Tokenism or table stakes?

“The least you can do”, “virtue signalling”…

Blogged here because this supposed dichotomy arises so often that I wish to have something to link to, and because I want to know how to get past it. Spoiler alert: I do not know how to get past it.


Suppose that I wish us humans to make progress in an specific arena of modern human existence. For concreteness we will suppose that this is the success for women in the theatre industry. Let us further suppose that I have in mind an intervention to help women in the workplace which I think might be cheap and easy, say, using gender-neutral job descriptions. My proposed intervention is that we enforce a rule now that we call all people-who-do-acting actors instead of men being actors, women being actresses, and other genders getting to pick their favourite job title. Then you, fond of the status quo, argue that evidence is weak that changing job titles makes a difference to gender-equity outcomes in the workplace as measured by substantive outcomes such as promotions and income. If you are unusually keen you might even muster some research papers to support this (which are likely to show that it’s complicated.)

Then I might say “I do not care about whether it is effective in practice at changing career outcomes, it will certainly make many of our female actors feel more included in the workplace. It is the least you could do to show willing to address the bigger problem, table stakes for talking about more substantive changes.”

Now you might say “But why spend energy on a thing that we think is ineffectual when we have many other interventions that we think are more likely to be effective, such as providing better support for actresses during sexual harassment disputes or offering childcare? Focussing on purely symbolic stuff like job titles is a tokenistic distraction from making substantive progress on this issue.”

And now we are off! We have set ourselves up to both argue across each other about whether job title naming is table stakes or tokenism. Crucially, although people can have this argument if they want different things, we can also have this argument if we both aspire to the same goal.

There are lots of terminology which gets invoked at this point. It is fashionable to call tokenism virtue signalling1 It is also common to classify disapproval of an intervention which might not help substantively but makes some people feel better as denial of lived experience. We might either, or even both of us, be tired from having had this same argument too often, and demand of the other educate yourself. “How could you even say that?” is a question someone might ask, if things are going really badly. I am sure there are many other terms and many other gambits that get pressed into service.

I am not here to advocate for a single side in this kind of interaction, or say who is right here. All I know is that if I am stuck on this point in a conversation with someone, I cannot get to the good bit of the conversation, where we work out if we can agree on common goals, so I am throwing away a potential ally.


I am curious as to why this flashpoint is so pointy and so flashy. Clearly there some deontological values in play about appropriate process to achieve a better outcome. It seems to boil down to a question about the valuation of the show of good will and commitment to effectiveness, both of which seem to be things that one need to work together with other human beings for our betterment.

Are we valuing good will differently? Are we valuing effectiveness differently? Are we valuing both differently? It does seem that what counts as tokenistic is relative, because some interventions might in themselves be valued differently by different stakeholders.

A classic current example of different valuations of a minor intervention: Notoriously, not only are people’s preferences (in the economic sense) about the implied gender extremely idiosyncratic, but also the strength of those preferences is too. As someone with undetectable weak preferences about how you gender me, I have limited understanding of the experienced importance of this gender pronoun to people for whom it is a thing. Contrariwise, some people manifestly resent being made to change their speech patterns. Whether you regard that preference as legitimate or not, the preference certainly seems real and strong as expressed by the people who have it (albeit not that much more relatable to me personally than the issue of third person pronouns.)

Additionally, what is truly significant as measured by equity of outcomes (as opposed to experientially significant) can be hard to know. Notoriously small apparently inconsequential biases in gendered judgment can add up to a glass ceiling and minor ethnic biases can accumulate into neighbourhood segregation. Equity is a complicated and subtle thing to create.

Moreover, much of social intercourse is greased by rituals and beliefs that are prima facie ineffectual and false, but adopting decorative signalling behaviours is useful groups coordinate to do truly effectual stuff. Consider, for example, every religion (except for the one which is correct, obviously). For all those other ones, the various signals by the faithful are a beacon to fellow believers that help those believers to work together to do real and important thing, even thought they are false. (For true religions this still works, but of course in this case the belief is not false.) Pointless makework is not, in that perspective, pointless, but essential social bonding and community building. I have not yet heard anyone argue “yes, my favourite intervention is probably pointless tokenism in itself but doing it will be a great team-building exercise”, though. That argument seems to be reserved for paintball and escape rooms.

I do know that this argument is common enough in my own life that I have witnessed it interfering with substantive progress. I have witnessed with my own eyes, many times, people becoming so apoplectic with rage at each other about this whether something is tokenistic or table stakes, that literally nothing gets done, not even the ambiguously-tokenistic thing.

And THAT is why I want this page. I do not know, honestly, if focus on empirically pointless but demonstrative interventions is worth doing in general, but I know there is a lot of stuff going on here that we do not generally seem to be able to dissect when we are having set-piece arguments about it.

Places where this disagreement arises:

My own theoretical interest here is especially around Dunning-Kruger theory of mind. It is demonstrably hard to know our own minds, and navigate the divide between what feels like it helps us to be better, and what actually helps. At the same time, making us feel like we are better is not valueless, especially to the underconfident, self-doubting, traumatised or downtrodden.

Once again, on most days I sit far to the right hand side of the self-doubting→secure→smug axis, so I systematically undervalue the attachment many of my peers attach get from performative validation and reassurance.


Or… what else? What else can keep us out of this particular quagmire? What are strategies to short-circuit this argument?

Idea: can we just debate other measures entirely? Can we look at the long list of possible interventions and choose one that no one hates yet? If it is “can we do A then B?”, “but A is tokenistic” should we do C instead? …Should we all just do escape rooms?

  1. which I am obliged to gloss more precisely as empty virtue signalling.↩︎

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