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“Deeper into democracy: the legitimacy of challenging Brexit’s majoritarian mandate”

There’s no reason that we should trust someone’s thoughts on politics just because he’s a good chess player, or even a good writer. That said, I found this opinion piece by Jonathan Rowson on Britain and the EU to be worth reading.

Also I came across this short post by Rowson on “virtue signaling” which made some reasonable points.

P.S. I’d heard of Rowson from reading his book Seven Deadly Chess Sins, which is great (if a bit over my head, chess-wise), and which came out when he was only 23!


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I have no real comment on the Brexit piece, but the virtue signalling piece seems almost willfully ignorant of the reason people find it so obnoxious: the fact that social media have so reduced the cost of broadcasting one’s beliefs. Separating the airing of genuinely held beliefs and the desire to spread those beliefs (a good thing) from the desire to be famous for moral preening (a bad thing) has had their relative prices inverted. It used to be almost impossible to do the latter and very easy to do the former, so the motivations of moral pronouncements were not suspect. Now that it’s far easier (and more personally lucrative) to become famous than to be serious, people naturally suspect motivation. Costly actions are important; cheap talk is not, and the Internet has has made talk way cheaper than it used to be.

    • Dan Simpson says:

      This is true. But the problem is that talking about actual action is also subject to people crowing about “virtue signalling”.

      There are also times when there’s nothing you can do other than talk. Today’s example would be this hilarious thing:

      Talking about diversity in maths is important. Doing things about diversity is also important, but until it becomes a dominant part of the conversation, people are just not going to do it automatically (and you can’t guarantee that every hiring committee / scientific committee / etc etc etc etc will have someone on it who will think about diversity). So in this sort of situation talking is action even though it’s cheap and the virtue signalling is a part of a long game to normalize the idea that the make up of any academic activity should strive to reflect the make up of the population.

      • Jonathan (another one) says:

        Ok… that’s funny, and poignant. I guess where the dividing line comes is the difference between tweeting about a poster very few people will ever see (in which there’s actual information content in the tweet) and tweeting about, say, a Trump tweet which everyone already knows about and in which one’s expression of outrage to one’s likeminded friends is not in fact intended to change anyone’s mind, no matter how morally upright the position. It’s not as if 10 tweets a day from the 175 million or so opposed to Trump are actually intended to accomplish anything at all. That’s the difference. Virtue signalling occurs when the signal is there, but the pathway from signal to change is not just obscure, but dubious. The fact that 175 million people oppose him is common knowledge. Their willingness to expend a few hundred characters a day to demonstrate it is boring and wastes the scarce attention bandwidth of the rest of us.

  2. Peter Dorman says:

    Let me take a different stab at what is being (properly) criticized under the term “virtue signalling”. (The parenthetical is there because some people will use this term to denigrate all expressions of social conscience, which is *not* OK by my book.)

    What bothers many of us is the invocation of generic notions of social justice, without any evidence of having thought through the concrete circumstances of the situation at hand. It treats social justice like a logo rather than a framework for considering the facts and figuring out what to do about them. Example: suppose a female subordinate has accused a male boss of sexual harassment. Taking this seriously and being very concerned for the rights of the accuser is hardly what I would call virtue signalling; it’s having a social conscience. But putting on a big show of one’s feminism and generic support for #metoo without engaging with the specifics of the situation — the actual accusation, the evidence, how the way the workplace is run makes harassment less or more likely, etc. — puts the need of the signaller ahead of dealing with the case at hand.

    In my experience, virtue signalling around gender, race and other bases for discrimination trivializes the genuine issues. It does this even when it takes the form of knee-jerk support for those protesting discrimination by not taking their charges seriously (as deserving of investigation) the way other, unrelated charges (like embezzlement) might be.

    Virtue signally is pseudo-engagement that obstructs the real thing.

  3. RJB says:

    I only play blitz chess (3 min a side) and rarely break the 1800 mark, so these comments won’t be as thoughtful as Rowson’s, but I find it striking that his article and the comments here downplay the asymmetric use of the term ‘virtue signaling’. Does anyone ever use the term to criticize people who hold views to their right? Do those who rail against gay marriage, or encourage people to uphold ‘traditional values’ ever get accused of virtue signaling? It’s the same with ‘political correctness’. People on the right police language every bit as much as those on the left (witness David Brooks demanding that proponents of gun control first demonstrate respect of gun owners), but that isn’t called PC. There seems to be more going on here than the low cost of communicating your views about morality or appropriate speech.

    I found it interesting to think about how these terms might be used in the topics normally discussed on this blog. Our host, and many in this community, believe that NHST is used too much in scholarly research, that p-values are used too poorly, that the sensational but unreliable is valued too much, and that authors who get things wrong are too likely to stonewall rather than admit error.

    It isn’t hard for me to imagine someone (e.g., Susan Fiske) who has succeeded in the current system criticizing Andrew or this community for virtue signaling. (“Blogging is cheap; if you aren’t starting your own journal, you’re just virtue signaling”). But it’s hard for me to imagine what an editor of a journal could possibly say that would lead a commenter holding those views to accuse them of virtue signaling, no matter how much they talked about the values they are trying to uphold as they defend the status quo. Same with political correctness. I can see a Susan Fiske claiming that it is mere political correctness to complain about her calling critics ‘methodological terrorists’. But who is going to say she is being PC in demanding that mere commenters show appropriate respect to those who have earned credentials through years of publication and service to prestigious journals?

    tl;dr: Accusing someone of virtue signaling or political correctness basically means ‘I think you are to my left’, where left typically means more interested in changing the status quo and giving more power to the institutionally marginalized.

    I’d love to hear reactions from those with higher chess ratings, especially if you have mastered White’s best response to the French defense. For some reason, I have a lot of trouble with that one.

