Tokenism or table stakes?

“The least you can do” is the minimum unviable product

December 20, 2021 — June 23, 2022


Assumed audience:

Anyone who has ever wanted just that one tiny thing to make the world nicer and discovered not everyone agreed how tiny it was

Content warning:

Discussion of prejudice and its relation to language which is empirically infuriating for everyone; stuff that I would prefer to have no opinion upon if that were an option.

Figure 1

The type of dispute that I think of as tokenism versus table stakes is a wonderful example of one of those debates that springs up in far more places than it seems would be useful, and I wish to have something to link to when discussing it. It arises often amongst people I care about and respect, and especially between people that I would have thought would agree with one another rather more than they do after this argument. Also, I want to know how to get past it, and reasoning my way through is how I might get there. Spoiler alert: I do not know how to get past it, but it helps me to think it through.

But read on for my analysis of the work that these words do for us, tokenism and table stakes, and how, all else being equal, they keep us trapped on pointless disputes at the expense of the change we want to see in the world.

This is not an analysis of everything going wrong with the politics of workplace fairness; see various notable articles thinkpieces and rants for some of that (one to start with: Dobbin and Kalev (2021)). This is about rhetoric, how arguments work and particular way they fail. This is one candidate piece of the puzzle explaining why even well-disposed alliances can fail to be better at change. There are some case studies about particular example of workplace fairness, which is where this dispute most often arises.

My theoretical interest here is especially around Dunning-Kruger theory of institutions. We are often overconfident about our ability to tell the difference between what helps us, what feels like it helps us but does not and what does nothing at all.

UPDATE: Now that I have written this out, I’ve iterated through them a little further. I think I will revisit this whole thing in a sequel, about clashing metis and mental models of institutions, something like that.

UPDATE 2: I think I would also like to talk about this in terms of decision theory.

1 Setting

The stylised dispute I want to get at concerns a certain type of discussion about what gesture could address an unfair situation. Let us start with contrived example so that we can detach this from the specific triggers that all the many real examples in the world have.

Suppose I live in the land of Plard, where most people have green hair; but I have purple hair because my people have immigrated from Spongia, where purple hair is vastly more common. This makes me easily identifiable as an outsider. Spongians are generally low status in Plard, and have a hard time getting good jobs; we are frequently discriminated against. I argue the reasons that we Spongians don’t get good jobs in Plard is that prejudice and systemic factors, such as our exclusion from high status networks, keep us out of there. I would like to redress this imbalance. Some Plardians argue that we Spongians are stupid or lazy or incompetent, of course, but I think they are wrong. We are not angels or geniuses either, necessarily. But that is kind of besides the point. I content that, on average, Spongians get worse opportunities and responsibilities than our skills merit, however it is justified. I will even go farther and advocate that a more diverse and equitable workplace will benefit everyone in the long run, including Plardians. Further, looking prejudiced is a public relations problem for our business and that gives us some leverage to persuade them to change to make it better for us Spongians. And hey, maybe they even want to change because they feel it is the right thing to do, who knows? I have persuaded the top brass in our firm, including you, to come to the negotiating table with my small delegation of Spongians, who want to spend this leverage wisely on improving Plardian/Spongian inequities, starting right here in our very own workplace.

How do we start? Suppose I start with a small request: Here is an easy one. I know that you prefer to refer to Spongians by the traditional Plard exonym for Spongians, Spongaroos. But we prefer the honorific Spongtastic. As a small gesture to show that these negotiation are being undertaking in good faith, could you please require all staff to refer to Spongians as Spongtastic. I would like you to call me Spongtastic Dan, actually, starting now.

OK, you reply, I can call you spongtastic Dan but I am not keen to require all the staff to do that. Is introducing new honorifics a good starting point? Simply calling people Spongtastic is not going to change anything. Won’t it looks like a tokenistic gesture?

No, I reply, it’s table stakes to call us Spongtastic. It costs you almost nothing but it makes a huge difference to how accepted we feel in this workplace. Keeping us feeling accepted will improve our wellbeing and thus our chance to prosper in this organisation, so this is a win for equity.

Spongtastic Dan, you say, frantically scrolling through search results on Google Scholar, are you sure about that last bit? It seems that the evidence is weak, or at least complicated, that changing language makes a difference to practical outcomes in the workplace, such as promotions and income. Are you sure that as simple as that? It looks to me like maybe it only makes people feel better but doesn’t actually make measurable outcomes better.

