Whether in virtual communities such as Overheard at Yale or in face-to-face communication, Yalies often proclaim support for marginalized communities of different creeds. This is unsurprising, given a centurieslong culture that encourages students to become future leaders, frequently in highly visible areas like politics. All too common on campus, however, is a type of support limited to Facebook statuses and premeditated slogans, verbal statements of concern that do not always line up with personal dispositions.
This practice of virtue signaling is more harmful than helpful. Nor does it do justice to the actual experiences of the people on behalf of whom virtue signalers claim to advocate. I don’t mean to criticize those who engage with the marginalized in good faith, aiming to seek understanding and human connection. But all too often, compressing empathy toward the other to some kind of statement reduces it to an abstract expression, an intellectualization of concrete experience. This is particularly egregious in light of the fact that a certain contingent of Yalies instrumentalizes the language of acceptance and respect to fit in with Yale’s mainstream culture and sensibilities.
This kind of outward signaling has the real potential to mask internal disdain and private disregard for the “other.” A recent personal experience illustrates this theory. A person I know uses the correct pronouns in front of me, but misgenders me out of my physical presence. Nonetheless, this person “likes” my Facebook posts about trans rights and thus satisfies the requirements for acceptance among the politically conscious at Yale. Perhaps seeing me serves as a visceral reminder of how they ought to interact with me, but as the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind.
My experience with these attitudes is not limited to one example; they manifest themselves when someone who knows of my gender identity gives me fashion advice for men or uses the correct pronoun but otherwise refers to me in a way that contradicts the gender of the pronoun used. This gap in external affirmation and internal conception is something at once painful and thoroughly inconsistent.
Though people can never fully understand the experiences of marginalized communities, people like these do not engage with us as human beings; they interact with us as tools with which they can cultivate an image.
A fair number of people say they accept some demographic, but often treat that demographic as the “other” — something attractive to look at and pay lip service to but not to get close to. Simply proclaiming that one supports something like trans rights washes over large groups without any move to acquaint oneself with the individual.
In an environment that already suffers from a preoccupation with appearances, physical or otherwise, little is really accomplished by virtue signaling. Instead, it provides yet another avenue for social climbers.
The nature of tolerance at Yale underpins this drive to prove one’s social consciousness. Yalies often prefer to dismissively criticize behavior, without an attempt to educate or produce understanding. This exerts pressure to conform to a set of acceptable values in order to simply remain friends with others. While a fundamental goal of our campus should be to promote a respect for human dignity, such categorical dismissal of minor dissention from the norm sustains and fuels the growth of virtue signaling.
Speech alone is not enough to indicate nor generate genuine support. Empathy is found in the attempt to bridge the gap between the “I” and the “you,” in creating an existential bond that ultimately transcends categories of identity.
At the end of the day, many Yalies have an intellectual grasp of marginalization, but not an affective response to its daily reality. So, look beyond the superficial and question your implicit assumptions. Relationships at Yale would be far more fulfilling if we cared to think about others, rather than cared about what others think of us.
Lauren Lee is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .