Could we also can it with the “virtue signaling” call-outs in housing , please?

So I have noticed one of the trends in debates, particularly about housing since that’s all I hear about anymore*, have become riddled with assumptions about everybody else’s “bad faith” arguments.

Yes, it is possible that people argue in bad faith.

It also possible they just don’t agree with your ideas, either positively (about what will happen in the future if we implement a policy) or normatively (about whether what we think will happen is normatively good, or will normatively have benefits that outweigh the costs.) The idea that people who disagree with you are making a bad faith arguments strikes me is lazy argumentation, a form of ad hominem.

Of course, these problems are all over any debate, from assumptions that one knows what will happen in the future. Don’t even at me with this. My entire profession lives in this future knowledge space, and we are full of smartest urbanists who promote the idea “if we do this, this will happen and this will happen and this will happen and hooray us!” Then only part of any of it happens, but it’s not planners’ fault because…overpromising is democratic politics and the ass-kicking complexity of real-world contexts makes fools of us all (including economists).

“Virtue signaling” is, as far as I can tell, the right-y version of “performative wokeness” (the lefty version). These call-out are simple dust-raising, and I’m tired of reading them. Look, people, you are reading attempts to influence on social media. It’s all performative. But worse than that, virtue is always signaled. Wokeness is always performed. Why? Because all social behavior, including all normative claims and moral behavior, are social. Since “being woke” is a virtue, let’s just collapse everything into virtue discussions.

Virtue is meant to be displayed in social contexts. Yes, we all love the billionaire who quietly gives to charity instead of tooting his own horn or using it as yet another self-branding exercise.**

But…virtue is demonstrated socially for a whole bunch of highly functional reasons. We all take social signals from peers, we learn what groups and societies expect from us via social behavior, role models, praise for role models’ virtue, etc. It’s not like we have secret athletic events where nobody is allowed to watch, or ever learn, who won the gold medal. How are other wealthy people supposed to give to charity if they don’t see others doing so? And all the hush-hush around giving creates information asymmetries that allow free-riding.

As with many issues, whether virtue is undertaken for strategic, self-interested reasons or truly altruistic reasons, poses an information problem. Some twitter jerk, for instance, accused me of performative wokeness, and one of my students replied; the former can take cheap shots because they live far away and know only the blog and a social media presence. The student knows me and–at the risk of virtue signaling–knows what I stand and fight for on campus and off, how, and why.

As with other ad hominem, making a bad faith argument doesn’t mean a person has made an objectively bad argument. Deal with the argument, let the other people worry about their souls.

*My husband gave me his phone to take to work when I lost mine in the house somewhere and I thoughtlessly flipped open his Fboo…and it’s all math, history, and cute animal pictures. Mine is all housing politics, Donald Trump, animal torture cases, and other depressing stuff. I am clearly doing Fboo wrong.

**I could do with fewer buildings named after rich people and corporations and more that retain names for people who showed other virtues than good business sense. Moderation in everything, except moderation.