Then I might say Be careful. It is a bad look if you, as a Plardian, tell me, a Spongian, how best to remedy the prejudice against me. This is a reality I live every day and I know a lot about it, and you have little insight into it. I assure you that this will make us feel better, and that will help.

Now you might say OK, you certainly do have more experience of prejudice than me, can’t deny that. Um, let’s move this forward. I’ll take you word for it that honorifics are going to be helpful to you and the people you represent. Will that be the most helpful thing? It looks to me like there are many other things that will be more helpful that we could accomplish here. I understand that other things are considered important, such as providing better monitoring of potential Plardian/Spongian harassment cases, or offering targeted Spongian training programs or coaching, or somesuch? Aren’t there books on this? We need to triage here. Is it possible that focussing on purely symbolic stuff like job titles is a tokenistic distraction from making real progress on actual outcomes?

I say, those other ideas do sound pretty good and we do want to get to them, after this. But! First things first. This particular idea is not necessarily about career outcomes itself, it simply gives us somewhere to start. How do you expect to get good career outcome for Spongian staff if we do not feel good about the place we work? This solves that problem! Further, if you cannot do this simple thing, why should we trust you to be serious about these more substantial changes? Also, I don’t know if you know, but spongaroo rhymes with fart in our language. Do you have any idea how annoying that is?

You: Great point about the feeling included, I think I get that. Is this the only thing that will make Spongians feel included, though? Or can we do something else, like a special onboarding procedure, or mentor programs? The reason I ask, is that those programs are realtively uncontentious, but language policing is contentious. I think it burns up goodwill that we want to spend on other things, because many people hate language changes, in a way they do not hate other measures. I wouldn’t be surprised other if even some Spongian supporters felt that we were choosing to do something pointless, because they think that career outcomes are more important than regulating language, and they would prefer not to spend effort on language. And it will give oxygen to the claims that the most conservative anti-Spongian Plardians make about ‘virtue signalling’ and the ‘PC police’. If we are going to pay a big price in good will, shouldn’t we get something more worthwhile from it? How about a compromise option such as just recommending people change their language in the next company bulletin or seminar or something? Then we could move on to…

There is really nothing to compromise on here, I could say, this is a minor effort. Why are you letting the most toxic employees dictate the agenda for the whole company? They shouldn’t have such strong opinions on something minor like language. What is so hard about changing a few words? I don’t think you are really committed to this process…

Boom! Now we are off on an argument. Crucially, although we can have this argument if we want different things, i.e. if I want to sabotage your agenda for change or vice versa, we can also have this argument if we both aspire to a similar goal but disagree about means. Or to put that another way: I do not think that having this dispute reveals any information about whether either of us is negotiating in good faith. When we are in this dispute, allies and enemies both look the same to us. The rest of this essay is dedicated to breaking down that argument, and its consequences.

I do know that disputing a tokenism/table-stakes is common enough in my own life that it to has seemed to brake progress, occasionally in a self-fulfilling way. I have witnessed with my own eyes people becoming so angry at each other about whether something is tokenistic or table stakes, that literally nothing gets done, not even the arguably-effective tokenistic thing, before the allowance of attention, time and good will has been exhausted.

2 What just happened?

Figure 2

This gesture, the “everyone must call us spongtastic” gesture, is an example of a symbolic gesture. I’m using that as a shorthand to mean “a gesture with obvious symbolic value but disputed cost and effectiveness”. This is not to imply that they are purely symbolic, but rather that the thing that everything can agree on is that they are is symbolic.

Symbolic gestures, like other measures, can be understood in terms of costs and benefits. Both cost and benefit should be considered in terms of trade-offs (opportunity costs is what I call ’em). Every thing we do with our time/money/attention/enthusiasm comes at the expense of another thing.

How much does it cost to get compliance from the workplace to implement? How many minutes or hours will we need to set aside to coax, cajole or command our staff into adopting the gesture, and how many committee meetings? What are the consequences for those who fail to adopt the gesture? How much enthusiasm for our cause will this gesture use up? Do we need to set up organisational mechanisms to enforce the gesture, and if so how long will that take? Should we reprint the signage around the office to include some new rules required by the gesture? Issue a manual? etc
How effective is this at redressing unfairness? How much material benefit does this gesture bring to the group that it hopes to help? Will it decrease absentee days for the target group? Improve employee retention? Increase general happiness?

We might further look at this as a decision-under-uncertainty problem. How certain are we about the costs and benefits?

We break it down in this way because it is helpful way of thinking about how to do our best not just to do anything at all that helps even a little bit, but to do the best we can.

If this cost/benefit language is too economic for your taste, we could instead think about the closely related medical concept of triage — if we are truly doing our best to save people from distress, then we need to allocate effort where it will do most good, most quickly, much like they do in a hospital emergency/casualty ward. You literally cannot do all the medical procedure, so you do the ones that will save lives. No one should bleed out from an arterial injury in the waiting room while I am getting apsirin for my headache.

I come from an economics background, not a medical one, so I lean more on economics terms, in the language here. If that is loaded for you, I recommend you mentally substitute triage priorities for costs and benefits throughout.

Symbolic gesture arguments are pretty much a disagreement about opportunity costs (/triage order) when trying to learn what would be best, and we can disagree in multiple ways and to different degrees about the costs and effectiveness of the symbolic gesture. Typically the requester (me, the Spongian representative, say) thinks the cost of the gesture is basically zero and the benefit is not zero (but the cost is small), so it is something we may as well do. The gesture is for me table stakes. It is the least you could do. The requestee (you, the Plardian rep) thinks the cost is not necessarily zero (but possibly small) and the benefit is basically zero. The gesture seems tokenistic to you.

Probably we both have different opinions about what the other really thinks, and whether that thought is correct. Ideally we should each think the other is obviously wrong in their costing. Better yet, so obviously wrong that there is no need for us to check if maybe the other one has a point.

Or, since we are haggling over an outcome, we can simply assume that the other side is making an ambit claim or low-balling us — presenting our idea as too hard so that they can do something easier.

This is not, however, haggling over the price of a piece of fruit, or even a standard workplace contract. People’s literal feelings of well-being and persecution are on the line, so we can get angry about how asymmetrically this will be negotiated.

There is lots of terminological machinery which kicks into motion at this point which signals that we are in a tokenism/table stakes debate. It is fashionable to call tokenism virtue signalling1 It is also common to classify disapproval of an intervention which might not help substantially but makes some people feel better as denial of lived experience. I think your experience trying to implement workplace procedural change is irrelevant. You think my experience as oppressed minority is irrelevant. 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 have personally, in real life, played both roles here, the tokenist and the tablestakesist. Although, I have never been in the group that stands to gain from the gesture under discussion — realistically, as a locally-born, white cis-male I am unlikely to be the one that stands to gain from a diversity intervention. The status quo works well for people with my protected attributes. That said, I personally am fluent diversity and inclusion politics and it is likely that I could game the system in my favour either way.

Figure 3

3 Symbolic gestures can be fine

It might sound like I am advocating against symbolic gestures of low substantial impact. That is not at all the case. I am, rather, dissecting how we disagree about them. That does not presuppose the outcome is that “all symbolic stuff is bad”.

3.1 Acknowledgement of country

Worked example: The emerging Australian workplace tradition of Acknowledgement of Country has been negotiated as a symbolic gesture in a reasonably coherent way. It is something that almost no-one has claimed will directly improve, say, aboriginal employment outcomes, including its advocates. First Nations people rarely argue that it will make that kind of difference. They typically communicate that this particular symbolic gesture is one of high cultural importance but make no claims about direct benefits.2 You can disagree about whether to do it or not, but at least you will be arguing the same issue in this case.

The trade-off analysis is, tragically, more favourable in this case since the median level of access to opportunity for indigenous people in Australia is so disastrous that typical workplace interventions are clearly inadequate. The problem is extremely big and the complexity is clear to everyone. If First Nations people have been typically so excluded and beaten down that many are completely excluded from the workplace, then a gesture like this, which is low on effective benefit, is not beating out many superior alternatives, at this price point. I estimate it is about 20 hours of attention that goes into this ritual each week at my organisation; is there a better use of this effort?

3.2 I am not the target audience

More broadly, making us feel better through some symbolic act is not valueless, especially to the underconfident, self-doubting, traumatised or downtrodden. Even a token gesture is not nothing at all as far as feeling good, even if it does very little towards concrete outcomes.

On most days I sit far to the smug side of the self-doubting→secure→smug axis, which is a great blessing for me. However, I recognise that I likely systematically undervalue the benefit many of my less-secure peers attach get from performative validation and reassurance as an end in itself. That said, symbolic gestures also matter to me, possibly less than average but also more than none.

