The real and unreal

So here I am in Cambridge, UK… which is about as real a University (College) type place in the world. At the top of the world rankings in several indices, a dream and goal for lot of students. Avoiding seeing and meeting students is a whole new trick which is beyond me here. On the way across to the UK we stopped in the Tasmanian town of Launceston, which has two colleges (or a branch of one), and had lunch in a food-court nearest the… shall we say less academic of these. Launceston is a relatively (on a world scale) small town, and in a small state.  We were there at student lunch (or possibly, by the meal choice, breakfast) time. and there were mobs of students in there. I got a good chance to look at the people, the dress and behaviour of the people there, and obviously I have here.

Look, it’s what I do as a writer: I watch, I listen, I notice. That’s how you get characters and their dress and mannerisms right – so they feel natural and believable and that’s obviously what I’d like to do.

And here is the question:- so which lot of students would you expect to have the most display of ‘I’m a student, I’m really way out there. Notice I’m a student. I have weird piercings and strange things in my ears and interesting hair styles and colors, my clothing is fashionable and noticeable’?

Yep. Launceston. By a country mile. They’d think Cambridge students terribly conservative in appearance. Quite mundane. There are a few exceptions, but in Launceston they were the norm, in Cambridge they’re exceptions.

It’s an interesting observation which holds good I suspect way beyond the students from a small campus in the back of beyond compared to one at the centre of the academic world. New Zealand has started growing past it now, but for many years it worked on being more British than the UK, introducing animals and plants to where they didn’t fit. If you see someone complete in every detail of ‘being a writer’ and telling you exactly what they imagine ‘real’ writers do and think… there’s long odds they aren’t, and so on…

Of course sometimes the unreal become the real, or poseurs and wishful imitators overwhelm the ‘real’. The false Buddha causes the true Buddha to disappear, so to speak.  I suspect, in time those would have imitators too (who would be more prone to the exaggerated mannerisms of the real, and probably loose those ‘markers’.)

Humans are social animals, and we’re quite good at picking up cues and clues (well, yes, I know there are many gullible ones among us. Being gullible is no longer a death-sentence.)  I often wonder if this signalling -especially among the unsure, the new writers, the ardent follower of some writer’s style, is the reason that so many readers pick up… and put down, books.

It’s odd for me to say ‘don’t try too hard’ – but that is exactly what I am saying. Try harder at the skills that writers need that readers just don’t see – but work for you with them. Work on flow, natural seeming dialogue (which isn’t natural) and easy to read and compelling stories.  That’s more important than virtue signalling (which you will do in the fashion of the backwater student. Trust me,  it won’t be virtue you’re signalling as much as ‘avoid’) or attempting to write more convoluted and interesting prose than your idol.

The real does it. The imitator signals loudly and tries.

23 Comments

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23 responses to “The real and unreal

  1. I never quite got the hang of virtue signalling. I also tend to be a loner. Cause or effect? But even so, I absorb culture.

    I look back on my early writings and I can see the effects of the society I live in. The old feminism starting to slide into the new. The mandatory inclusion of racial types, homosexuals . . . Or do I just see it because I’m over-sensitized now? Maybe that’s just how I see the world, and I’ve have written that way in a different society. No way to tell.

  2. I went to college at what they called a commuter school – a lot of people who were not traditional students fresh from high school. They were serious people, normally had full or part-time jobs, lots of veterans on the GI bill, older and sometimes elderly people returning to brush up their skills or acquire new ones. There was very little of what people think of as a traditional college experience, save some truly demented people on the quad handing out flyers.
    I wondered for years if I had missed out on something, but finally decided that I had not, and didn’t miss it at all.

    • You didn’t. I could not virtue signal, and the mental whiplash from what I’d been taught at home to the stuff I collided with head on in college the first time made me very happy to escape the worst of it (college in Germany for better part of a year). I suspect being the target of choice in High School also lowered my tolerance for that kind of thing.

      • aacid14

        I will admit it was a vastly different feeling going to school in GA than NH. A lot less need to hide my thoughts.

