Virtue Signaling Left and Right

(Note: This blog post started as an answer I wrote on Quora.)

As I’ve grown more experienced and looked out over the world, I’ve noticed that self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives love to attack each other for “virtue signaling,” even though it’s far from unique to one side of the political spectrum. They often end up talking past each other, though, because they do it in different ways, against different targets.

One key difference between the left and the right is often the way they feel about hierarchy. Political conservatives tend (with some exceptions, of course) to lean toward vertical hierarchies; political liberals, toward flat egalitarian social structures.

This isn’t just an American thing. Peer-reviewed, published studies have observed this difference across different societies. [1] [2] [3] There appears to be a structural, neurological basis for this division.[4] [5]

So how does this play out in virtue signaling?

The simple answer is: While both liberals and conservatives frequently virtue-signal by denouncing external threats or perceived threats—members of the out-group—liberals are far more likely to turn on their own, virtue-signaling by attacking members of the in-group seen as violating the norms and standards of the in-group.

That might seem contradictory at first. If conservatives value hierarchy, and with it conformity, doesn’t that mean conservatives would be likely to turn on people perceived to be insufficiently adhering to the group’s thinking?

And the answer is no.

When you are part of a hierarchy and have strongly hierarchical views, it seems like a natural consequence of that hierarchical thinking is a set of double standards for those at the bottom of the hierarchy vs those at the top. This is how conservatives can claim to support “family values” while worshipping—sometimes literally—a twice-divorced serial adulterer who’s had five children from three different women.

Adherence to the hierarchy itself is what’s important. The people at the top aren’t subject to the rules.

Liberals don’t accept this. Liberals are biased toward egalitarianism; the same rules apply to everybody.

On the one hand, that makes liberals far less likely to overlook transgressions on the part of those at the top. Al Franken was urged to resign when a photo showing him pretending to grope a woman (without touching her) started circulating; on the other side, Matt Gaetz is the subject of a criminal investigation for statutory rape, pandering of a minor, sex trafficking of minors, and obstruction of justice—an investigation that has already resulted in the criminal conviction of a co-conspirator—and conservatives are like “eh, whatever.”

This difference in reaction comes directly from differences in attitude toward hierarchy and egalitarianism.

What this means is that liberals and conservatives both virtue signal, and in many of the same ways, but when they, for example, crank up the Twitter rage machine, conservatives are more likely to target members of out-groups, whereas liberals are much more likely than conservatives to eat their own.

Which is not to say that conservatives never target their own or liberals never target the out-group, of course. One of the biggest modern examples in American history of cancel culture was the conservative rage at the Dixie Chicks, which resulted in employees of radio stations that played their music being stalked and receiving death threats, and venues that hosted Dixie Chicks concerts getting bomb threats.

But the Dixie Chicks committed a crime against hierarchy; they questioned George W. Bush’s rationale for war in Iraq.

This is a big part of the disconnect between liberals and conservatives about cancel culture and free speech. Conservatives will cry about “Liberal cancel culture! Liberals don’t care about free speech!” But when liberals are like “wait, isn’t that what you did with the Dixie Chicks?” conservatives will say “no,” leaving liberals thinking “what a lying pack of hypocrites.” But from the conservative perspective, they aren’t lying and aren’t hypocrites. The Dixie Chicks were attacked for undermining the hierarchy, not for speech. The fact that speech was the tool they used to undermine the hierarchy is an irrelevant detail.

Liberals, on the other hand, turn their virtue-signaling on their own, often for “offenses” that seem inexplicably petty and stupid to conservatives.

This happens to an extraordinary degree in small liberal subcommunities—often, the smaller the subcommunity, the more vicious the virtue-signalling and infighting. I’m reminded of the Henry Kissenger quote, “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because stakes are so small.”

A real-life example:

Some years ago, a woman complained on Tumblr that she didn’t like polyamorous people because polyamorous people would talk about being “poly” on Tumblr posts, and it made it harder for her to search Tumblr with “poly” to find Polynesian Tumblr users.

Now, this was one person on one social media platform, not Polynesian people in general.

But the polyamory scene, or parts of it, started to turn—sometimes with incredible viciousness—on polyamorous people who used the word “poly,” demanding that they use “polya” or “polyam” instead.

To polyamorous people, those who use the term “poly” committed a crime against the marginalized.