I suspect few of us are immune to symbols. The thing is that the symbols mean different things to each of us, and valuing these objects can lead to conflicts between symbolic goals in more ways than can actual goals. The concrete effects we have on the world are where we have a better chance of agreeing. We can argue all day long about which way of talking about, say, Spongian representation, is the best way, spongaroo or spongtastic. Seeing actual Spongians more fairly represented in positions of power where before they were unfairly absent— that is a real, concrete thing. That is the thing that people who actually want diversity and fairness presumably all want, (and, if someone does not support that, it is important information for strategic planning, and moreover to drill down into whether they are a hardline opponent, or persuadable etc).

Figure 4: A still from Volk Makedonski’s song protesting the Republic of North Macedonia renaming itself North Macedonia. The name change has led to somewhat aggressive protest in both Greece and (North) Macedonia

4 Symbols that don’t even make us feel emotionally secure probably don’t quite fit here but that is a thing

Figure 5: Update: Having mentioned the weird case of symbolic COVID sanitation I guess I should mention that mere hours after I wrote this section, I ran into this fascinating poster which has precisely COVID listed as a main goal for a union negotiation. I would be curious to see how important this is for each of the parties concerned, relative to their other requests. A tokenism/table stakes issue in the wild?

Possibly a red herring, because it does not really speak to fairness, but… As I write this, there is an email in my inbox telling me that my office is doubling down on surface disinfection. In this office there is a highly regarded team of specialist scientists who spend considerable effort devising powerful scientific insights into how mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Surface disinfection does not make their list. Alternatives such as better ventilation might actually help, but that would be more expensive. My intuition suggests that management prefers to make the tokenistic gestures because they are more visible than substantial ones. We can all witness the relatively useless symbolic act of scrubbing doorknobs, and maybe it will reduce the chance that we will demand a more substantial, and more effective act which requires actual capital investment, such as a better ventilation system. There are various losers in this situation, including the scientists whose work is completely devalued by the organisation who commissioned it, and the people who wish to avoid COVID infections. There are other effect: it feeds the fears of those who think that COVID interventions are some kind of conspiracy, or why would Those In Power not follow the evidence?

Shorn of the loaded status politics of fairness interventions, the COVID-19 is not quite as toxic to discuss, at least not in Australia; Vaccinations are a bit more sensitive. But still, what are we doing?

5 Our personal costs are not mutually comprehensible

Getting the argument into full rage mode seems to require a minimum level of mutual illegibility of the stakes, and this is a little bit special for interpersonal power dynamics arguments where symbolic gestures are the stock in trade.

For example, if I am arguing for action to address catastrophic climate change, which I think has a lot of fairness implications, then you and I are comparatively unlikely to get derailed by an argument about whether it is the least I can do to switch to carbon neutral ice cream.3 The cost and benefits of the action are too clearly defined and mutually interpretable. No one is going to derail the Paris Climate Accords because they couldn’t find a carbon-neutral caterer for the lunch break. People who derail those arguments use a different arsenal of tactics.

A classic example of a contentious tokenism/table-stakes dispute is gendered language, in the sense of the language we use to refer to people in general (he/she/they/novel pronouns) or their jobs (Is everyone who plays upon a stage an actor? Or are some of them actresses? Should we replace both with a historically un-gendered alternative such as ‘talent’?) For personal context, I am happy to talk about you, or to you, using whatever grammatical gender of pronoun you would like right now. I am happy to use whatever gendered or gender-neutral job title you would like, according to whatever your current feelings on the matter are. I do not care whether your preferences are popular ones or contrarian ones; it is the least I could do (heh) for someone who is giving me the gift of their time, to make that concession. Table stakes, as it were. This price really is trivial, for me.4 The grammar question is for me the least interesting thing happening in the fascinating world of gender. That is not to say that interests, passions and feelings about grammatical gender is not real in someone else. I don’t need to understand the preference in order to respect it.5 But, how to get from a easy interpersonal agreement to a workplace-wide one, or a society-wide one…? I do not think this part is trivial, nor should be.

The fact that this preference is opaque to me possibly illustrates one of the reasons that symbolic gestures can be so contentious in the real world: as a preference it variable between people, and people just do not understand each other’s position. That grammatical gender means nothing to me and it means something to other humans shows a divide of incomprehension between the way I and those other humans see the world. And it illustrates that we have different preferences behind that shroud of mutual confusion.

Symbolic gestures seem often to be so hard to agree upon because the preferences they are about, like this language preference, are mutually incomprehensible. This is not to say the preferences we have are not real, or not legitimate, or any such thing, simply that we only have access to them through each others’ claims about them. Are we even any good at making good deductions from lived experience?

