Keep Virtue Signaling

Many exempt themselves from pro-Palestine activism out of fear for logical impurity, Jihyun Won ’25 writes. Now is the time to speak up.

To preface, I welcome conversation and discourse. I firmly believe that there is nuance in all disagreements, progress comes from the conflict of ideas, and democracy is contingent upon intact spheres of public discussion. My email is always open for a conversation.

To preface my preface, I am frustrated by feeling the need to start with what is essentially a disclaimer — a dilution, a little flag I am waving to let everyone know that I believe in the things I believe correctly. That before the discussion of real people and events, I must first pass a certain threshold of logical integrity to be even given the time of day. In the face of occupational violence and ethnic cleansing that is occuring at a painfully concrete level in Palestine as I write this, I do not think we can afford to take time-outs to smooth out the logical perfection behind our beliefs and calls for ceasefire.

I am not trying to say that irrationality gets a free pass if it is in support of Palestine. My thoughts are addressed more toward those among my peers, friends, and family from whom I have heard statements like these lately: “This is one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in centuries”; “There is no reason for me to insert myself into the conversation when I am not educated enough about it”; “It is dangerous to demand everyone to educate everyone else”; “I support Palestine but I don’t want to be virtue signaling”; “It’s not my place”; and the like.

I hear you. Just a couple weeks ago, I agreed with you, thinking it sufficient to educate myself and support resistance in quiet, invisible ways. An anonymous donation, a timid effort to read about the history and “educate myself,” a moment to cry for the sad stories of deaths on my screen from halfway across the world before I moved on with my day. It felt presumptuous to speak up, to assume that I could speak for the people actually affected, the ones actually qualified to talk about what was apparently such a touchy subject.

I no longer agree. The situation has changed since then. Regardless of where we stood in considerations of history or geopolitics a month ago, we all have the responsibility to join those who have been vocal since the beginning. Any immunity that historical and geopolitical nuance might have granted, even under the most generous view on the morals of neutrality, has been shattered by the levels of violence that has been reached in Gaza.

In the privileges we hold behind screens and inside academic institutions, I ask if we can pull away from our insistence on epistemic perfection for a moment. Before anything else, the one thing we all ought to agree on is the sanctity of human life. Let that be our starting point, not a claim over right and wrong, and start talking from there.

In talking about Palestine, we are simply saying that we are watching. We see what is happening. Due to the asymmetry of mainstream media coverage of this conflict, the safety of plausible deniability and political immunity that our public figures are retreating into, and the precarity of the people in Gaza’s ability to document and communicate what is happening to them to the rest of the world, visibility by any means is extraordinarily precious. Be it through social media, a conversation, or a protest, spreading awareness about a crisis of human rights is not virtue signaling. And even if we were to be virtue signaling, some things are bigger than us as individuals. If a person or you or I had not quite morally pure reasons for reposting something on our Instagram story, for example, patted ourselves on the back for being on the “right side of history” after hitting “post,” and proceeded to never speak out for Palestine again, is the end result still not a net gain? Of course, I would strongly prefer it if we do not do that. But, could that not, at the end of the day, result in one more person gleaning one new sliver of perspective on this movement, who might donate just one more dollar toward relief in Gaza, which might bring just one more sip of water to a child coming out of the rubble?

Palestinians themselves have called for non-Palestinians, particularly those of us in the West, to speak and share as much as possible about the conflict. It cannot be performative activism to uplift the voices of those who are stuck and barricaded into what is essentially a blackout. It cannot be virtue signaling to call for ceasefire when it is our government directly funding the weapons used to kill civilians, when the atrocities being committed are presently ongoing, not a blip in history to pray for, repost, and move on.

We are not inserting ourselves into a space we do not belong in when we talk about Palestine. We are not claiming to speak for anyone, we are not virtue signaling, we are not claiming moral or intellectual superiority over anyone who disagrees or agrees but does not speak up, and we are not trying to teach others something by virtue of that superiority. It would be nice if someone learned something nonetheless, but by the nature of this violence, we are not and cannot be centering ourselves in the discussion — this is not about us.

Once again, I welcome education of and engagement with one another through disagreement. But I am tired of the way it is done, raking through each other’s arguments in search of a logical inconsistency, a moral hypocrisy, an “Aha!” moment to critically incapacitate the other’s argument and emerge the victor. I am sick of carefully curating my words about the deaths of children so as not to make my listener bristle, lest my words come off as an insult to their moral or intellectual character. Yes, the conflict in Israel-Palestine is complex and has a long history. People say that as if it is a justification for this next unspoken sentence: Therefore, I can ignore it. As if that is a sentiment that should obviously, logically follow from acknowledging the complexity of the situation. It does not. There is no “other side” to a civilian death toll of 11 thousand. To demand the consideration of nuance to justify violence of this magnitude is at best intellectual arrogance and at worst a moral cop-out.

Our tendency to constantly size up one another’s mental and moral aptitudes is a distinctly privileged instinct and a distraction from what we ought to be driven by when discussing Palestine: the much more fundamentally human instinct that is distraught at the sheer violence being committed against other human beings. The excessive self-examination of our activism and the resultant defeatism is a plague among academics. Moral robustness and logical preciseness have their time and place, but not in circumstances that are as raw, urgent, and devastating as in Palestine right now.

For the entire duration of time between the Nakba in 1948 — even the British colonization of Palestine in 1917 — to now, there have been people saying “Free Palestine.” You may not have been listening. That’s okay — listen now. In the face of such incredible violence, and with the knowledge that the sheer magnitude of voices is essential to resisting it, no one who is angry about the ideological impurity of your activism is a true activist themselves. At the risk of repeating myself, this is not about us. If you are in the same boat as I was just a few weeks ago, wanting to support Palestine but only invisibly, I beg that you start letting yourself be unapologetic. It is okay if you do not have a professional-level debate ready to back up everything you say. It is okay if someone starts an argument and you “lose.” Still repost that one post. Talk to that one friend. Comment that one thought. Any contribution to the vibrant discourse and solidarity around Palestine that is occurring right now, online and offline, is meaningful: it creates movement; it creates momentum.

I am sure someone has already said everything I am saying right now. My views are a mosaic of facts, ideas, art, stories, and beliefs that I have accumulated through other sources over time. I am not better than anyone else for voicing any of it, and by writing this article I am not trying to personally accomplish anything more than just adding a drop in the sea of voices crying out for Palestine. But a drop in the sea is water nonetheless, and resistance against injustice, occupation, and violence has never come in the form of easily digestible Western individualism. Some things are bigger than us. From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free.