  4. steven johnson says:

    Since virtue signalling is never acknowledged to include things like wearing a flag lapel pin or putting “in God We Trust” in inappropriate place, like police cars or demanding people stand during the national anthem, it’s nothing but a right-wing insult. It’s a pseudo-concept. Taking it seriously as an idea is just gullible, sorry. It’s exactly like political correctness, which never means agreeing to and spreading right wing conventional wisdom.

    The solution to the Brexit problem is simple enough: When there is an actual plan, hold a new referendum to confirm it. Do not rule out a multiple choice of plans.

    Speaking as a foreigner, most of the whining about the Brexit vote centers on the rather self-flattering insistence that Remain was about the enlightened EU commitment to human rights. Quite aside from the suspicious ease with which one could substitute “Christendom” for “Europe” in too much of the outrage, there is one little problem for the Remain side. That is, the EU is primarily about hard money, austerity budgets and free trade that limits the power of mere national governments, like Greece, to take action to save their citizens. That EU doesn’t deserve anybody’s support.

  5. Laurie Davies says:

    I wish you hadn’t posted this as I had other plans for this evening
    but I can’t let it pass without comment.

    I am a British citizen but have been living in Germany for about 45 years. I was not able to vote in the referendum but had I done so I would have voted very reluctantly for remain. The one overriding reason was Russia and its aggressive politics. If it hadn’t been for this I would have voted leave because of the undemocratic nature of the EU.

    Simon Wren-Lewis thinks the decision to leave is a disaster but he made one interesting point. If Britain left he would be against rejoining because of the undemocratic nature of the European Bank. Rejoining would mean the Euro. He is perfectly correct the European Bank, is undemocratic but so are the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. The European Commission is an unelected body which alone has the right to initiate certain laws.
    “Proposes new laws

    The Commission is the sole EU institution tabling laws for adoption by the Parliament and the Council that:

    protect the interests of the EU and its citizens on issues that can’t be dealt with effectively at national level;
    get technical details right by consulting experts and the public.”

    These can be rejected but only the European Commission can initiate them. Would the Americans put up with such a system? The European Court of Justice was initially an arbitration court for the European Coal and Steel Community but transformed itself into a constitutional court with no formal decision. De facto a Constitutional Court but not de jura. Which is the superior court in Germany, the German Constitutional Court or the European Court of Justice. How do you change the European constitution? The European Parliament where various citizen are more equal than the others? Luxembourg with a population of 0.5 million has six seats, Britain with 120 times that population has 73; one Luxemburger = 10 Britons. The nearest the EU gets to democracy is the European Council with its representatives elected by each country.

    If you want literature try Jürgen Habermas Zur Verfassung Europas of which there is an English translation or Dieter Grimm Europa Ja aber welches? which is probably available only in German. Dieter Grimm is a former judge on the German Constitutional Court.

    Jonathan Rowson’s piece is typical of the remain arguments. A long essay on the democratic deficits of Britain and not one single word on the much greater democratic deficits of the EU. There was a good piece by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Time a few days ago.

    “Britain sees Europe through the distorting mirror of Brexit
    The Leave and Remain camps are divided and incapable of dispassionate analysis”

    He was too soft on the remainers but he made an excellent point.

    There is strangely enough another reason for staying in the EU, not to save Britain but to save the EU. Gideon Rachman hinted at this in his article. Look at Poland, Hungary, the far right in France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden. The EU now hope Berlusconi will win the Italian election, the alternative being far worse. Look at the way the EU treated the Greeks. The latest opinion poll in Germany gives the SPD 15.5% and the AFD 16%. The great SPD with a proud history now level peggibg with the AFD whith clear Nazi leanings, völkisch in the German sense of the word. Read the first sentence of Timothy Garton Ash in the NYRB a few months ago. UKIP was never like this and has now disappeared. When I read articles like that of Jonathan Rowson I despair.

  6. Martha (Smith) says:

    Rowson’s sentences,”But has what started off as a clever way to win arguments become a lazy put down or mental shortcut to dogmatism? Does accusing others of virtue signalling encourage you not to interrogate your own beliefs?” suggests that the phrase “virtue signalling” seems to be an example of the phenomenon I call, “Give it a name, and you feel you understand it.” This phenomenon comes up often in talking about mathematics, statistics, or other technical (or otherwise complex or subtle) subjects.

    For example, in a course for future secondary math teachers, I would ask “What is the integral?” Many said “area”, and I would draw a graph of y = f(x) where the graph had parts above and parts below the x-axis, or I would ask about finding distance traveled from velocity. Rarely did anyone come up with anything close to a definition (which they had presumably been exposed to in calculus) such as “the limit of Riemann sums.”

    Something about human nature tends to impel us to feel we understand when we don’t. So we often need feedback or pushback to make us more intellectually honest.

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      > impel us to feel we understand when we don’t.
      Making the insurmountable uncertainty (doubt) go away – the symptoms but not the cause!

      As Peirce argued, once (real as opposed to fake) doubt disappears profitable inquiry ceases.

  7. A.G.McDowell says:

    The article mentions that other countries had multiple referendums on EU matters. It does not mention one public reaction to those referendums: the feeling that if the people don’t vote the right way in a referendum, the EU elites will hold repeated referendums until they do, and then proclaim the result as the will of the people. For this reason I believe that holding a second referendum in the UK would bring the idea of democracy in the UK into contempt. I gritted my teeth and voted “Remain” in the referendum – a triumph of heart over head. For this reason I would vote “Leave” in any second referendum. If the result was to remain, I would vote for the first time for the chaotic single-issue party UKIP at the next general election, in the hope of establishing the principle that democracy means that the wishes of non-elites are not to be held in contempt, or to be re-educated in line with the judgements of elites.

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