Yes, It Is Virtue Signaling
My belief that schoolchildren should not be mowed down by automatic weapon-wielding madmen is unshakeable, unwavering. Many describe my long-held stance against mass murder in U.S. schools as "resolute."
I have never once considered I could be wrong on this issue, or that I need to stop for a moment and consider the argument for more school shootings. Maybe this makes me narrow minded. Or maybe it means my woke mind virus has reached a life threatening stage.
Last week, Democrats in Washington state banned the sale of assault weapons, including the AR-15, the gun of choice for every classroom killer worth his salt. The legislation, which drew nearly universally opposition from Republican lawmakers, also “prohibits equipment that can turn weapons into assault-style firearms and any semiautomatic weapon shorter than 30 inches in length” and makes it easier for Washington residents to sue gun makers for “irresponsible conduct” – such as, you know, manufacturing killing machines used to indiscriminately end human life.
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It is, in other words, a comprehensive gun control law – one with teeth, one that could slow the proliferation of weapons that have torn apart the bodies of tiny schoolchildren in city after city after city while Republican lawmakers pretend to be sad about it (ten states have banned the sale of semiautomatic weapons). It’s the sort of public policy that could have prevented a Texas man executing a bunch of his neighbors last weekend because they politely asked him to stop shooting his AR-15 while a baby slept.
For once, we heard a Democrat speak clearly and plainly about assault weapons, which – in a sane society – would be forcibly confiscated from everyone who has ever bought one.
“Assault weapons have no reason other than mass murder,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said after signing the bill, now facing a legal challenge from an organization dedicated to gun manufacturers’ stock prices. “Their only purpose is to kill humans as rapidly as possible in large numbers.”
Conservatives predictably threw a fucking temper tantrum about the sale of weapons of war being prohibited in Washington state. They said the law did not address “the root cause of gun violence” in the United States, part of a highly-coordinated national gaslighting campaign that has warped the gun control discourse beyond recognition. They raged about liberty and freedom and tyranny, ignoring – as always – that the widespread availability of assault weapons makes us appreciably less free. The legality of assault weapons is an attack on our freedom to be safe, to have some peace of mind that we won’t be riddled with bullets at the grocery store or a holiday festival or a nightclub. Nothing makes us less free than guns; an unarmed populace is a free populace.
While it loses ground in the debate around whether mass shootings are good or bad, the right continues to cling to the childlike notion that Americans must be armed to the teeth to protect against government tyranny. That bad-faith claim – that a well-armed citizenry would keep the government from treading on you and me – bubbled to the surface after Inslee signed the gun control legislation. The idea would be downright adorable if it weren’t so disingenuous.
Gun freaks mostly dismissed the Washington state legislation as a futile effort to regulate efficient killing tools in a country run by six far-right Supreme Court justices free from any checks or balances. Gun humpers pointed to the Court’s 2022 ruling against a New York law that included modest regulation of automatic weapons, sure that Clarence Thomas and his radicalized cohorts would eventually get around to striking down Washington’s gun regulations when they weren’t dining with a billionaire Hitler fanboy.
These Second Amendment fanatics charged gun-control advocates with “virtue signaling” in the days after Inslee signed the bill into law. It’s an unintentionally funny thing, accusing your political opponents of signaling their virtue because they believe school kids should not be regularly killed by guns designed to destroy the human body as efficiently as possible. (As an electoral aside: Kids who grew up cowering in their classrooms are now of voting age and Republicans have no idea what to do about it besides impinging on their right to vote. Republicans know they are utterly fucked when it comes to young folks.)
You can almost hear folks on the right ask in a sniveling voice, “You think you’re better than me because you’re sickened by the mere thought of children being murdered in their classrooms? You're worried about your own kids being slaughtered like animals in their school? Does that make you a good person?”
And the answer, as it usually is when the right accuses the left of virtue signaling, is yes, we are better than you. I have never understood this line of attack. If one signals their support for a cause, doesn’t that mean they have done the necessary evaluation and believe that cause is righteous and good, or at the very least better than the opposing stance? Do we not make our political decisions based on what we believe is right? Perhaps political independents in all their wishy-washy glory would push back here.
I was once swamped with Twitter replies accusing me of virtue signaling after I posted from a rally in D.C. to save the Affordable Care Act, a deeply flawed piece of (originally Republican) legislation that was far better than the horror of the pre-ACA health care landscape. In many ways, I hate the ACA (also known as Obamacare). But I didn’t want it to be repealed by Republican congressional majorities during the first year of the Trump presidency, so I joined thousands of folks in D.C. who also did not want millions of Americans to lose all access to health services. However shitty the ACA was – and is – killing it would make life materially worse for families living paycheck to paycheck.
My wife and I wanted our voices, however small and insignificant, to be heard as Republicans laid the groundwork for a full repeal of Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, watered down as it was by corporate Democrats working furiously for the vile and totally unnecessary health insurance industry. My parents had gained access to Medicaid with passage of the ACA after going without health care for more than a decade. My dad could hardly see for nearly 18 months due to his untreated cataracts. My mom was fairly sure her breast cancer had returned, with no way to treat it. They were both living wholly undignified lives before being allowed into the state’s Medicaid program – a key provision in the ACA that was blocked by Republican-held state legislatures, a move that constituted a death sentence for countless working class and poor Americans.
So yes, I went to D.C. and said no, I don’t want the ACA to be ripped from its roots. Because I believe it was good that people like my parents had gained access to some sliver of affordable health care, and I didn’t want people like my parents to suffer needlessly just so Donald Trump could humiliate the guy who made jokes about him at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.
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Conservatives, of course, have their own way of virtue signaling. They shoot high-powered firearms at cans of Bud Light when a transgender person drinks the beer in an online video; they burn the jersey of a pro athlete who has “gone woke” by expressing support for historically marginalized groups; they buy Goya beans by the caseload because the company’s CEO supported Trump during his presidency; they brag about their excessive use of fossil fuels to compensate for the energy-efficient ways of their liberal neighbors; they boycott M&Ms because the lady M&M stopped being so damn sexy.
Right wingers do this primarily to trigger their political opponents – the ultimate goal of all conservative stances – but also to tell the world what they believe is right and wrong. They, like folks on the left, want to signal their virtue. This is why accusations of virtue signaling have always been toothless – hardly worth saying aloud.
Everyone has their virtues. And as social animals, we want others to know about which virtues we hold dear. It’s just that some virtues are better than others.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.