Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virtue signalling in a cynical age

A recent story on Yahoo Finance tells us that the popular perception of Starbucks has fallen since the company announced that it would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. The action is intended as a response to President Trump's attempt to block the entry into the US of refugees from selected countries.

According to the chart below, consumer perception levels have fallen by about 2/3 since the day of the announcement (orange arrow).



(Yougov/Business Insider)

It may be tempting to consider this a case of blatant racism encouraged by the election of President Trump. But I don't think so. I do think the phenomenon is related to Trump's election, but not in such an obvious way.

Virtue signalling doesn't work as a marketing strategy anymore. In fact, this understates the problem--virtue signalling (expressing moral values through a conspicuous action) is almost entirely viewed negatively. The world has grown cynical, and it is generally the fault of elites of all types, who have shown us time and time again that the more they play up their high morals, the worse their morals truly are.

Years ago, virtue signalling worked--companies would make an announcement about paying a fair price to third-world wage slaves for coffee, and people would ascribe a higher moral character to that company. Any company that has has exercised virtuous behaviour consistently over a number of years still benefits from it, but apparently any new attempt to signal virtue is viewed cynically as merely a tool to win favour.

In the old world, virtue signalling meant, "I am a good person." In the cynical world, it means, "I am a good person (but we both know that's not really true)."

More than twenty years ago, when I was teaching geology at the University of Toronto, it was common for students in environmental science to come visit me and tell me that they always recycled and composted. They were trying to sound like good people, but I perceived it as a lame attempt to suck up to the professor. I usually gave them a non-commital answer like, "That's nice. (Now go away, please)."

I prefer vice signalling. Once when one of my students told me about her prodigious feats of recycling, I told her that I actually encouraged people to create as much garbage as possible, because it meant more work for geologists, both in mining and in landfill siting.

In the old world, vice signalling meant, "I am a bad person." In the cynical world, it means, "I am a bad person (but we both know that's not really true)."

In the cynical world, the attempt by Starbucks to make themselves look good had the opposite effect. They might have been better off with a different marketing campaign. "At Starbucks, we believe in screwing over third-world coffee-pickers so you can have a great-tasting cup of coffee at an unbeatable price." Except the unbeatable price part doesn't fit Starbuck's positioning. But maybe some other coffee company could try it--it would be a killer campaign.

It is the cynical world, more than anything else, that is responsible for the election of President Trump. Virtue is simply out of favour. If Clinton had run her campaign twenty years ago, when the world was less cynical, she would probably have won. But in the cynical world, too many people thought, "she has to be a real crook to be trying this hard to look good."

For his part, Trump seems to have understood the value of vice signalling. Perhaps it was due to his businesses (for all their ups and downs, he always did market himself pretty well), whereas poor doomed Hillary and her advisors hoped that Americans still admired virtue. In the cynical world, virtue has fallen out of style. The worse Trump made himself look, the better people thought of him.

Is this the end for virtue? I think we have reached a watershed moment, where the world is so cynical, it has come to believe the opposite of everything we once held true. But the world tends to move in cycles, and I can't help but think we have stretched the elastic as far as it will go in this direction.

After the Trump presidency (however long it lasts), I think people will appreciate virtue again.

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