    • Ours was colorful, but not in a fashion statement sort of way. Some of the foreign students were heavily influenced by <i<Happy Days. Maybe they thought that was how Americans dressed.

      Several hundred miles away was a college we regarded as a “preppie” college. There certain fashions were the norm.

  3. sanfordbegley

    For those of you claiming an inability to virtue signal I must issue a correction. All humans virtue signal, some of us just signal different virtues than the mainstream and do so by the way we go about our lives. I never intentionally tried to make myself signal anything. As I aged I found that I did send out lots of signals that I never even realized.
    Relative strangers have come up to me and said such things as “Seeing you read in public showed me that reading =could be a good thing, I read often now due to your example, Thank you” and if you don’t think standing for your principles and Doing Captain America’s “No you move” isn’t virtue signalling you are wrong, we simply signal real virtues

    • If the signal is the point, the virtue loses ground, I think.

      I think C. S. Lewis mentioned this in The Abolition of Man, or alluded to it anyway. While reading in public, or holding the door for someone, or any other of the habits of common courtesy and civility may well signal virtue, it is a reflection of the real thing that makes all the difference. “Virtue signaling” as I’ve seen and heard the term (I do not quite like it myself- it seems another bastardization of the language) means more the abstract than the real thing.

      A man is honest because he was raised to be, or because it’s always seemed the right thing to do, or any number of other reasons, but in most cases we’d call it a virtue when he did it not to escape punishment but because it was right to do so. The signal is the effect of his honesty and how other people perceive it. If his main intent was not to be honest, but to be seen as an honest man, then the virtue itself is lost.

      A real virtue, such as courage, humility, or honesty stands as an example. The effects of that example are mere by-blows. They are not the point of the action at all. “Virtue signaling” appears to mean the opposite; the effect is what they’re after. This is how victimhood can be virtue. The victimhood itself is largely meaningless- the effect, that is, the social capital and influence gained, are the point. Virtue signaling is camouflage. It keeps the mob from turning on one of its own and eating them.

      Another way of putting it is that the act of being virtuous can be a signal to others that one is virtuous, that virtue has value and meaning, that they should emulate virtue… But virtue signaling (for the point of the signal alone) tends to only mean “please eat me last,” it seems.

      • Joe in PNG

        There’s also ‘virtue signaling’ as the modern act of penance by people who live a pretty good lifestyle, but who’s Leftist belief system doesn’t let them enjoy it. Instead of following their philosophy and making radical changes, they make a token denunciation of the barbarians and get a boost of self-righteousness.

        • We all give off signals, and receive them. “Virtue signaling” is more the deliberate adoption of the approved signals of the desired in-group and the deliberate public display of those signals to gain or keep the approval of the in-group.

          For instance, to deliberately gain approval of this group, one would probably mention one’s guns and quote the constitution at every possible moment. Mind you, being well peppered with cynics, such an approach might be considered a potential infiltration from the SJWs . . . Amusing for a short while.

          • If the act of signaling has as its purpose only to identify with the in-group, I tend to wonder what virtue it is supposed to be in light of. None of the classic virtues I can think of seem to fit. Redistribution of wealth (or, eliminating income equality)- might seem to signal charity/kindness. But if the effect of those actions do not follow the virtue, i.e. perpetuating poverty rather than alleviating it, the act of virtue signaling takes on a kind of cargo cult mentality.

            The trappings of virtue are there. The good intent, the anguish over a wrong unrighted, the will to act and not remain slothful. But the substance of that virtue remains missing. So it is when one seems to think that if they just care hard *enough,* things will get better (if they aren’t “better” already), despite their actions causing yet more problems. The reasons that the result is not achieved aren’t due to practical concerns. It’s because of some other factor. Other people aren’t caring enough. Or working hard enough to give other people tangibles (money, etc).

