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In an age of anger and cynicism, let me make the case for worthiness

At a gathering earlier this week, I made a terrible social gaffe. I was enthusing to friends about a project I’ve been working on when the atmosphere curdled and the conversation faltered, as if I had spilled wine on someone’s favourite skirt or accidentally squashed the cat. “You’re making it sound worthy,” two of them chorused, as another quietly sidled away.

Until that moment it had been going so well, and I found myself puzzling through the wee small hours as to the precise moment at which it all went wrong. Was it when I said the project was an anthology of writing on and about London, containing poetry as well as prose? Was it when I explained that it placed pieces by well-known writers alongside those by refugees? Or was it when I admitted that part of the aim was to raise the profile of, and perhaps even make a little money for, one of the charities working with those refugees?
The next morning, a kindly colleague suggested I might have appeared to be “virtue signalling”, described in a Guardian article two years back as shorthand for “a form of vanity … dressed up as selfless conviction” (the author of the piece, David Shariatmadari, rightly called time on a cuss that, he argued, had become nothing more than a trite form of cyberbullying).

I’m as hostile as the next person to finding my Facebook feed choked up with Just Giving prompts from well-meaning almost-friends. But my conversation was in person, not online, and I don’t think for a moment that the reaction was malicious. It wasn’t virtue signalling I was being charged with, but worthiness: a slight with a far longer pedigree, and much more pernicious effects.

Nobody, after all, is going to accuse themselves of virtue signalling, whereas the power of the W-word lies not in the fact that it is often used by the right to ridicule the social agendas of those on the liberal left, but that we have internalised it to such an extent that we now unthinkingly deploy it against each other and ourselves.

It’s commonly associated with charities, but at this of all times it is important to remember that “worthy” is the part of every such organisation that involves passionate and committed people dedicating their own lives to making those of others bearable or even possible.

Like its snarky sibling “do-gooder”, it is often applied to those connected with religious institutions – to people who, at least since Mrs Jellyby espoused “the brothers of Borrioboola-Gha” in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, have been mocked for putting the needs of others before those of their own kind.
But consider the work that is currently going on in churches, mosques and synagogues to plug the chaotically widening gap between the haves and have-nots – here, now, in one of the richest countries in the world, in this age of austerity. I live close to the Finsbury Park mosque, where, in a spontaneous reaction to last year’s van attack, trestle tables were set up along the street for a communal feast to which everyone, regardless of colour or creed, was invited. Furniture and catering were no problem because feeding people is part of what members of the mosque – worthily – see as their mission.
My local church hosts a weekly drop-in session for migrants that draws hungry people from across London and beyond, to eat food donated by local shops and cooked by local volunteers before sitting down to free help and advice from rows of (largely retired) lawyers, counsellors and health experts.

One of my friends – a defiantly atheist political activist who has spent decades leafleting and doorstepping – now spends every Wednesday morning chopping vegetables in a parish hall. What could be more worthy than that? What, in other words, could be more pragmatically, effectively political in a society so feverishly globalised that it is no longer plausible to think in terms of “us and them”?

My anthology is structured around the startling fact that at the time of the most recent census, in 2011, 37% of people living in London were born outside the UK. One of its better-known contributors is Jon Snow, who wrote a response to last year’s Grenfell tower fire asking why the media had failed to anticipate a disaster that many of those who lived there had long predicted was going to happen.

It’s not simply a matter of reporting the facts but of finding ways to create space for that 37%, among others, to develop their own voices and tell their own stories. That’s what I have tried to do, and was attempting to explain, when the room went cold.

It’s not a major aid operation, or even chopping vegetables, but it has been a fascinating intellectual challenge that has uncovered some moving testimony, and raised all sorts of questions. If that’s worthy, then I’m going out tomorrow to buy the T-shirt. I hope others will join me in embracing the mighty W.

• Claire Armitstead is associate editor, culture for the Guardian