assumptions we draw when we come across someone in a ski mask and hood permit a smoother society.

What happens when people are deliberately deceptive though?

There are those that take advantage of the way we judge books by their covers. It comes in degrees and types of harm. On the serious side there is the serial killer who dons the guise of the ‘ice-cream seller’, or the con artist dressed up as an accountant. Then there are the more minor annoyances, like the high-school dropout in the nice suit who wastes the interviewer’s time.

But there is a signalling in today’s society that we are all intimately familiar with: virtue signalling.

To signal virtue is, as with any kind of disingenuous signalling, about deception. It’s about promoting yourself as socially conscious whilst doing nothing substantial to advance social progress.

It’d be foolish to place all kinds of ‘virtue-signalling’ in the same category and similarly foolish to assume that all kinds of superficial signalling are useless.

What comes across as virtue signalling can actually be about raising awareness. Sometimes jumping on the ‘sheeple’ bandwagon is helpful. Sometimes symbols can be good even when they are just that; take singing the national anthem for example. We’re not all declaring a desire to act as selfless ambassadors for Australia, but that isn’t the point.

Singing the national anthem together is about solidarity, fostering community and celebrating what is, by and large, a great, unified country. Perhaps it appears meaningless when overdone, but harm come in degrees. Ukraine flags, breast cancer stickers, or ‘gay-pride’ logos displayed on Facebook become overdone, but the harm is minimal. And the solidarity can be good. Usually.

Usually is the keyword. It’s all well and good to falsely, like the Pharisees of the Bible, portray yourself as charitable whilst behaving selfishly, or to promote a cause because it earns you social ‘brownie points’. At the most it can be annoying for the observer who sees through it.

This is harmless so as long as someone somewhere is engaging in genuine action for Ukraine or working to cure cancer. Someone must be working on the plot beneath the pretty book cover. Things become harmful when signalling becomes substance. When problems languish unresolved because the signalling creates the illusion of a solution.

Signalling can generate relevance, but sometimes it acts as a mask. Sometimes we become so caught up in the appearance of being virtuous that actual virtue, genuine action, falls by the wayside.

This is when judging a book by its cover becomes a detriment.

If we see the pretty picture and assume that there’s substance beneath. When action is required, disingenuous signalling is just a distraction from the task of doing. Eventually, someone needs to take charge. We need some good authors in this world full of wannabe illustrators.

Let’s not be fooled by fancy font or allow the publishers of trash to go unchallenged.

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