Of Words and Weapons

The original signalling theorist.

There is a principle, supposed to prevail among many, which is utterly incompatible with all virtue or moral sentiment; and as it can proceed from nothing but the most depraved disposition, so in its turn it tends still further to encourage that depravity. This principle is, that all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce, fidelity a snare to procure trust and confidence; and that while all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, we wear these fair disguises, in order to put others off their guard, and expose them the more to our wiles and machination.

—David Hume (1751)

Earlier this month I highlighted a speech given by John Garnaut on the relationship between the modern Communist Party of China and its Stalinist heritage. There is one passage in the speech I keep returning to:

Mao made plain that there is no such thing as truth, love or artistic merit except in so far as these abstract concepts can be pressed into the practical service of politics…. For Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Xi, words are not vehicles of reason and persuasion. They are bullets. Words are weapons for defining, isolating and destroying opponents. And the task of destroying enemies can never end.[1]

Treating words as weapons in the struggle for survival is not a notion Stalin dreamed up alone. It is an idea with a sterling Marxist ancestry. It finds its’ roots in the writings of young Karl Marx, who declared  “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [2] As a materialist, Marx did not believe that human thought was autonomous. Marx maintained that a man’s strongest convictions and most cherished opinions were not really his, but involuntary impulses of his material (read: class) background. Marx would state this idea most clearly in The German Ideology:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. (emphasis added)[3].

The implications of this stance are worth exploring. Marx is not so deterministic as to deny that ideas have an influence on the course of history altogether.[4] However he does seem to maintain that with effort any given set of ideas can be traced back to the material conditions that gave birth to them. Ideas, in the Marxian frame, are not the product of reason, but the instinctive expression of internalized differences in social position. Thus the Marxist’s skeptical disdain for those who appeal to dialogue and reason to resolve disputes. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a blind byproduct of interests. In such a world, argument inevitably reduces down to identity.

Hence Engels’ unsparing take on the reason-philia of the French Enlightenment:

The great men, who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions – everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down. Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion, was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.

We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.[5]

A straight line can be drawn from statements like these and the great terrors imposed upon captive populations by Marxist dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Men like Stalin did not oppose freedom of expression simply because it threatened their personal power. They opposed freedom of expression because they earnestly believed it was a pointless exercise. There is no point in debating with representatives of the bourgeoisie when the ideas of the bourgeoisie were not pliable to debate. If the opposing stance was not the product of reason, it could not be undone by reason. Ideas could not be argued against, because at their base they were not arguments. Words were weapons. Those who possessed the wrong ideas could not be persuaded—only removed, enslaved, or conditioned.

This is the dangerous endgame of an intellectual world where that allows no space for the argument made in good faith.

My readers probably suspect this essay is an attack on leftist rhetoric and identity based politics. “Post-modernism” and “critical theory” have their roots in Marxist thought, it is true. And yes, in the activist’s insistence that argument be reduced to identity the parallel with Marxism’s most dangerous ideas is unmistakable. However, standard leftist rhetoric is not my not target today. I bring up Marx because I am concerned with a different intellectual trend: signalling theory.

Signalling theory has been pushed by a diverse set of individuals, though the most prominent tend to be associated with the realms of economics or evolutionary psychology.[6] The central proposition of signalling theory is that the vast majority of arguments made in the public sphere are not made in good faith. An outraged tweet is not written to express genuine emotion, but to signal solidarity with the ‘right’ side. A verbose blog post is not written to persuade its readers of its argument, but of the cleverness of it author. A well circulated censure of some racist act is not written to convict the racist, but to display the Wokeness of the censor. The connecting string in all of these cases is that your arguments are less about your ideas than shaping other people’s perceptions of you. Whether you believe you are writing primarily to shape other people’s perceptions of you is immaterial. As with the Marxist theorists, signalling theorists are happy to conclude that signalling does not need to be a fully conscious process. In place of a class consciousness imposed by the material circumstances of an individual’s social status, signalling theorists trace the origins of self-interested arguments to mental social-status ‘modules’ imposed by the material circumstances of an individual’s evolutionary heritage. 