Back to that example: notoriously, not only are the directions of people’s preferences (in the economic sense) about grammatical gender highly idiosyncratic, but also the strength of such preferences is idiosyncratic too.

Contrariwise, some people manifestly resent being made to change their speech patterns, and would argue that it should only be done if there is strong evidence that it will help. You get this from older people, presumably, but also those who associate policing language with state oppression, such as refugees from authoritarian regimes. For some people, language might be a sacred ritual, and sacred rituals are important to leave unchanged (Stein et al. 2021). Whether I regard that preference as understandable or not, the preference to avoid language change certainly seems real and strong when expressed by the people who claim to have it. Strong opposition to language change is not much more intuitive to me than strong investment in grammatical gender, FWIW, but once again, I can believe that this preference is real and there sure is a lot of evidence that people hate language change for reasons that are not at all malevolent — Seriously, read Stein et al. (2021).

Anyway, different preferences are a fundamental part of the human package, and that is OK. I’m not here to bag that. But I would like to understand how we can fail to negotiate compromise on those preferences when they have this symbolic character.

6 It is hard to tell how effective symbolic gestures are

Let us look at another side of the cost-benefit equation in this light: The benefits of the symbolic gesture. It is just hard to know by introspection what makes a difference in practice, for ourselves, or for others.

Most of the symbolic gestures I know of are somehow to do with language. The effectiveness of these is incredibly contested, both empirically and philosophically and by angry randos on twitter. What language is harmless? What language is minutely harmful but not worth the effort of changing? What language is definitely harmful? Which language is a complete distraction from actual goals?

I am not about to answer those questions here; but they are worth asking people from diverse backgrounds. I get very different answers, at least, ranging from “saying that is prejudiced” through to “That doesn’t bother me” through to “I do not want to tell you because I do not want to have an argument about it.” There is a lot going on in each of those answers.

Feelings about the intervention in a social institution and the effects of the intervention are connected here, but the connection is complicated. Feeling better about fairness might be an important step of achieving fairness. Or achieving fairness might be the best way to produce a feeling that things are fair. It is probably both.

And how do we know the strategy we have chosen is a good one? The process of change is hard and complicated. Our intuitions about social change are terrible. Society might seem simple to us primate, but only because we delude ourselves.. And fairness, by whatever definition, is a complicated, subtle effect to cultivate. I think of these as problem where everyone can see an obvious answer, but no-ones’ obvious answer is the same.

Here is a non-obvious possible theory about unfairness that I do not often see actions: the family of “emergent effects” theories. In these theories, what leads to unfairness is the accumulation of many small, non-obvious sources of bias. If this were true, that would mean that if we get distracted by the obvious ones, we are letting the real problems continue. One famous version is the Schelling segregation model which argues that ethnically segregated neighbourhood can arise not because of xenophobia, but because the process of choosing your neighbourhood naturally magnifies the effect of weak preferences. If, all else being equal, most people have a slight preference to hang around with people like themselves, eventually we all sort ourselves into ghettos.

A more relevant one perhaps for the current purpose is the “insidious nonetheless” theory, (Du, Nordell, and Joseph 2021), which argues that there is a laundry list of apparently-inconsequential biases in gendered judgment that collectively add up to a glass ceiling that stops women from progressing their careers. The biases in this theory are not obvious ones; at least I assume they are not obvious because they are rarely the ones that I see us complaining about. If this theory has any reality to it, obvious and contentious things like job titles are a honey-trap for our discussion, distracting us from the more important things. In Du, Nordell, and Joseph (2021)’s model, there are lots of weird ones — they blame, for example, ‘biased negative attribution’: women receive a larger decrease in promotability when a mixed-gender project fails. Is finding a solution that tackles biased negative attribution on anyone’s least-you-can-do list?

I’m not aiming to go all in on this particular theory as a complete explanation for gender inequity, by the way. I am just some guy musing about something outside my field and I definitely do not have The One Truth about gender equity.

But, I do not think anyone does, even the experts (although they hopefully are closer than I am.) These emergent effects models could be correct, complete nonsense or, more likely, part of a more complex picture. I’m mentioning this idea, though, as an example of the kind of potentially-useful understanding of the system that we might ignore in the battle to claim things are simple and easy.

Of course, doing experiments to fix some non-obvious causes like this is hard. If we are arguing all day about what the table stakes are, fresh alternative ideas are exactly what will never have time to try.

It is easy to imagine that in the face of difficulty and uncertainty, we might want to retreat to a symbolic gesture instead of tackling the real problem. It would certainly be easier to imagine the case is closed, the obvious thing is the right thing and thus we can ignore all that hard work.

