In my twenties I lived on a boat. For 18 hours a day it floated on the river at Hammersmith, a stone’s throw from the bridge. The rest of the time, when the tide was out, it rested on the shore, on mud and some old car tyres I’d drilled holes into and sunk beneath; so the boat remained level when beached.
On summer evenings, with the other flotsam from the moorings, we would gather at The Rutland pub to drink flat beer, enjoy the night air and slap midges. It was just after last orders when I noticed a small shadow silently drop from the bridge into the black water. Had I been looking a fraction in any other direction I would have missed it and that evening would have passed in the same way they always did. It was too far to hear a splash, but a few seconds later a dark mass surfaced; just an absence where the light coruscated across the waves.
The tide was near the turn; still coming in but slowing before heading back out to sea again. As the river sweeps around the bend the currents radiate, driving detritus towards the Hammersmith side and our moorings. In a few minutes, the shape would be near our boats.
Three of us sprinted down to the jetty but the form was too far out. Soon it would pass and be gone. But now we could see it more clearly. A body, floating face down. Without thinking I dropped my trousers and lowered myself into the ink-cold river.
At times, even that far up, the river’s currents can be deadly. Maybe in the back of my mind I’d clocked that, as long as high tide hadn’t actually hit, chances of an undertow were slim. But if I did, it was unconscious. As it was I would only have a few seconds before we would both be swept on, carried back out midstream and up to Chiswick Eyot. It was ten strokes at the most before I could grab his shirt in my fist. I was fairly sure he was dead. I didn’t try to flip him over, just dragged him back to the pier and, together, we managed to haul his sodden dead weight up on the jetty.
We heaved him on to his side and whacked his back a few times. He spewed out a torrent of water which ran through the wooden slats to rejoin the river. He started breathing, shallow alcoholic puffs. Unconscious but definitely alive. We draped a blanket and someone rang for an ambulance. Twenty minutes after being pulled from the river, I was sitting next to him like he was my catch of the day. He opened his eyes and a fist lashed out at me catching me solidly in the arm. “Bastard,” he spat. “I want to be dead.” And he wailed.
There’s gratitude! So I rolled him off the pier and watched him sink. No. Just kidding. By the time the ambulance arrived he was in full rant and they had to sedate and restrain him on his stretcher before trying to navigate him up the jetty.
I suppose I was hoping to feel good but I felt wretched. An impulsive act was just a thoughtless one. Not only had I failed to consider my own safety before launching into the river and had probably contracted Weil’s disease (I didn’t), but I also failed to appreciate how virtually impossible it is to fall off a bridge by accident. I was lead to the water but nothing made me think. What sort of terrible point did this man get to in his life to climb over a handrail and cast himself into oblivion? He could have spent weeks building up the courage to end his life and, when he pushed himself off, he committed himself to something so terrifying it is almost impossible to imagine. And there was me, without a thought in the world, buggering it all up.
Sometimes I comfort myself thinking, if he had really wanted to kill himself, why pick a spot on a warm night near an area full of people enjoying the riverside? Might there not have been some forlorn hope for this outcome?
But how did my simple attempt to do something virtuous end up so complicated? Could it be that my unconscious desire to show off, and demonstrate how good I was, overrode any consideration for my drowning man? Was I, in fact, just “virtue signalling”?
The phrase has become a go-to mantra for right leaning commentators to deflate actions associated with liberal and left wing ideologies. It’s used copiously on social media to say that, far from being virtuous; veganism, feminism, anti-racism, and any number of socially responsible creeds, are just empty gestures only made to demonstrate how moral the individual vegan, feminist or anti-racist would like other people to believe they are. Virtue signallers are not virtuous but self-serving, glory hungry, hypocrites. The trouble is, for the phrase to mean anything, it also suggests that actually eating less meat, supporting equal rights or stopping discrimination is indeed virtuous.
Which then begs the question, if they know these acts are virtuous why aren’t these critics trying to do them too? I suspect that this goes back to the “altruism dilemma” a game which, with a certain amount of dope, keeps any number of student parties going in to the small hours. Player One asks “Is there such a thing as a completely selfless act?” Player Two suggests something nice. Player One then explains why it’s actually self-serving. Player two tries something else, and so on, until Player Two becomes totally disillusioned. Good deeds have the kick back of making you feel good. Help an old chap across the road and you’re seeking the appreciation, the moral reward and perhaps even paying forward in to a world that you desire when you are old and infirm. Etc. Because self-interest can be argued for every act, some, and they tend to be right leaning, maintain that man is necessarily self-serving and, as soon as we realise this, we can stop farting around trying to be kind and get on with our real mission in life, getting rich enjoying ourselves and not giving a monkey’s fart about anybody else. Man is born of original sin… get over it.
“Virtue signalling” says so much more about its user than its target. It signals a crushed idealist, someone defeated in their attempts to be virtuous and so trying to recover dignity by pointing out its impossibility and criticising others for “pretending” to try. It signals someone bitterly woke enough to understand that man is alone in life, and will live and die feeling dirty.
The Romans had 24 major virtues including Comitas, “humour”; Virtus, “manliness” and even Laetitia, “Joy, Gladness.” Christians quickly whittled that down to seven pious counterpoints to the deadly sins: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. By the time the OED defined Virtue its impossibility was inherent: Behaviour showing high moral standards. (my italics).
If virtue is just about “showing” rather than being, if it’s impossible, are we idiots to keep trying? Look at it this way. Evolution is a species’ genetic struggle to constantly improve. But our genes would be redundant if we reached the goal of ideal creature. Impossible goals define a direction not a destination. As Browning put it in Andrea del Sarto, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” If Virtue is an unachievable target, do you just give up trying to hit it? Do you just criticise anybody still naïve enough to keep trying? Does that compensate for your own sense of failure? Lasting happiness is equally fanciful but no one seems to argue against trying to go for it.
So. Did I only jump into the water because I wanted to show off? Sucker people into believing I was virtuous? Some impossible higher moral being? Am I still signalling right now with this story? Maybe. I only know that at the time I reacted thoughtlessly, an impulse, an instinct. Perhaps it was the result of parents, school, books and films conditioning what is morally correct. Perhaps it was an injection of adrenaline kicking in my fight or flight impulse.
As it turned out, in life, opportunities to signal an aspiration to be virtuous, a belief in altruism, don’t come along that often. When they do. Jump in.