This, too, is a big part of the disconnect between liberals and conservatives about cancel culture and free speech. Liberals will cry about “Conservative cancel culture! Conservatives don’t care about free speech!” But when conservatives are like “wait, isn’t that what you do when you police language around minority groups?” liberals will say “no,” leaving conservatives thinking “what a lying pack of hypocrites.” But from the liberal perspective, they aren’t lying and aren’t hypocrites. The people using the word “poly” were attacked for undermining a historically disenfranchised group, not for speech. The fact that speech was the tool they used to undermine this group is an irrelevant detail.

This kind of policing of the “insufficiently woke” is far more common in liberal than conservative scenes, and it turns easily into virtue signaling when people uninvolved with the original whatever-it-was start to pile on because piling on is an easy, no-cost way to be seen on the side of the righteous. (There’s another pile-on starting up these days about people who use “consensual non-monogamy” vs “ethical non-monogamy” to describe polyamory; the idea is that consent isn’t necessarily ethical, so the people who use “consensual non-monogamy” clearly don’t really care about ethics.)

The pile-on is kind of the definer of virtue signaling. Once it becomes socially acceptable within a certain group to attack a certain person or subset of people, those without any dog in the fight will pile on merely for the admiration of their peers.

Well, also to congratulate themselves for being moralistic too, I suppose, but I gotta say, when you express your virtues only when it’s safe and easy to do so, costs you nothing, and there’s no risk…are they really virtues?

Left and right virtue signaling is generally quite similar:

  • It involves attacks on perceived threats to the orthodoxy. In conservative circles, the orthodoxy is likely to be the current hierarchy, or dominant religious or social tradition. In liberal circles, the orthodoxy is likely to focus on perceptions of egalitarianism and power imbalances: men always have more power than women (hence “believe all women”), and so forth.
  • It is an easy tool of bullies to use to exert authority and control. Bullies skilled in whipping up outrage can direct that outrage against targets of their choosing by manipulating the values of their social group.
  • It is safe, risk-free, and no-cost for those who jump in. Hopping on a bandwagen is pretty much the safest thing you can possibly do; in fact, the person who stands up against bandwagoning is the one who risks more. (Ask anyone who refused to name “Communists” during the McCarthy witch hunts!) The real determinator of your virtue is not what you do when proclaiming your virtue costs you nothing, but what you do when holding to your ideals costs you something.

Where they differ is in the common targets, and of course in the rhetoric used to justify the virtue signaling.


[1] Conservative and liberal, hierarchical and egalitarian: Social-political uses of the concept of “home” in Greco-Roman antiquity and early Christianity

[2] Liberal and Conservative Representations of the Good Society: A (Social) Structural Topic Modeling Approach

[3] Political identity, preference, and persuasion

[4] A Neurology of the Conservative-Liberal Dimension of Political Ideology

[5] Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults

Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on and run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on and increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

New projects in the pipe!

This has been an incredibly productive year. Well, years, actually. The last three years have been the most creative, most productive time in my life. And I’m pleased to share some of that creativity with you!

First up, a new novel, The Hallowed Covenant! This is the third book I’ve co-authored with the marvelous Eunice Hung. It’s also the third book in the Passionate Pantheon series of far-future, post-scarcity science fiction theocratic pornography.

Yes, we invented a genre.

Anyway, I’m incredibly proud of this novel. We explore (I think) some really interesting ideas about autonomy, responsibility, atonement, and forgiveness, amidst all the really hot super-kinky sex.

This is also the first Passionate Pantheon novel that will have an audiobook version, narrated by the amazing Francesca Peregrine. She had some lovely things to say:

The book publishes this October. Preorders are up on Barnes & Noble and Amazon, but watch this space! You’ll be able to get a copy before pub date at a special price (and an early peek at the audiobook and the fourth novel in the series, Unyielding Devotion) if you back our crowdfunding next month!

I’ve also just launched a new website for makers who like sex: Tentacle Love. This is a DIY site full of tutorials and tips for making your own silicone sex toys, and includes downloadable 3D printable molds for you to cast sex toys yourself.

(And yes, you can also get a Team Tentacle T-shirt if you like.)

I’ve been making silicone sex toys for a while, so from time to time I also plan to put one-offs on the site for sale. These aren’t your typical sex toys, oh no—my tastes being what they are, I’ve made everything from kazoo ball gags (yes, seriously) to double-sided tentacle gags to…well, stranger things.