Popularity or principle? Which matters more?


Recently I wrote an article for another publication, dealing with an issue unrelated to Israel, in which I talked about the phenomenon of ‘virtue signalling’ – a term which has come into vogue over the past few years.

Essentially, it describes the act of publicly expressing opinions which we hope will demonstrate our good character or the moral correctness of our position on a particular issue by supporting a commonly accepted narrative. This narrative doesn’t have to be ‘correct’ – it just needs to enjoy widespread support – because, with virtue signalling, the desired outcome is popularity and acceptance, not accuracy.

The term ‘virtue signalling’ is relatively new – but the practice isn’t – and we all do it to some degree. Throughout history it has always been easier to follow the crowd and swim with the tide of popular opinion and the emergence of social media over the past 15 years has amplified the practice to the point where we now have it honed to an artform. We don’t even have to express our virtuous views in words anymore. Why waste time writing when you can signal your virtue by simply resharing someone else’s meme?

The practice of virtue signalling is rife in society. Politicians do it (and always have); businesses do it; musicians and actors do it; economists and commentators do it; and journalists do it. Mostly it’s harmless and frankly – if signalling your virtue makes you feel better about yourself – more power to you.

However, there are times when the act of virtue signalling isn’t so benign – particularly when a popularly held view stifles alternative debate on an important issue or, worse, leads to bad decisions at the highest levels. This happens a lot more often that you might think and is particularly common in respect of New Zealand’s approach to Israel, in recent years, where commonly held views can quickly gain the status of unchallenged dogma and we end up adopting positions which simply don’t stand up to scrutiny in an attempt to ‘please the crowd’.

For example, it’s become easier (and more immediately rewarding) for successive Governments to support annual UN resolutions attacking Israel for all manner of imagined indiscretions than to actually do the hard yards and find out what the real situation is. This particular act of State sponsored virtue signalling has become so bad, in recent years, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now able to justify this laziness by claiming that these votes represent New Zealand’s ‘established position’. In other words – ‘in doesn’t matter if it isn’t true, we’ve been doing it for a long time, so we’ll just continue with it’.

But virtue signalling on issues related to Israel isn’t confined to UN resolutions. Indeed, the situation has become so bad that the Israel Institute and other like-minded organisations face a virtual avalanche of (largely) simplistic rhetoric and the task we face becomes more important by the day.

So does this mean that everyone who holds populist anti-Israel views is doing so to signal their virtue? Not at all. Many people genuinely believe these things to be true and are usually shocked to find that established mantras don’t stand up under scrutiny. Which is where the Institute comes in.

Our role is, and always has been, to provide a voice of balance and reason against a tide of uninformed prejudice so as to help Kiwis sift facts from dangerous fiction.

It’s a responsibility which we take seriously and will continue to champion in 2021 – and one in which I hope that you will continue to support us.