The comparison with Marxism will upset those who gleefully employ the rhetoric of signalling theory in their daily dealings with the social justice left. In the modern West, Marx is most popular in the least empirical and most politically driven academic tribes. This was not always so. In the 21st century, we have forgotten that the central appeal of Marxism to socialist revolutionaries was its claim to scientific validity. Marx, like the evolutionary psychologists, was committed to a naturalistic account of human affairs. Marx, also like the evolutionary psychologists, furiously denied that ideas and impulses have their origins in a “realm of pure thought.” In words that could easily be uttered by any evolutionary psychologist today, he argued that “from the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter,” and that any science of human society must be built on a clear-eyed picture of the relationship between ideas, impulses, and emotions on the one hand, and their material foundations on the other.[7] Like evolutionary psychology today, part of Marx’s appeal was an iconoclastic rejection of popular pieties for the sake of scientific explanation. He justified his works not in the language of justice, but of truth. Only on this foundation could a truly scientific investigation of human society proceed.

Despite all this, Marx was a rather poor scientist. The silliest psychologist of our age possesses tools of inquiry and an understanding of the scientific method far and away more sophisticated than any method Marx could dream up. The point of the comparison with the Marxists is not to equate Marx’s methods with the empirical foundations of  the signalling theory literature. The parallel that matters is how these theories are employed in political debate. It is one thing to analyze historical case studies of signalling behavior; it is another thing altogether to accuse your political opponents of signalling while they yet speak.

Consider a recent example from the Covington boys affair. I was alarmed to see so many liberals who previously railed against the term “virtue signaling” eagerly sharing a rant by Laura Wagner that was shameless in its use of the rhetoric of signalling to discredit her opponents:

As for why so many people are willing to not trust their own eyes; why they’ll readily accept the MAGA teen’s shitty and unconvincing publicist-created explanation that he didn’t do anything wrong; why news organizations rolled back reporting based on little new evidence; and why so many people lashed themselves to the whipping post in the square and begged for forgiveness, the answer is, I think, simple: These people are willing to give the screaming mob of white teens the benefit of the doubt because it distinguishes them from the emotion-driven hordes. It’s something like virtue signaling, but instead of attempting to signal that they hold any type of moral or ethical principles, these people are attempting to show that they are willing to be chastened, and so are thoughtful. I can admit when I’m wrong, they say, so you can always trust me.

It’s never good for the likes of Robby Soave or Bari Weiss or the cool priest or The Atlantic or CNN to be too vociferously on the same side as people on the left angrily yelling about how a bad thing is bad, not only because it’s not the done thing but because their brands rely on finding middle ground and pushing back against anyone who seems to care too much about something they don’t. (Somehow, of course, this always seems to land them on the side of the powerful and the privileged.) They need to be seen as reasonable and responsible and responsive, different from the frenzied masses.[8]

You see, it is always the other side that is doing the signalling.

Let’s be clear about what is happening here. When Wagner accuses Bari Weiss and company of writing their apology tweets and correction letters in order to signal thoughtfulness and moderation, she is excusing herself from any need to actually engage with Weiss et. al. The same is true for most of the “virtue signalling” critiques lobbed at the left: to label an argument a virtue signal is to discredit it without actually having to respond to it. Why would you respond to it? The signaler is not arguing, but maneuvering. Their words are not written in good faith. Their appeals to reason are  merely a clever gloss for strategic, self-serving behavior. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a slave of narrow self-interest.

As a rhetorical strategy this is extremely effective. This is why we have seen it spread from the right’s ideological fringes, to the centerpiece of conservative critique, and now to leftist attacks on the center. But there are consequences for intellectual life dominated by a theory that no person’s words mean what they say they mean. When words have been reduced to a mask for status seeking, signalling worth, dog whistling, securing privileged interests, solidifying tribal identities, or what have you, then words have been reduced to mere tools in a competition for domination. It is foolish to think they will not be treated as such. 