7 We are bad at estimating how many tiny costs scale up

Another angle: I think there is one part we can improve our estimates on, and make it more undertandable.

Elsewhere I have said that the cost to me is low for changing my language use around someone who has a strong preference for particular terms of address. This is true; I have already needed to learn many speech codes, and I am reasonably fluent in most of the dominant dialects, so that cost is already sunk. I might imagine that this means it is easy to generalise and get many people to adopt such a symbolic gesture as I have.

Organisationally, scaling up such a thing is harder, and it has flow on effects. At scale, many “obviously helpful” interventions are counter-productive. Consider the argument that traffic accident warnings cause traffic accidents by overloading drivers’s attention (Hall and Madsen 2022). traffic warnings are easier to study than workplace symbolic gestures, but we want to be alive to their risk.

If you haven’t worked in a large bureaucratic organisation you might not be aware of the huge amount of work involved in designing, setting up, and enforcing some new procedure. In an organisation like mine, with about 5000 people, if everyone has to spend 15 minutes learning a new thing, that’s 35 work weeks that will be spent learning the thing, adding up everyone involved. On top of that, it will have taken a few working weeks to design the policy in the simplest possible case. People who have not worked for a large organisation occasionally feel that is nothing.

Never tell someone in a large organisation that everyone can just shut up and spend 15 minutes more on something. Most of their day is already filled with procedures invented by someone else who didn’t feel the need to consult with everyone before adding just one tiny new procedure and they have bitter experience to encourage them to believe that these procedures are very often useless.

This is all before we count measuring, assessing, communicating, enforcing, and complaining about the policy. Conservatively, that means that a language change we make at my workplace is going to cost one working year or so of productive time. The lower bound on the cost of any concession from my employer then is about a hundred thousand Australian dollars, maybe 150.

This is not to say we shouldn’t do it. Some things are worth a hundred thousand dollars; a harmonious workplace is probably worth a lot more. But also, one hundred thousand dollars is not the same as nothing.6 A hundred thousand dollars would pay for a real, well-paid job for an individual from an under represented minority, or a lot of executive coaching for staff of an under-represented minority to help them break through the glass ceiling, or many other interventions. If the organisation has a finite budget, which it does, then we do not just need to answer if it can affort this thing, but think about directing that budget to better things.

This idea of the difficulty of understanding scaling up costs cuts both ways, in the sense that we can also imagine there is a scaling up of the indignities; that is precisely what symbolic gestures might aim to get at. If the symbolic gesture is some apparently-small one for example… I imagine that any single instance of being referred to by a grammatical gender I found inappropriate, if I had such a thing, might be manageable in itself, but that the accumulation of many such instances might be horrible. Maybe it is worth giving up a paid position in the organisation in order to smooth away that indignity? I cannot not rule that out; but I would also not assume away the trade off.

In a sense, the fundamental problem of the modern era is understanding the effect of a billion small problems. No single combustion engine is in itself a problem; it is in aggregate that automobiles can choke a city or a planet. How do we do the best we can? Not by ignoring the inplications either way, but by doing our best to understand the balance.

8 Tokenism and table stakes do not distinguish good actors from bad ones

Figure 6

So far I have mostly assumed that everyone in our hypothetical argument is negotiating in good faith, and shares, possibly to different degrees, the bigger goal of improving fairness and equity for their fellow human beings. There are various reasons that the parties could disagree about symbolism of the means despite sharing their goals.

It is definitely not always the case that people share goals though. People are prejudiced and imperfect and lazy and occasionally even vengeful, sociopathic or narcissistic, or just want to get the power for their own side and do not think you are on that side. They might disagree for principled reasons. We do need to be able to find out if our co-negotiators are negotiating in good faith towards the same end.

So here is a hypothesis I’m working on: the central problem with the tokenism-table-stakes argument is that it fails at that thing. It is an institution for angels. It fails to give us information about whether we are in a genuine negotiation or not. In this kind of argument, someone who is being tendentious or manipulative and someone who is trying their best but has a genuine disagreement about the details — they look absolutely the same. Arguing the toss about how tokenistic a thing is, that does not tell us which kind of person we are negotiating with.

