Guest editorial

Virtue signalling

William Sitwell

VIRTUE-SIGNALLERS. They’re everywhere these days. On TV, all over social media, in the papers and on the news and dripping through on email, paraded by PRs, and look, straight ahead: there’s another one, staring right at you, in the mirror.

The problem is it’s just all too easy. To parade your credentials on anything – from politics to the environment – all you need do is touch your phone. You can like, retweet or re-post. Or you can dig deep, up-load a photo on Instagram and then add some worthy, simpering bon mots. If you need a lesson in this just follow Gary Lineker. Really he should have two social accounts for people who don’t like nasty surprises. One moment he’s weighing in quite cogently on a cleverly- taken free-kick, the next he’s grandstanding on Trump or second referenda. It can put you right off your vegan granola. 

Speaking of which, it’s food, of course, where virtue-signalling, or hand-wringing should we say, is most rife. The experts, of course, are influencers. These extraordinary creatures of the modern age who share images of their holistic, holier-than-thou lives for the rest of us to coo about. Except that influencers are called that for a reason, in that they are paid to influence. There are no regulations in social media, so your vegan mentor can chirp about a breakfast bar without having to tell you that they were paid to do it. Watch them as they appear to skip across the world sharing their beautiful lives and their deep-seated cares. I sometimes wonder how much fossil- fuel is burned so that some virtue-signalling influencer can report on the environmental credentials of some eco-hotel in Mauritius (which would have been much more eco if it had never been built in the first place). 

Of course the business of the influencer – the social-lite – depends on their hordes of followers swallowing and lapping up their visions and desires for a perfect world. And to get started quite a few of them falsified those followers – at a time when you could buy a few thousand fake devotees for a fraction of that you would then earn with their affected love. 

But, as my rant is pure and real, I should demonstrate that by saying that there are some good apples amongst the rotten. Not everyone on social media is false and shallow like me. Of the many good examples that exist I wish to highlight just one. The next time you have a few seconds free and are wondering what not to cook tonight, search for The Happy Pear on Instagram. This is a pair of Irish brothers, twins in fact, who are as strong as they are handsome and having spent their teens drinking their weight in Guinness and eating good Irish beef had a new awakening. One day they decided together to quit booze and meat. That was a few years ago and today they travel about inspiring people who themselves wonder if there’s another way. They start each day with a dip in the Irish sea - in all weathers and seasons – and they make their own brand of sauces and dips, cereals and biscuits. The Happy Pear are a real pair. They practice what they preach and their signalling is virtuous and real. It’s just that after about five days of eating their delicious food and following their lead in not abusing my body and avoiding alcohol I find myself aching: for booze and meat. 


There are no regulations in social media, so your vegan mentor can chirp about a breakfast bar without having to tell you that they were paid to do it. 

For yes, my intention may sometimes be pure but when it comes to food I’m a gluttonous sinner. That person in the mirror is indeed me – and it could well be you too. It’s just that I am a little more careful about posting my foodie preachings on line. Although I do occasionally do it in the real world. I have stood on stages – at food and literature festivals – and professed my desire to embrace more plant-based recipes, to cook more from scratch and to eat locally and seasonally. I have talked about the importance of ‘clean meat’ (lab-grown proteins, don’t you know) and how vital it is that we embrace insects in our diet – because – and this is the sort of thing I say – the likes of crickets can grow, live and be nurtured on waste – on the veg we throw away, for example. Think about that when you dunk your next grasshopper biscuit into your tea. 

Not everyone on social media is false and shallow like me. 

And so here is my honest confession. But first I want you to imagine me in my kitchen. There I am in my well-insulated home, the underfloor heating fuelled by ground-source energy, my stove, powered by a windmill, turning up on the roof. Stock bubbles on the hob, the carcasses of a Sunday roast chicken flavoured with the ends of parmesan that I always store in the freezer, before committing it to the compost heap. I chop up my home-grown carrots, celery and onions and toss them into the pot before taking a quick slug on the cider I made from last year’s windfall. 

Instagram witnesses the various stages of my cooking, hashtagged to the gills with words like organic, homegrown, nature, real food, seasonal and sandals (ok, maybe not the last one). And then, when the soup is ready, I cut up slices of my home-baked crusty bread, and then welcome into my home a local immigrant family, hastily plucked from Syrian horror, to whom I have given free board-and-lodging. 

The reality I’m afraid is that I do not have an insulated house, although I dream of one and wish I didn’t burn quite so much oil in the vague hope of heating the place. And I want to cook like that, really I do but I’m just too busy writing about it, liking stuff on Instagram, watching food programmes on TV, attending talks, giving talks, appearing on TV, hosting radio shows and bashing out pieces like this one.

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