When these notions are mainstreamed, civilized discourse disappears as an option. That discourse depends on taking opponent’s words with good faith. It cannot abide a thought regime that insists good faith is an illusion.

The central idea of signallingthat public writing and speaking is mostly about manipulating other’s perceptions of yourself—is not new. Sima Qian and Thucydides recorded examples of it. Han Fei theorized it. Scores of Buddhist philosophers satirized it. Yet these historians and philosophers could not free themselves from the hope that their readers would read their works as something more than grand signalling devices. This concern continues to the present day. Robin Hanson, doyen of modern signalling studies, fights a perpetual battle to convince his readers that none of the ulterior motives he ascribes to human sociality writ large are behind his twitter polls.[9]

This how things must be. Civilized discourse depends very much on both parties in duel of words recognizing the self-serving intentions that lie behind the other party’s speech… and then deciding not to mention them. This is Reason’s Pact: the bare minimum required for fruitful rational discourse to take place.

We underestimate how many institutions in our society depend on us maintaining this illusion. Jettison the ideal of ‘reason’ as a governing principle, and all you have left are words as war. 

Those wars will start with words. There is no guarantee they will end with them.


[1] John Garnaut, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China,” speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[2] Karl Marx, “A Preface to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859), in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), available on marxists.org (accessed 29 January 2019).

[3] Marx, “Idealism and Materialism,” in The German Ideology (1845), in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), available on marxists.org (accessed 25 January 2019).

[4] See especially Marx’s “These on Feuerbach” for a broader discussion of this point.

[5] Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, chapter I (1880), in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol 3 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1970), available on marxists.org (accessed 28 January 2019).

[6] Marx, “Idealism and Materialism.”

[7] For the economist side, see Kevin Simmler and Robin Hanson, Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); for the evolutionary psychologists, a good example is Robert Kurzban, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) and Robert Kurzban and Jason Weeden, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self Interest Shapes our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] Laura Wagner, “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” The Concourse (21 January 2019).

[9] For a recent round-up, see Hanson, “Do I Offend?Overcoming Bias (23 December 2018). I personally find this affair somewhat amusing. “While in these [controversial] cases I have not made moral, value, or political claims,” Hanson writes, “when people read small parts of what I’ve claimed or asked, they say they can imagine someone writing those words for the purpose of promoting political views they dislike.” Yes, imagine that—the man who pioneers a theory states humans have ulterior motives for the things they say is disheartened to discover that many people suspect he has ulterior motives behind his blog posts! Who would have thought that might happen?

Leave a Comment


I think you're correct, but I take issue with the notion that "this war begins with words." People of different political stripes can quibble about this–but whatever the nature of today's social conflicts, they seem mostly to predate uncivil words or accusations of bad faith. Whether your issue is racism or classism or religious freedom or abortion or what have you.

Many people feel themselves to be in a war–not just of words, but of policy and culture and concrete action. Asking them to take up the presumption of reason and good faith in hopes of dialogue is difficult–especially today, when it's easy to find examples of people who are clearly and obviously acting in bad faith. What is your suggestion in this case? I don't mean that as a gotcha question; this is something that's deeply frustrated me for a long time now.

Your argument does not depend on it at all, but I would note that the irony of Robin Hanson being attacked as not being in good faith doing his twitter polls is well put, I have never seen Hanson respond to his accusers by claiming they are virtue signalling. Though he writes a lot and I may have missed it.

Great article but I don’t think the claim of lineage back to Marx is quite as important as the author does. The same article could have been written with early 20th century Freudian thought as the referrent. The politeness rule applied there too, and eventually it became less topical. This will happen with signaling too.

"The central idea of signalling—that public writing and speaking is mostly about manipulating other's perceptions of yourself—is not new."

