Signaling and Tragedies


I found this tweet in the archives. We all saw it back in the day and we all decided (“vile,” “jackass,” “disgusting“) it went too far. I’m not here to defend either the politics or attitude of Brienne of Snarth, both of which I think are too silly really to react to; but I’m not here to shame her either. She’s doing what a lot of us have done, and will continue to do. In other words, she had a motive for her tweet beyond just being a monster or something. I call it tragedy signaling.

This site talks a lot about signaling, but maybe I never stress enough that signaling is a gambit. I know I tend to view all human interactions as a series of gambits, and people think I’m crazy, but I’d hope we can all agree that signaling, at least, is often a gambit by which we attempt to improve our social capital or (as I’ve said before, quoting Alan Moore) shore up the crumbling shoals of our own identities. What clothes you put on this morning is a tactic; what demographic you project is a strategy.

This means that signaling can be gamed.

An example will make this clearer, and please understand that this example is hardly original.

Let’s say Alice is a Jehovah’s Witness, and she wants to signal to the world what a faithful Jehovah’s Witness she is. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe murder is bad, so she could go around saying “murder is bad.” But many or most people also belong to demographics that assert that murder is bad. This is a poor signal, not because it is misleading, but because it contains very little information. It’s like trying to describe a suspect by saying he has a spinal cord and a four-chambered heart. You’d never describe a suspect that way, right? Instead you’d say he had a tattoo of a scorpion on his cheek and six fingers on his left hand.

i_love_jehovahs_witness_bumper_bumper_stickerreal_jehovahswitnesses_bumper_bumper_stickerSo Alice chooses instead to signal by wearing a Watchtower T-shirt, by carrying around a copy of Awake! magazine, by putting a JW-themed bumper sticker on her car; by referring to the cross as a “torture stake.”

This is much more precise, and while I don’t pretend to understand information theory it sounds to me like a good signal. I know Alice is a Jehovah’s Witness now!

Or do I? Believing Alice is a Jehovah’s Witness based on a T-shirt is probably not as naive as believing that someone belongs to the Gotham City Police Department based on a T-shirt. $_35But it’s still easy to fake. And while there may not be an epidemic of JW impostors, there may be a lot of casual JWs, “cafeteria” JWs, reform JWs. A bumper sticker is a poor way for Alice to signal that she’s not one of them. She’s the real deal, unlike her poser friend Bob, who hasn’t been to Kingdom Hall in a year. Alice can upgrade to the I <3 Real Jehovah’s Witnesses bumper sticker, but that’s not exactly proof. Alice needs a better signaling gambit.

Fortunately Jehovah’s Witnesses have a host of ready made signaling opportunities. I want to point out that I’m not singling out JWs here. All demographics have signaling opportunities, and if they didn’t they probably wouldn’t count as a demographic. Here are some things Alice can do to prove she’s a real Jehovah’s Witness, and not some Bob-style weak-sauce fence-sitter:

  • She can refuse to celebrate her birthday, even though all her friends are eating cake and getting presents once a year.
  • She can refuse to pledge allegiance, even though everyone in town is throwing rocks at you and boycotting your business, and then you get expelled. (ETA: Not literally everyone in town, prob.)
  • She can refuse to receive a blood transfusion, and die.

There are real consequences to these signals! Bob would never sacrifice his annual game of pin the tail on the donkey! Bob would never die for his religion! An exsanguinated Alice is a pretty convincing signal that she was a real Jehovah’s Witness; for that matter, everyone knows that Thomas Moore and Joan of Arc were real Catholics.

The more outrageous (from an outsider’s POV) and difficult the action, the better the signal. And we, the rest of us, we spend a lot of time sending out pretty weak signals.

After the Orlando shooting, we all said, “We are Orlando” and suggested that we might want to talk more about gun control. This is a pretty reasonable response, and it’s also one a lot of people made. It’s not great signaling.

Similarly tweeting: “I am sad that an alligator killed a child” is a good signal if you want to prove to the word that you’re not a replicant, but otherwise signals nothing more.

After a tragedy, everyone says something like: “I think terrorists should not kill civilians,” and jumping in is a signal of limited usefulness. We all provide periodic maintenance  signals, which is why every few weeks I tell the world that I am #teamcomics, but again there’s only so much time you need to spend signaling “I am not a sociopath.” 80% of American is already composed of non-sociopaths, so people already probably assume you reach the low bar of the non-sociopath demographic. How can you better signal how very much you care for murdered people?

One way is to find tragedies not everyone is already talking about. Essentially you become an alpha consumer of tragedy. Some people do this, but if everyone’s not already talking about a tragedy, few people will notice if you do. There are only so many alpha consumers.

Another strategy is to hijack the tragedy narrative. After the 2015 Paris attacks most people were signaling that murder is bad, Donald Trump, you may recall, used the massacre to signal that he loved guns; James Woods used the massacre to signal that he disliked immigrants. This is very effective signaling! As is usual, what Trump and Woods were signaling was their demographics. (Sounds like they belong to similar demographics. Maybe they can be friends!)

