Joeri de Wilde: Don't be misled by accusations of virtue signaling
By Joeri de Wilde, Investment Strategist at Triodos Investment Management
Lately we have seen a growing allergy to so-called 'virtue signaling' when it comes to sustainability and inclusivity. The reflex is to comply to our accusations and to moderate the tone. But this is disastrous for a smooth sustainable transition.
According to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the founder of classical economics, it would be enough in a capitalist system if each person only pursued his own self-interest. Through an 'invisible hand', all these individual decisions would jointly serve the public good. This sounds good, but now that general interests are clearly losing out in many places, the question is justified as to what is still true about this theory.
Is self-interest in everyone's interest?
Self-interest is a difficult concept. Two people in an identical situation can both act out of self-interest and yet make different choices. Those choices are based on their values. In psychology, the spectrum of values extends from intrinsic to extrinsic.
People with relatively strong intrinsic values attach great importance to a sense of community, connection with friends and family, and self-development. This group is more likely to be concerned about problems bigger than themselves, such as the climate crisis.
People with relatively strong extrinsic values are more sensitive to the perceptions of others and therefore attach more importance to status, material wealth and power. These people are more likely to be unhappy, research shows.
It would therefore serve the general interest and everyone's self-interest to develop intrinsic values more. People would be happier and the planet healthier. But strengthening intrinsic values proves to be quite difficult in a society that has been completely neoliberal in recent decades. Individualization and the decline of social services sowed the seeds for highly developed extrinsic values. And the glorification of wealth and possessions within popular culture gave an extra push in the wrong direction.
War of values as opium for the people
The group with relatively highly developed intrinsic values is therefore small. Their concerns are growing now that it is becoming increasingly clear that we are reaching the limits of our planet with our current system. The urgency expressed by science compels this group to activism. With a clear goal: strengthening values when you repeatedly expose people to a message. Activism therefore poses a threat to the dominance of extrinsic values.
De groep met relatief sterk ontwikkelde intrinsieke waarden is dus klein. Hun zorgen groeien nu steeds duidelijker wordt dat we met ons huidige systeem tegen de grenzen van onze planeet aanlopen. De urgentie die vanuit de wetenschap spreekt, noopt deze groep tot activisme. Met een duidelijk doel: waarden versterken namelijk wanneer je mensen herhaaldelijk aan een boodschap blootstelt. Activisme vormt zo dus een bedreiging voor de dominantie van extrinsieke waarden.
It is not difficult to imagine who has the most to lose from this activism: the few real 'winners' of our current system. This system has degenerated into a plutocracy, in which the richest are in charge, as Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, former advocate of the neoliberal, capitalist system, also states. According to him, a large part of the people do not vote in their economic self-interest, but in the interests of the very richest. This is in turn due to the dominance of extrinsic values, which means that many people vote for the material winners in society, with a view to their desired financial position, not their actual one.
These 'winners' of course do not want this to change and will therefore want to temper the influence of activism. The solution: pit the groups against each other based on their values, which Wolf labels the 'plutocratic variant of identity politics'. If people with extrinsic values become irritated enough about the 'moral superiority' of the other, they automatically block the content of any activist message. And the intrinsic group starts to doubt the effectiveness of the activism.
The power of repetition
Should it indeed be an ounce less, in order to reach more people and avoid their allergy zone? That is grist to the mill of the defenders of the status quo, because there is a good chance that the topics will disappear from the radar completely. The power of activism lies in repeatedly capturing attention. Going along with the frame of moral elevation will only delay the much-needed strengthening of intrinsic values and thus further postpone the sustainable transition.