I don't think that the central idea of signalling requires that it be taken to this extreme degree.

I'd like to unpack a couple of the premises here. Generally, there are two approaches to argument:

1) Argument as theater, where the goal of the participants is to make themselves or their cause look good

2) Argument as dialectic, where the goal of the participants is to develop more more sound, robust ideas by scrutinizing and stress-testing their logical structure and evidential support.

The liberal position is that good ideas are the foundation of a flourishing society. Jefferson argues that the people ought to organize their society and government in a way that "seems most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness", and the people are only able to do this in so far as they have a reasonably good idea what is likely to effect their safety and happiness– hence the necessity of augment style (2).

The Marxist position appears to be that is that the main challenge to overcome in the creation of a just and flourishing society is the defeat of the selfish and exploitative class interests, and that the development of good ideas (like so many other good things) is not possible until the material conditions of capitalist oppression are undone. Which, okay, fine. If I had to ITT their position, it's probably argument style (2) has a place within the movement's leadership, but that when talking to the proletariat as it currently exists, you should just stick to (1). This position, although identified with Marxism, is in practice the guiding all political campaigns, and (I would argue) most public speech.

The core problem is that argument style (2) is objectively not well suited to the public square. Certainly we all have read viral essays with quadruple-digit word counts that nevertheless amounted to little more than a political slogan, and arguably deserved little more of a well-reasoned response. I don't necessarily think that virtue signalling is the best way to understand these essays, since I don't necessarily think they are composed and shared out of a Machiavellian quest for self-promotion (if you shout a slogan at a political demonstration, the goal isn't self-promotion, but to help create a sense of solidarity among your fellow demonstrators). But I think that there's always going to be a need to say, in more or fewer words "this particular piece of speech doesn't merit a thoughtful response".

"Civilized discourse depends very much on both parties in duel of words recognizing the self-serving intentions that lie behind the other party's speech… and then deciding not to mention them. This is Reason's Pact: the bare minimum required for fruitful rational discourse to take place."

I like this. One can recognize that virtue signaling is a real thing, while also committing to never accusing someone of virtue signaling during an argument.

I'm pretty sure I'm being accused of having far WORST hidden motives than others on Twitter. And Nathan is right, I don't accuse particular people of having hidden motives when i debate them.

Some years ago, I wrote a paper called "Who’s in charge?: Text, cognition, socialization and the freedom of spirit" which argued against an approach to discourse analysis that assumed that speaker's prejudice can be found like a fingerprint in their speech. (Inadvertent signalling, of sorts). My argument is that we have lots of ways in which we can engage with the content. And we should be doing discourse analysis because we are interested in discourse and not to win an argument.

So I should be in agreement with you. And up to a point I am. I could certainly go along with this: "Civilized discourse depends very much on both parties in duel of words recognizing the self-serving intentions that lie behind the other party's speech… and then deciding not to mention them." This is indeed an important part of it.

In a way, you're restating the essence of Grice's cooperative principle. For truth conditions to make any sense, we must assume certain good will on the part of the speaker.

But ultimately I disagree along 3 lines: political, logistical, and linguistic.

1. I don't think you yourself engage enough with the substance of the signalling argument. Particularly given that you associate it with great evils of the last hundred years. What is not mentioned is arrived at by a process of negotiation – there are just too many things that have to be 'not mentioned' and the ones you want to be so left in the background are the ones that work to your advantage. The point of 'check your privilege' is exactly this – make the hidden overt.

2. Also, as a matter of logistics, you simply cannot take every single thing as a serious argument to engage with substantively. There are simply too many cranks out there to do that. At the extreme, there's no point in arguing with a solipsist. But there are also many genuine conversations that have been had too many times and sometimes just have to be labeled as X and set aside. You cannot have a deep engagement with every undergraduate essay on ethics – unless someone is paying you to do it.

Of course, you have to always question and undermine these essential heuristics but ultimately you can't do without them.

