the Synecdoche Problem
Those Who Speak For People vs Those Who Are Those People
David Shor is characteristically brilliant - and characteristically indifferent to conventional wisdom - in this insightful New York interview. There’s a ton of interesting stuff in there but I want to focus on one element, which is a problem I’ve noticed many times in a life spent in academia, media, and left politics. I call it the synecdoche problem.
The synecdoche problem is just this: when people consistently advocate for a particular group, they come to believe that they know what’s best for that group, can speak for that group, or just literally are that group. The constant advocacy creates a sense of identification that deludes the advocate. They become incapable of seeing that their point of view is not universally shared, or even broadly shared, by the people who make up that group. This is relevant to an important point that Shor makes, which is that our perception of the concerns and positions of voters of color is often far out of line with their self-reported preferences.
For example, if you’re a liberal in the broad political sphere (media, think tanks, nonprofits, the Democratic party itself or its various offshoots), your views on social issues like race are likely extreme. You are much more likely to believe that America is a white supremacist nation; that all white people are racist; that the United States was founded explicitly to facilitate slavery; that policing and prisons are inherently racist; you might even be skeptical of interracial relationships. All of those stances might be the right ones. But they are extreme in the sense that they are not shared by the vast majority of the electorate, including among people of color. To read American racial discourse today is to believe that every Black American has the politics of a Vassar cultural studies grad. But as Shor points out, most Black people, and most people of color in general, are far more moderate than we are led to believe. And in fact, whether you are college educated or not has become a more reliable indicator of how extreme your political views are than race. That’s true in part because colleges have grown steadily more partisan and steadily more (culturally and socially) extremist, and the people who professionally talk about race in this country are overwhelmingly college educated.
As Shor points out, in polling most Black people tend to be skeptical of more radical responses to police violence like defunding the police. But people who identify themselves as advocates for Black America have inherent reasons to avoid that facet of the conversation. Extremity is often an easier sell than more moderate stances, in part because the people you are selling yourself to as a race (or gender etc.) expert are not the people you’re talking about. The institutions and people that fund much of liberal advocacy can themselves often be more extreme on social issues. Indeed, within the community of people who claim to speak on Black America’s behalf - professors, writers, think tankers, diversity consultants, etc - most of the incentives point towards more extreme stances1. You will be tempted to think that I am speaking only about Black public intellectuals, but of course America’s most-read racism expert is a very wealthy white woman with a lucrative business taking white people’s money to tell white people they’re racist so that white companies can limit their liability if they should ever be sued by a non-white employee. I imagine Tim Wise is still out there standing on a corner somewhere selling indulgences.
Think about this from Shor:
In test after test that we’ve done with Hispanic voters, talking about immigration commonly sparks backlash: Asking voters whether they lean toward Biden and Trump, and then emphasizing the Democratic position on immigration, often caused Biden’s share of support among Latino respondents to decline. Meanwhile, Democratic messaging about investing in schools and jobs tended to move Latino voters away from Trump…. I think liberals really essentialize Hispanic voters and project views about immigration onto them that the data just doesn’t support.
Would you ever suspect that based on the discourse about Hispanic voters that happens on major internet forums? Most liberals and leftists talk about Hispanic voters as though they are all diehard cultural warriors who are motivated by immigration reform above all things. There has always been good reasons to doubt this. Recent legal immigrants are often quite passionately opposed to leniency for undocumented immigrants, for what are misguided but understandable reasons - they feel they did the work to get in legally and so they are sensitive to people coming in illegally. Left-wing Hispanic heroes Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were both, at some point, virulent critics of undocumented immigrants. People who talk about Hispanic political issues professionally tend to be “let them all in” types. (As I am.) Because of the synecdoche problem they imagine that Hispanic people in general are too, which distorts the attitudes of important decisionmakers in politics.
This applies in all manner of arenas. So let’s consider the trans rights movement. Trans people are a minority group whose legitimate gender identities and identifications make them the victims of discrimination and violence. We need to pass laws to protect them from harm and to legally recognize whatever gender identity they identify with. Gender confirmation surgery should be freely available where appropriate. Socially we should accept trans identities, use their preferred pronouns, and in general practice acceptance of and concern for trans people.
And I think we can absolutely achieve all this. The heart of discrimination is dehumanization. You overcome dehumanization by showing the humanity of those being discriminated against. Black people were literally bought and sold in this country because a propaganda effort convinced the white public that they weren’t human; demonstrating that they were was a big part of the abolition effort. Gay and lesbian men and women made huge leaps in the past several decades because improved visibility demonstrated to the average person that they were human like anyone else and that they deserved rights and compassion. Improved visibility of trans people can absolutely do the same. Will inevitably do the same, I suspect.
But there is also a set of ancillary beliefs held by some trans activists and their self-appointed allies that seem to be far less politically achievable to me. There is a now a fairly-common attitude, at least in left circles, that references to gender as traditionally conceived should be erased2, and there is growing sentiment that children should be raised without any gender identity at all. I think these stances, while perfectly valid to be held, are categorically different from the previous ones. There is the argument that we should respect someone’s pronouns, and then there is an argument that you need to abandon gender-referencing pronouns altogether. There is the argument that you should allow children or anyone else to live according to their gender identity, and then there is an argument that you should not assign gender identity to children to begin with. And there is the question of whether sex is socially constructed just as gender is3.