            The incessant drive for more socialism, more “diversity,” more gender pronouns, more POC and women writers are the wooden headphones and torchlit runways of the cult. The cargo is that ineffable paradise that will occur when minorities are prioritized *enough,* when patriarchy is ground down to a level only theorized by physicists, and when everybody gets a basic living stipend regardless of whether they work or not. Despite all evidence to the contrary. The cargo cult is a belief system, not an exercise in logic. If that makes any sense. Brain tired, must remember to eat regularly.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I think that virtue signalling goes beyond group dynamics. It often seems to be accompanied by a childish refusal to deal with the complexity and tradeoffs of life. The SJWs talk about how easily racial & gender issues can be solved, the Bernie-bros talk about how easily wealth inequality can be solved, the Climate Cassandras know exactly how to adjust sea levels, etc.
            When have any of these folks : provided even the barest details of how their plans would work, acknowledged that hard problems may be painful & costly to solve, admit that some problems may be insoluble, considered that sometimes you only get to pick the least painful choice from the Menu of Pain ? It’s almost as if they think it is a virtue to have a plan that consists only of : (1) put me in charge (2) mumble (3) problem solved , and that any substantive discussion is merely distraction and delay.

            On another topic, it looks like Google finally won over Authors Guild in the long-running book-scanning lawsuit.

    • We signal what’s inside by doing; we don’t pose to be something we’re not in hopes of clicking with all the “right” people. That’s basically Junior High cliche crap and about as meaningful.

      Them: “I wrote a story with a starship captain that’s a Lesbian person of color! She wages a war against the patriarchal capitalist religious-industrial complex!”

      Us: “That’s nice. How are the sales?”

    • Echoing much of the discussion. There are the signals we read and use to evaluate the situations around us, and the signals we give off as a result of who and what we are. Then there are the signals people give off because it is expected of them. “Virtue Signaling” describes this second set. It is the modern incarnation of the public prayers of the Pharisees. There is no substance. Their reward is to be seen as being ‘holy’. In this case in the Church of the Marxist Victim Calendar. It is the difference between putting an expensive book on the coffee table and reading extensively. Anyone who thinks about it will pick up on the lack of substance of the coffee table crowd.

  4. To become a writer: DO THE WORK. There is an awful lot of it. I do it in my pjs. You read. You write. You learn to evaluate. You repeat endlessly until the distance between what you produce and what you wanted to produce when you had that idea in your head gets small enough to be unimportant.

    Figure out what you don’t know how to do (fight scene, group scene, love scene) – and go find a way to learn how to do it. You can do that part for free (blogs) or very small amounts of money (How to write fight scenes…, ebook, 4.99). Trust your judgment – but evaluate specific purposes before you stop learning the basics: can I now write a fight scene I need? Yes? Check.

    There’s too much work in writing to waste any of your time posing.

    Just do the work.

  5. The Other Sean

    The mention of virtue signalling reminds me of a comment I’d seen online a few years ago by the owner of a hybrid car. It was the hybrid version of a regular car, not an original design like a Prius. He was trading it in to buy a Prius not because he disliked his then-current hybrid, and not because he liked the Prius better, but because the Prius was distinctively a hybrid. That is, because everybody who saw him drive it would know he was driving a hybrid.

    He didn’t say it in his comments, but I think it was an excellent example of virtue signalling. Doing what he thought was the “right” thing wasn’t enough, nor was a few people realizing he was doing it (via the little hybrid bade on his car). Instead, he had to spend extra resources to signal as loudly as possible, to no real other benefit.

    • Sam L.

      “Virtue signalling” is waving a false flag.

    • Anonymous Coward

      When a co-worker pointed out a shiny new Tesla, I commented that it was the nicest-looking coal-powered car I had ever seen. Look on his face was priceless.

      • TRX

        That reminds me of a thread where someone mentioned atomic-powered trains in France. Someone else objected that the trains were “electric.” The original poster asked his respondent if he knew where that electricity came from…

        “Not In My Back Yard.” Or possible “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Sort of like the “sustainable agriculture” people who don’t realize all those out-of-season vegetables they just bought at the organic market just came in from El Salvador on a smelly jumbo jet…

    • FeatherBlade

      The Toyota Pious certainly has a distinctive look to it.

  6. Albert

    I apologize for being off-topic, but . . .

    Is there going to be a sequel to Changeling Island?