Have you ever taken the time to read some of the vocabulary on organic food labels? Lines like: “Good for nature, good for you” seem to ripple off the packaging with no shame at the degree of arrogant sanctimony these marketing mavens are implying. Products have names like “ethical”, carry images like bees and butterflies and try to ensure that every adjective is either prefixed with a “non” or suffixed with a “free” or “friendly”. A trip to a Lush boutique or a health supplements shop is enough to convince any sceptic that virtue branding is big business. What’s happening here?
My Virtue: The New Fad?
Social media is evolving. It is no longer just about me but the tools have created a means to publicly virtue signal – to express and seek affirmation from our communities that we are good people, taking the right decisions and making a difference. Gurus and activist groups have created a framework to capitalise on this need for public validation (and maybe crowdfund a few bob).
People need to feel good about themselves and identifying and expressing the virtue behind their choices is, to some extent, a normal compensatory reaction. But these are not merely vulnerable millennials feeling peer pressure to fit in and join a class climate strike. Even scientists are lecturing on the moral urgency to act. The recent EAT-Lancet Commission debacle showed how scientists are engaging in “responsible advocacy” (what I call, in a more sanctimonious light: “activist science”). We can save the planet … so long as you stop eating meat!
This is more than merely assertive mindfulness. Virtue signalling seems to have become a social obsession: birthdays on Facebook are celebrated with causes, we consume purpose with every spoonful and seeking affirmation from your tribe, it seems, is a principle element supporting mental wellness. Wealth is expected to be given away (sorry Jeff, time to step up) and every good intention needs to be crowdfunded.
Time was we donated to good charities privately or volunteered our time thanklessly but now it is broadcast to our communities and assertively appreciated. This social media evolution is an excellent opportunity for groups professing a morally elevated ideology (like naturopaths).
The Naturopathic Cult: Good People
It is a bit cliché to conclude that this is another cultural phenomenon – that millennials do everything with a sense of purpose. That generation did not invent “purpose” but merely transferred the condescending zeal from the front-row pews in their Sunday finest or the opinionated on the hippie commune to the social media tribes led by the opportunistic gurus. I have spoofed how environmentalism has created an eco-religion to rival any zealot cult complete with rituals, an Armageddon fear and a chance for salvation/redemption.
For those new to this blogsite, I define naturopathosis in a broad sense to include not just those suffering from a belief in alternative medicine and homeopathy, but also the organic food cultists, chemophobes and anti-vaxxers.
Every belief system is bound in stories and traditions woven into a cultural narrative with clear moral distinctions of good and evil. For naturopaths, anything natural is seen as pure, divine and unsullied by human intervention – the source of that synthetic product depicting evil. And food and agriculture are fertile ground for such religious sanctimony. Should a seed be defiled by man, it is not to be planted. Should a crop need protection, the good book declares it can only be with natural chemicals. If a disease were to spread, it would affect the weak and strengthen the herd. Of course, these naturopaths still drive cars and use phones, but like every religion, there is a home for heathen hypocrisy through redemption tools (recycling, carbon offsets…).
There have always been zealots and hypocrites but with the arrival of social media tribes, they find themselves more easily and these closed communities, it seems, have created an environment to out-signal their virtues. Just when you thought eating organic made you a good person, you find your occasional piece of chicken to be an affront to human decency. Soon you find that being vegetarian is not enough and your cult gurus are offering absolution through vegan purity … but it is not just any type of veganism. The world of organic as well is solidifying around the virtue of growing in soil (born from mother nature as a sacred, gluten-free bread to be broken on the altar of eco-enlightenment). It is getting so hard today for a vulnerable person to keep up and express their virtue with all of the competing zealots.
Manna for Marketers
These vulnerable people socially sharing their virtue in an Instagram snap have created enormous opportunity for unscrupulous marketers. I have argued how the organic food label is merely a marketing tool. There are no facts or evidence to back up any of the claims behind organic virtue, but their marketing process has always been merely emotion-based (mostly fear campaigns). Retail and food manufacturers, against their better judgement, have embraced this anti-science trend given how the promotion of organic creates a high-margin label and a quality cache. Virtue signalling + brand identity is the marketing sweet spot.
This shift to the good consumers proudly sharing their halos has helped marketers who had exhausted the CSR concepts and over-stretched sustainability mantras. The consumer seemed to have grown tired of identifying the good they do for others (fair trade and ethical companies were not having much of an impact) – everybody was making the same socially responsible claims so there was little room for market differentiation. With naturopathic virtue signalling, the consumer could identify the good they find in themselves when they make the recommended eco-religious life choices.
What could possibly stop this marketing goldmine?
This is a Crusade!
Being better, and expressing it loudly, implies being better than others who don’t make the same choices and this is where things get delicate for social interactions. The righteous use a hammer when signalling their worth. When I spoke about my sister-in-law, Rachel, it was not that she was merely vulnerable and sought affirmation in her social media tribes, but that she identified people like myself, who did not support her purposeful choices, as a threat or an evil shill happy to pollute and be unsustainable. Thanks Rachel!
Naturopaths are not interested in the facts or evidence – they have found better ones. They will bend evidence to fit what they want to want to believe. This zealot mindset is consequence-resistant; food insecurity, mass measles outbreaks, reductions in the quality of life … these consequences don’t matter to the affirmation-obsessed.
I have always felt, with the exception of major vaccines and basic public hygiene issues, people are free to make their own personal choices. But the moment a group of people decide to impose their beliefs on others (which could affect food prices, public health and the quality of life), they had better damn well back it up with scientific evidence. So most of the battles I find myself in are related to zealots wanting to handcuff conventional farmers, restrict pharmaceutical research, ban safe chemicals that add quality to products, remove plastic packaging for inferior alternatives or add to the cost of living to the least prosperous in society. These battles against the forces of medieval ignorance are getting harder. (There, I can virtue signal too!)