This is well illustrated by the grammatical gender pronoun problem from before. People with strong grammatical gender preferences are likely to be invested in non-traditional actual gender, e.g. because of being transgender themselves, and such a person will have likely encountered much prejudice and bad-faith negotiation in their life. It would be reasonable for such a person to want to ensure that negotiations about this stressor were in good faith, because they have had painful experience of bad faith ones. The problem is that this tokenism-table-stakes thing could easily lead us to believe that people who genuinely want to help us are in fact entrenched and prejudiced opposition. Or, worse, it could turn a potential ally into an actual enemy if the wires were badly crossed enough. As Abraham Lincoln did not say, The easiest way to identify an enemy is to create one.7

The practical implication on this for coalition building are not clear. I am arguing that arguing about tokenism versus table stakes reduces the size of the coalition who might act to change the world together, because it alienates some allies inside the establishment. In that regard, it makes us weaker by making our coalition smaller. But maybe it can expand the coalition in some other ways?

9 Ineffective symbolic gestures could be better than nothing if we are not actually negotiating in good faith

There is another reason for me to advocate symbolic gestures: I don’t actually want to enact that gesture; rather, I want it to be refused. What if I want a symbol to rally my troops around? What if I want a bad guy to blame and that bad guy is you?

A symbolic gesture would be perfect for that. Much of social intercourse is greased by rituals and beliefs and other signifiers that are arbitrary but useful to help groups coordinate to do effective stuff. Skin colour! Party affiliation! Sports team! Hallucinating voices! These things can all be powerful symbols to mobilise a community. A particular political ask can fill the same role. For that purpose it is not necessary that it be effective in doing what it says on the tin, just that it have the appropriate symbolic weight.

Consider, for example, organized religion, except for the one which is correct. For all other religions, it doesn’t matter that the various symbolic gestures used by the faithful are factually useful, if they are still function as a beacon to fellow believers. Those symbols nevertheless assist those believers to work together to do real and important things,8 sometimes even wonderful and amazing things. Apparently pointless makework is not, in that perspective, truly pointless, but rather indirectly useful as community building ritual.9 This only works if everyone treats it as true and valuable in its own right. No church says, “my god is fictional, but he sure makes us into an excellent voting bloc.” Advocating hard for an ineffective but obvious symbolic gesture can serve that purpose too; it can make an “us” and a “them”, and get people to choose sides, based on who will commit to a task which is pointless in its own right but has a higher order benefit of providing us with a symbol.

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 and Burning Man. All of which are, IMO, under-explored ways of solving group conflict.

Or, perhaps we should think about such things as Fire And Motion attacks; things to keep the opposition busy?

Grimmer alternative: if was requesting a symbolic concession from my oppressor, I could want to stick on that because it was pointless and ineffective. If I wanted to grind my oppressor down with meaningless labour because that is what people like that have demanded of me before, that might also be a real and understandable goal: revenge. Or letting my followers know that I have the power to inflict indignity on the other.

If I were after revenge, the idea that we are all on the same team is ruled out before we begin. When I am after revenge, you and I are in hostile negotiation, in a negative sum game. My co-negotiator is actually my enemy and we should in fact both behave accordingly. The logical conclusion would be, for each of us, If I ever get on top, I will exact revenge from you for all I feel you have done to me. And thence You should do whatever it takes to make sure I do not get on top.

I hate this possibility. For me the argument for fairness is one about making a better, less oppressive world, not just moving the oppression around as the world drowns.

I do not think revenge stuff is a common motivation, except in the imagination of feverish Twitter commenters. But, I don’t think it is never a motivation either. I believe I have seen it in practice from time to time. Moreover, vulnerability to feverish Twitter commentators is a cost too.

Figure 7

10 Arguing about this point is the point

I do know that disputing this topic — is that tokenism or table stakes? — is common enough in my own life that it can act as a brake on progress. The tokenism does not reside in the gesture itself, but in the setting — are we making only tokenistic efforts? If we spend so long disputing some actually symbolic efforts that we never get to substantial efforts, then we have been manoeuvred into tokenism. I have indeed witnessed, with my own eyes, 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 before our allowance of attention and time has been exhausted.

11 Remediation

What can keep ourselves out of this rhetorical quagmire? What are strategies to short-circuit this argument?

Idea: if we arte stuck on symbolic gestures, can we just debate other measures entirely? Let the symbolic ones go? Can we look at the long list of possible interventions and choose one that few people hate yet? If the discussion goes is “can we do A then B?” and gets stuck at “but A is tokenistic”, should we do C instead? Should we remember Sun Tzu more mindfully and choose our battles?.

What else? Can we talk about these argument for what they are: a tool unfit for the job? If a particular symbolic gesture is not something we can coordinate on, should we try different ones? Switch to substantive and evidence-backed alternatives? Or at least a less contentious symbolic gesture?