Trump comes across like a scumbag in this exchange, in part because he’s in the scumbag demographic and in part because it’s clear he heard about a tragedy and the register in his head went “ca-ching” and he saw an opportunity to signal. And it worked: all of us couldn’t help but think, “This is a guy who hears about terrorist attacks and immediately thinks about how much he loves guns. He must REALLY love guns!” (To be fair to Trump, signaling his demographic is his job.)

But Donald Trump and James Woods are bad guys. They were signaling that they’re bad and part of the bad people demographic. We’re good guys here! What were we doing?

Remember back in 2015? Beirut suffered right before Paris suffered, so while some of us were signaling weakly that we’re the type of person who opposes murder or terrorism in France, some of us managed to signal more strongly that we’re the kind of person who cares about Lebanon, too.

But since all decent people also care about Lebanon, this position was not outrageous enough to signal well, so the cleverer among us went on to accuse people who talked more about France as belonging to the wrong demographic.

Perhaps you called out Rob Lowe for tweets I find cryptic but others find insensitive. Perhaps you called out your friends for prioritizing one massacre in France over the innumerable massacres of colonialism. The one thing you must not say is that we stand together (“today, we’re all the same target audience”); instead you must make sure your demographic stands apart from other people’s. You signal that your demographic is concerned with racism in America by talking about racism in America. You signal that your demographic is concerned with anti-Islamic hate by talking about anti-Islamic hate. You signal that your demographic is cosmopolitan in its concern by talking about a massacre in Kenya from last spring.

Let me reiterate that I’m not saying that signaling is bad or that by stressing your solidarity with Beirut you’re doing something foolish or wrong. In many case you’re signaling that you share a demographic with me. I’m just pointing out what we’re doing. We’re doing something that may not be bad but is definitely cynical and self-serving. We’re using someone else’s tragedy to show the world what we are, and what marketing demographic we belong to. We’re essentially (to speak like a tumblr user for a moment) fridging France; but it was us or them, and we chose us, as we kind of have to if we want to end up, in this post-ideological age, with any kind of identity at all. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.

Just to summarize: We had seven months to say that we were upset that Kenya didn’t get enough news coverage. Why did we decide to talk about it now? Because if we’d said last April that we opposed killing Kenyans everyone would have agreed with us. We’d be signaling almost nothing. We have to say it now because only by saying it seven months too late do we show that we actually care about it (or, more precisely, that we’re the kind of people who would actually care about it). Either that or we’re sharing things without looking at them or something.

Imagine if social media had been more well-developed 15 years ago. Imagine if after 9/11 Al Gore had said that it was important, in the face of these attacks, to fight global warning. “Man,” would have said, “that guy is REALLY INTO fighting global warning.” Imagine if after 9/11 all the anti-vaxxers and the creationists and the “reading is fundamental” guys and someone who wants a project kickstarted had used the opportunity to signal, signal, signal. (The red-pill conspiracy nuts did take the opportunity; ahead of the curve, those daffy badgers.)

Some years ago (after Charlie Hebdo) I’d made a prediction for big tragedies from now on: that they will all be followed (cha-ching!) by a string of postures and slogans designed to prove to everyone else exactly what kind of person we are.

Why do I bring this up now?


You might be right and you might be wrong when you share these memes—probably both, in the sense that the Vatican probably does not have fat wads of cash earmarked for Notre Dame, but on the other hand other charities could really use your money—but  I’m not talking about the rightness or justness of your actions. I’m just interested in the way we all get trapped into slingshotting our identities forward off of other people’s tragedies.

Incidentally I am not so blind that I do not see what I myself am signaling by posting this. I don’t know how to get around these things. We’re all doing what we can.

(I know my demographic. Je sui Charlie Hebdo. Hashtag NotASociopath.)


  1. Another well-thought-into post from you, Hal. I love that your posts are designed to make people think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m happy to see you posting more often.

    Here you’re focusing signals which are costly to the person signalling, which do contain a lot of information. There is another kind of signal, though, signals which are relatively easy for the signaler but are costly for others to make. This covers most of conspicuous consumption. A multimillionaire can easily afford to spend five figures on a designer handbag, other people can’t, that’s why it is a good signal that the person with the bag is wealthy.

    I find a lot of political statements I hear from people around me (particularly leftwing ones) are similar, just effectively saying, “Look at me. I am not poor, for no poor person could possibly believe these things and survive.” For example one often hears comments about how you shouldn’t stereotype who may be a criminal based on someone’s race or how they dress or act, etc. If you live in a university town where every person you interact with is majoring in gender studies or employed by your college to babysit you, you probably don’t need to be terribly worried about muggings of physical assault and so you can ignore any information about who is likely to assault you. If you live in a rough neighborhood, that information is a lot more useful. What’s a good way for the first group to distinguish themselves from the second group? By going on and on about how behavior that is useful to the second group is evil and the worst thing one can do.


    1. That’s really good, and I hadn’t considered it before.


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