Emma Raducanu’s victory has revealed a new phenomenon – “virtue celebrating”

Andy Mayer

September 15, 2021

Tennis fans have been very excited this week. Something very improbable has happened: an unseeded teenager has won a super major tournament in a final with another unseeded teenager.

This is the equivalent of Leicester City winning the UK football premiership having fended off a valiant challenge from Southampton. It’s the triple Lutz being beaten by the quadruple axel in ice skating, in every round. It’s an audience of more than ten people for any event in the Paralympics (don’t hate me, it’s the market, and admit it you didn’t watch it either).

All plaudits are insufficient, all analogies underpowered, all tributes richly deserved. It is simply uncouth to point out this sort of thing happened before with 17 year old Boris Becker in 1985. It’s a bit special and that’s all there is to it. Well done Ms. Raducanu, and particularly well done to her team who seem to be keeping her on the level, despite the entire world now wanting her piece of her pending fame and presumed future success.

We are now experiencing the strange social phenomena of people who hitherto have found the thwack of racket on rubber uninteresting piling in to congratulate a complete stranger for an achievement they don’t fully understand. As Freddy Gray put it in the Spectator; “the habit of clueless media addicts to issue formal statesman-like congratulatory tweets to victors, or commiseration to the losers, as if they were some dignitary presiding over the closing ceremony.”

This is surely ‘virtue celebrating’. Hoping that your unremarkable recognition of the remarkable, even if you don’t know why it’s remarkable will confer upon you some recognition from others wishing to recognise that the remarkable thing was remarkable. Politicians do it endlessly. Sometimes they have reason to be a fan: the victor is a constituent, or their politics align, with the sports personality in question better at lobbying for temporary solutions to child poverty than shooting penalties. More often though, it’s in the vain hope that it will convey upon them some blokey tribal signal of their normality. That is if they can remember their name of the superstar in question. ‘Look at me, I can remember the name of a football team, and have enjoyed all their home runs’.

It’s a nice version of virtue signalling – the category of behaviours, generally displayed by self-appointed members of any supposed elite, to convey your moral superiority to the rest of us. Where virtue signalling is smug and annoying, virtue celebrating is at most mildly baffling. Perhaps saying nice popular things about nice popular people is a path to nice popularity. It is no more troubling a social phenomena than promoting kindness or extolling the virtues of tea. It’s a form of self-expression that makes you a part of something and connected to your fellow virtue-celebrators. Complementing one another on particularly awesome virtue celebrating is surely the next big social meta-trend.

There seem to be few downsides: you engage in spreading positivity through your celebrations while also increasing your own social capital, so it’s a win-win. Just pray the person you’re celebrating isn’t cancelled five or ten years from now, and your celebratory tweets aren’t brought back to haunt you.

It’s certainly a more appealing form of commentary than the idiots who attempted to make her victory about one of their pet obsessions – on this occasion, immigration – as though highlighting the uncontroversial benefits of attracting mega-talent to your shores was helpful, when the poison in that debate stems from misguided attitudes to people who are very unlike Emma Raducanu, whose parents are bankers.

Immediately after Raducanu had collapsed to the ground and the crowd had leapt to their feet, pundits were all over Twitter arguing that Raducanu represented the best of European migration or the best that homegrown Brits had to offer, instead of congratulating an individual for a remarkable achievement without advancing some political agenda.

If there is a downside, it’s surely for the object of celebration when they inevitably display their humanity and fail to achieve the Olympian expectations heaped upon them. Ms. Raducanu can look forward to her every choice, from her socks, to her dates, to her commentary on issues being scrutinised by a new club of social media stalkers hoping for associative clicks. She will be assailed by offers to support causes and inspire others. She will go to celebrity parties and meet the Queen.

She will inevitably make a number of mistakes. Her tennis will not be a string of unbroken victories from now until her thirties. When she does fall down the gap between today’s adulation and likely future derision is going to feel particularly painful. If you are not being celebrated you are by definition not a celebrity. The genuine virtue signal at that point is to give no comment.

Author

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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