Should we all just go play paintball, Spongtastic Dan?

12 Dissenting opinions

Timothy Burke, in Academia: Disentanglement:

There is a generalized attitude towards language, representation and cultural work that has pervasive underlying power within a particular subset of Americans who are loosely aligned with liberal-left political sensibilities. … That language and representation cause or structure society, personhood, and politics, and that you can change deep structures and redistribute political power if you change language and representation. …there’s a kind of self-interested tautology involved: this is about privileging the kinds of tools you have access to and facility with and convincing yourself that even if you had a choice, you would choose those tools to pursue political change.

13 Further reading

14 When tokenism is worse than nothing

Derek Thompson, The Dangerous Rise of ‘Front-Yard Politics’

Companies hiring DEI consultants to quote Malcolm X in a meeting to cover up a pitiful diversity record; school officials watching math scores plummet for Black kids while they debate whether Lincoln was racist; AMA employees playing word games while limiting the number of physicians; environmentalists buying BEYOND COAL pins while challenging the construction of any clean-energy project that might help the electric grid move beyond coal—what ties these examples together is front-yard theater.

15 References

Bridgland, Jones, and Bellet. 2023. A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes.” Clinical Psychological Science.
Dobbin, and Kalev. 2021. The Civil Rights Revolution at Work: What Went Wrong.” Annual Review of Sociology.
Du, Nordell, and Joseph. 2021. Insidious Nonetheless: How Small Effects and Hierarchical Norms Create and Maintain Gender Disparities in Organizations.” arXiv:2110.04196 [Cs].
Farrell. 2012. The Consequences of the Internet for Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science.
Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To. 2002. Too Cool for School? Signalling and Countersignalling.” RAND Journal of Economics.
Hall, and Madsen. 2022. Can Behavioral Interventions Be Too Salient? Evidence from Traffic Safety Messages.” Science.
Huang, and Zhu. 2021. Combating Informational Denial-of-Service (IDoS) Attacks: Modeling and Mitigation of Attentional Human Vulnerability.” arXiv:2108.08255 [Cs].
Lönnqvist, Szabó, and Kelemen. 2021. ‘The New State That We Are Building’: Authoritarianism and System-Justification in an Illiberal Democracy.” Frontiers in Psychology.
Maerz. 2019. Simulating Pluralism: The Language of Democracy in Hegemonic Authoritarianism.” Political Research Exchange.
Pascale. 2019. The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism.” Current Sociology.
Richards. 2001. Coordination and Shared Mental Models.” American Journal of Political Science.
Richerson, and Boyd. 2001. The Evolution of Subjective Commitment to Groups: A Tribal Instincts Hypothesis.” Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment.
Sczesny, Formanowicz, and Moser. 2016. Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination? Frontiers in Psychology.
Stein, Schroeder, Hobson, et al. 2021. When Alterations Are Violations: Moral Outrage and Punishment in Response to (Even Minor) Alterations to Rituals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


  1. which I pedantically gloss more precisely as empty virtue signalling, which I think is usually what people mean when they say that.↩︎

  2. There are a lot of clever details in how the acknowledgement of country has been negotiated, IMO. There was no existing ritual to disrupt, for another thing2 but what fills that gap as our foundation myth? This is a green-field ritual, that does not need to bulldoze the previous generation’s cherished ceremonies. Also, for some reason, the enforcement of this social norm is generally gentle.↩︎

  3. I have seen this in animal rights though: if I want to address animal cruelty, is it the tokenistic or table stakes thing to do to make the symbolic gesture of giving up meat?↩︎

  4. For that matter, you can use whatever grammatical gender of pronoun you want to refer to me, I do not have other-regarding preferences about this matter. You can call me a statistics-lady if that floats your boat. I feel greatly blessed that I am personally not emotionally invested in grammatical gender↩︎

  5. To cultivate empathy I try to think of having grammatical gender preferences as being as something like a peanut allergy, for example, in that it seems to require care from people around you about a thing to which they are oblivious otherwise you experience harm. Usually not actual anaphylaxis, fortunately. Is that a good mental model?↩︎

  6. There is an interesting case study in the public speech commons notebook of an enforced speech change at a truly massive scale, with millions of people involved.↩︎

  7. Although, maybe it is moral to turn people into enemies?.↩︎

  8. For true religions this still works, but in that case the belief is not false.↩︎

  9. A fascinating interview with Dimitris Xygalatas explores some of that.↩︎