Should progressive people fight for the kind of gender-free world called for by some people who write about trans issues? (And let’s be clear that plenty of the people calling for these things are themselves cis.) I don’t know. It’s not an issue where I have much skin in the game; I’m secure and happy with my traditional cis gender identity, but I also am unthreatened by the thought of that identity getting erased in linguistic and social terms4. But I suspect most people are not like me. I am not hypocrite enough to talk about the views of the American people on these issues without solid polling. But if fully a quarter of Democrats aged 18-29 - the most favorable demographic - are unwilling to call someone else by their preferred pronoun, what are the odds of us achieving the world advocated for by Saguy and Williams in the above-linked Scientific American article?
Look, I’m a communist. I’m not in a position to tell people to give up on quixotic political quests. Most of what I want politically is impossible. Fight for what you think is right. But there’s a prerequisite question before we even get to whether this stuff is politically doable: do most trans people even want to strip language and society of gender references? To pressure parents not to assign gender identities to their children? I have no idea. But I do know that the incentives for trans activism are the same as they are for anti-racism and feminism, to move to more and more of an extreme relative to the population in question. And because the trans population is so small, even after recent rapid rises of people self-identifying as such, it’s even harder to sort the views of prominent trans activists from the broader trans population. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that not much polling seems to exist of trans people, again likely as a function of their small numbers. So how do we know what the average trans person wants, as opposed to the desires of a trans activist or celebrity? I hope more high-quality polling of trans opinion is on the way.
Everyone has the right to define their politics in whatever way they want, even if they are quite extreme. No activist or journalist or writer is obligated to represent a broader group’s politics in their own. It is actually often healthy for activists to be extremists, as they are the vanguard that keeps the political horizon moving in front of us. The problem comes when you consciously or unconsciously begin to speak as if your positions are those of the group you’re speaking for. When Black voters express skepticism of some efforts to reduce mass incarceration in polling, if I disagree with them then I’d be willing to say that I think they’re wrong. Obviously, I can’t speak for them. The hard part is remembering that a Black professor of African American Studies or a Buzzfeed writer working the race beat or a professional at the NAACP can’t speak for them either. Even if they’re right on the merits and the opinions of Black people as represented in polls is wrong. We have to see those distinctions. People need to be clear that they ultimately speak only for themselves and that all of the groups we talk about are big and shaggy and varied. Unfortunately, as I said if you’re someone whose job is to speak out for a minority group you have every professional incentive to erase the line between you and those you speak for. The synecdoche problem is a problem.
Another big reason: product differentiation. There are only so many jobs as Chief Diversity Officers at fancy colleges. To stand out from the crowd, it helps to go to extremes.
This article (written by a white woman) says that you should use Latinx, and quotes a journalist whose work “focuses on the intersection between race and the environment.” But it turns out that just 3% of the described population even identifies as Latinx, and many in that community find the term offensive. This is as clear an expression of the synecdoche problem as I can think of. Most people aren’t journalists or academics and don’t share the norms of those groups - but journalists and academics seem uninterested in most people.
I have no opinion on this, in part because I don’t understand the terms of the debate. I understand the argument that gender is socially constructed and thus mutable: gender references a set of norms about the personality and behaviors of men as compared to women, like about aggression vs nurturing and similar, and these are culturally influenced and politically charged. While I think sex hormones play a role in personality I also am onboard with this desire to dismantle gender as traditionally conceived. Tons and tons of humans violate those norms; they always have. So don’t impose gender on anyone. When it comes to the “is sex real?" fight I just don’t understand what people are arguing. There’s a real deficit in simply defining the terms in the most basic sense, I find. When I read these exchanges it seems that the opposing sides are not using “sex” in the same way and are constantly talking past each other. So I just literally have no opinion. I don’t understand the debate.
This is similar, I think, to the fact that much race talk is not viscerally meaningful to me as a white guy. Anti-white slurs (if you can even call them that) are utterly unthreatening. It does not hurt to be called honkey or cracker. And it doesn’t hurt because as a white person I am not racialized. When people make all kinds of acid critiques of whiteness, sometimes I think they’re wrong, but often I don’t. There’s an awful lot wrong with whiteness and a lot of ignorance and racial malice among white people, after all. But whether these critiques of whiteness and white people are accurate or not, they can’t hurt me. My natural instinct is to say “what is whiteness to me?” In my head I know that these critiques include me, and in my head I know that I am guilty of many of the things within these allegations. But viscerally, in my heart? I don’t feel them at all because I’m not racialized in the way that people of color are racialized in our culture. People of color are reminded of their race constantly in our society. As a white guy I think of myself as white only when someone explicitly references it in an essay or something, and even then it feels far away from me personally. That’s the real meaning of privilege. Privilege is not feeling proud of your race; privilege is not having to feel any way about it at all.