Politics

Snowflake, cuck, virtue signalling: the new dictionary of slurs feeds division where we need dialogue

In an interview with The Spinoff, Bill English said that he didn’t claim to be a feminist, because to do so amounted to ‘virtue signalling’. Former mayoral contender and current Greens candidate Chlöe Swarbrick says it is part of a wider problem

Doom and gloom. The world’s getting hotter, relative inequality is rising, housing is unaffordable, we’re stuck in traffic for 103 hours per year. And here’s the latest season of The Bachelor.

Geopolitics is in a tailspin. Capitalism is chewing us up and spitting us out. We’re saturated with information, beware the fake news. There’s a lot going on, and a lot going wrong.

As individuals, it is easy to become resigned or fatalistic, to dig our heads in the sand. Guess whose job it literally is to solve these problems?

Politicians.

They have the mandate and the resource. It’s their job description to do something about the monolithic problems and existential crises facing Aotearoa and the world.

Yet for some reason, so many of us seem to have given up on them. It’s a story we’re all familiar with. Politicians are all the same: a pile of self-interested narcissistic liars and cheats with their snouts in the trough. Such a story doesn’t just damage an expectation of accountability, it almost prescribes apathy.

Yet I’ve not yet met one politician, from any side of the spectrum, who doesn’t genuinely believe they’re doing their best to help bring society towards their version of a brighter future.

So why does it seem like, most of the time, they’re not quite getting us there?

I think it’s got a lot to do with a phenomenon the likes of which we saw earlier this month, when Prime Minister Bill English announced the superannuation age would rise from 65 to 67 – in 2040. There was a line drawn in the sand between the under 45s and the over 45s. A generation saddled with student loans, unaffordable housing and an increasingly precarious job market would now potentially miss out on retiring at the universally accepted age for doing so.

As a token “youth”, my hotline bling(ed) with requests for comments – but only if those comments had me armed with a proverbial pitchfork, lusting for boomer blood.

We’ve all read our fair share of articles deriding millennials for extravagant avocado expenditure, for being lazy snowflakes with a penchant for slacktivism, with villas in reach if only we worked a little harder, saved a little more, were a little bit more like the boomer dishing out their advice.

It’s a convenient story to maintain the status quo. And, gosh, it’s not like we’re voting anyway. It’s tempting to clap back. It’s tempting to drop some statistical truth bombs. But in the clickbait era, perception matters more than reality. To lobby back what would be whittled down into insults feeds the troll of intergenerational warfare.

It’s an unhelpful distraction. Poverty and misfortune does not discriminate on the basis of age. What does discriminate is a system primed to protect power and privilege.

The advent of the internet has helped us find our tribes across geographic divides, and echo chambers are popping up at a rate comparable to viral memes. We’re fighting each other armed with a dictionary of new mean words, intended to shut down arguments in place of spurring constructive dialogue.

Bill English: ‘I just think of all the smart, motivated, determined women that I work with. And virtue signalling is not really something that matters to them much.’ Photograph: Adrian Malloch for the Spinoff

I’ve been called a snowflake, cuck, social justice warrior, libtard, and feminist. If the latter is raising a few eyebrows, it’s because somewhere on the path to the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, it became branded “virtue signalling”.

Virtue signalling was coined in 2015 by conservative commentator James Bartholomew as “the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group.” It was popularised by the Alt-Right during Trump’s presidential campaign, and subsequently applied to anybody who stood up for anything they believed in. A fortnight ago it was Prime Minister Bill English who suggested that self-defining as a feminist amounted to virtue signalling.

On the flip side of this new derogatory dictionary, fresh terminology has developed to help define and unravel issues plaguing our society.

One of them is the validly charged term, rape culture, defined as a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been engaged in attempts at constructive debates on social media with men who insist that this terminology alienates them. While one in three girls may experience sexual assault by the age of 16, and one in seven boys by adulthood, it’s difficult to grapple with the idea that we’d prefer to spend energy debating the (intentionally) uncomfortable words intended to define epidemic violence and violation.

So we’ve got words that are meaningless and distracting, and crucial words that require us to confront our reality. Maybe it’s time we started treating each other the way we want to be treated, and calling a spade a spade.

Because while we’re fighting among ourselves, our politicians don’t have to do anything. Nothing could see positive change happen so quickly as a united populous demanding a better society for all.

And there’s a barrage of attempts to carve us up. Whether it’s anti-immigrant sentiment, the-youth-are-all-on-drugs anecdotes, debates seeking to dictate which bathrooms trans people “can” use, or propaganda unable to distinguish billions of good people from terrorists, we’re pitted against each other.

Structural and cultural change requires collective people action, from all people from all walks of life. It requires mutual respect. It requires consensus on the words we use to describe the problems of our time. It requires leaving our egos at the door, open-mindedness, and a willingness to learn. It requires focusing on the problems, instead of the people we’re so often and so unhelpfully told are our enemies.

Change means holding our leaders to account. Change means admitting there’s a plethora of problems plaguing all of our lives. Change means realising that this individual-level blame game is a distraction.

Meanwhile, the world’s getting hotter, relative inequality is rising, housing is unaffordable, and we’re stuck in traffic for 103 hours per year.


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