3. But you also miss out (not to suggest that you should not) a large swathe of linguistic research in 'speech acts' and 'conversation analysis'. They in fact do show that there is all kinds of signalling in pretty much any act of speech. The trick is to decide on when to focus on the primary or secondary signal. When I say something like 'during my trip to East Timor I saw many development efforts fail', I may be saying something about development but I am also signalling that I'm well travelled and knowledgeable and one strategy is to nod politely to move on. But my interlocutor can also focus on the fact that I have some knowledge and engage with that. There is not an obvious right or wrong choice.

Finally, I don't think you did enough work to justify your conclusion: "Jettison the ideal of 'reason' as a governing principle, and all you have left are words as war." The parameters of any conversation have to be (and are) constantly negotiated and fine tuned. And reason is only one of the principles in play.

Earlier you say: "A straight line can be drawn from statements like these and the great terrors imposed upon captive populations by Marxist dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot." You'd have to describe a lot of the points along that line before this would be anything but an ideological cipher. But more importantly, if we're drawing straight lines, it would not be that difficult to draw a straight line from reason to these terrors – in fact, Scott did just that in Seeing like a state.

So while I can subscribe to the general program of focusing on substance, I am not convinced that things are in any way as dire as you make them appear.

For a political community to function it must have a degree of preexisting social trust, typically based on shared language, religion, physical appearance, shared history — real and mythological — and other factors. It is not possible to maintain a society based on rules and peaceful transfer of powerful and orderly dispute resolution where the preexisting foundations of widespread trust not only don't exist, but have been successfully targeted for destruction. What is happening now is normal and to be expected. There is no reason a continent-sized country with hundreds of millions of people in it can function as a single polity. The only way it could work is lots of local autonomy and federalism. We no longer have that. There is one center, it controls everything, and possessing control is perceived correctly as a matter of life and death. Restored federalism and revived local autonomy has long been my hoped for outcome, but it looks more and more like a Yugoslavia or India style breakup is a real potential outcome. Sad! Hope I'm wrong.

I don't see a breakup as a possibility. We all identify too strongly as Americans for that. I see a (please God don't let it be so) repeat of our Civil War or maybe the English Civil War, where one side wins big and the other side loses bigger.

Right now however, I don't see a way out of this short of violence. The sides are too sharply distinct. What do the billionaires gain by accommodating the preservation of the middle and working classes? Workers who are far more troublesome than imported semi-slave labor. What do the middle and working classes get by being sympathetic to the masses coming in from over the border and the seas. They get put out of work. Those masses aren't going to go back easily, too much free stuff and good living to be had here. And on and on.

This is all way more fundamental than how we express ourselves. This is a matter of being citizens or subjects. It reminds me of late republican Rome. The men of the legions brought vast riches and hordes of slaves back to Rome. The riches went to a few and the slaves displaced the men of the legions in the civilian economy. They sort of made a fight of it but eventually became mere partisans of the Musks and Bezos' of the era while they fought it out for supremacy. What is interesting is that Marius and Sulla and Caesar and Crassus were all proficient military men. The Musks and Bezos' haven't a clue.

Anon #2 said-

"But I think that there's always going to be a need to say, in more or fewer words "this particular piece of speech doesn't merit a thoughtful response".

I agree. So let's all just say that! Calling something out as too poorly argued to merit a response is an invitation for a better argument. It does not close down the debate like signaling accusations do.

This is probably the answer to #1 and partially Dominik's concerns as well. "My time is precious. This argument is not written/presented well enough to deserve rebuttal or real engagement. When you can find someone/something more thoughtful and seriously, I will be happy to revisit this."

An important part of this is an assumption that you are actually engaging with the opposite side. But of course most of them time when we shout out "bad faith!" it is not for the benefit of the other side, but to signal boost our popularity on our own side of the aisle. Which is another problem with virtue signal critiques. They are just as much a signal as that which they critique.