Battling emotional debates around ethical goodness with scientific facts is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. I don’t have high hopes that this Age of Stupid will end any time soon. That leads me to the very worst virtue signaller: the precautionista policy-maker.
Regulatory Virtue Signalling
The most vulnerable creature on the planet is one whose existence is defined by public support: the regulator. Policy-makers used to gather the experts and make decisions on the basis of the best evidence in a world where innovation and technology led to human progress that benefited all. But as bellies got filled and want became a distant memory, the rise of virtue became a more important political value than rigorous facts. When US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said it was more important to be morally right than factually correct, she embodied the new generation of virtue signalling regulators. Her Green New Deal is an invitation to join in the signal.
Although those in the scientific community were horrified by AOC’s statement, it really should not come as any surprise. Expert advice has not only been excluded from many policy decisions (on chemicals, crop protection and energy for example), the experts have, themselves, become a target for public attack, revulsion and exclusion. Scientists are now painted as shills for industry – that evil entity that has raped the planet and cursed humanity with a synthetic nightmare of cancer and environmental catastrophe.
For naturopaths, attacking industry, its representatives and its products have become the ultimate virtue signal. It is no accident that Monsanto had been referred to as Mon-Satan – the religious battle against industry has reached incomprehensible proportions to most thinking people. That a jury, in the first glyphosate case, would even consider awarding Dwayne Johnson $289 million based mainly on the claims that Monsanto did not behave nicely, and without any credible scientific evidence, demonstrates how virtue signalling has taken over the public discourse on technologies. There is no positive outcome for a policy-maker to support industry in this anti-corporate witch-hunt climate.
Science and expertise, associated with industry, have been morally excluded from the debates (and since facts don’t really matter in a world without want, nobody seems to be terribly concerned). The naturopaths have offered their own, kosher, alternative: the citizen scientist – an individual whose intentions are pure, not profit-driven and aware of the concerns of the tribe. To be a citizen scientist is to be a high priest of the forces of virtue. This is evident in the ambition of the European Parliament PEST committee chair, Eric Andrieu, who seeks a reform of the risk assessment process (essentially neutering scientific expertise) in order to ban all synthetic pesticides (although he embraces copper sulphate for organic wine production). Eric knows a vote winner from his virtue-obsessed constituency when he sees one!
What does this citizen scientist have to do in order to deliver a more virtuous society for all (from the perspective of the naturopathic eco-religion)? It’s really not that hard. A naturopath doctor can begin practicing in about six months simply by learning what synthetic medical solutions are not allowed (hint: all of them). A citizen scientist will simply look at any synthetic product requesting to be put on the market and apply the precautionary principle – the regulator’s virtue-signalling tool of choice.
The Precautionary Principle as a Virtue Signal Tool
When precaution is applied, the regulator is seen as benign, caring and concerned about unforeseen consequences. When acting to block technologies, the regulator is held by the naturopathic tribe to be virtuous. Better safe than sorry means “I value public safety over corporate profit”. It lets the regulator say: “I am going to save the world by getting rid of X, Y and Z”.
The precautionary principle’s greatest benefit is that it is a zero-risk, virtue-driven policy tool: you are “never wrong” when you take precaution. Often when I speak in public, I give the example of my umbrella in my bag – a precautionary action. If it is a sunny day, and I bring my umbrella, it is clear that I was not right to bring an umbrella, but likewise, I was not wrong. Even if the forecast is for sun tomorrow, I will still bring my umbrella. The precautionary logic assumes that not being right is not the same as being wrong – with precaution, you are never wrong (just very often not scientifically right).
Scientists, who live in a logic where you are either right or wrong (and if you’re right you should then have the right) do not get the precautionary logic. They don’t see the inherent value to regulators of such virtue signalling. It is a no-brainer actually: if a policy-maker can be seen to not be wrong while also being morally right, no other decision could be more politically rational (pity though the consequences from the lost technologies, but that is someone else’s problem).
The Virtue of Science?
Risk-Monger, please end this blog with some hope for the future. The idea of naturopathic zealots dictating policy based on their tribal virtue signallers with a community of Luddite citizen scientists going around declaring precaution on any technology humans had designed to solve problems and improve life is just too horrific to imagine.
I fear we will have to wait until the bodies start piling up before we can expect reason to return to this virtue free-for-all. Sadly this will happen, is happening, in the most vulnerable countries. The sanctimony-prone agroecologists are pouring money into Africa. Western elitists who have benefitted from the greatest achievements of science, improved quality of life and prosperity are happy to squander it in their ignorance.
Since David Hume we have known that reason cannot win when the passions are in play. Every now and then a major fear arises that pushes the narrative back to supporting science (AIDS, Swine Flu, Ebola found citizens calling out for greater investment in research), but the fear-based narrative at present is against more technology.
I had once thought moral outrage at the hypocrisy of the virtue signallers could deliver some restoration of rationality, but I am afraid these cults have built a big tent to house their hypocrisy. With virtue on their side, these zealots can simply ignore the contradictions and build their cults based on bitter Kool-Aid.
I once considered ridicule as a tool to defend science – nobody likes to be called stupid (The Fish-Called-Wanda hypothesis). But as expertise and science becomes more sidelined from the public discourse, this call is falling on deaf ears (and the gurus are great at generating self-pity).
Some day a Renaissance will come to lift us out of this micro-zealot Dark Age. Policy-makers may some day realise that a few loud, relentless voices do not represent the democratic will and we may be able to keep the cults in their compounds. Until then, the scientific community will need to serve as keepers of the flame, preserving standards and processes until the day when the communication tools and their capacity for discourse will have matured.