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Philosophy professor critically reflects on (non)descriptive representation

photo of Salkin
Apr 19 2021

Ought people speak for others who come from a different and less privileged social group? For instance, ought men speak for women? Wendy Salkin, assistant professor of philosophy and, by courtesy, of law, posed these questions during a recent talk for the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows program titled "Why Should Those Who Speak for Us Be Anything Like Us?" 

Central to Salkin’s arguments are two key concepts: descriptive and nondescriptive representation. Salkin defines "descriptive representative" as "a party who is similarly situated to those for whom they speak or act in at least one of a variety of respects – sharing, for instance, characteristics, experiences, or backgrounds." For example, if a woman speaks for the concerns of other women, she will be considered a descriptive representative. By contrast, a "nondescriptive representative" refers to a party who does not share relevant similarities with those for whom they speak or act. 

Generally speaking, descriptive representation is considered important and necessary, especially when those who are represented have had their interests systematically overlooked or suppressed. Moreover, descriptive representation is widely considered to be better and more appropriate than nondescriptive representation. Salkin identifies and explains four different types of arguments often advanced in support of descriptive representation: knowledge arguments, credibility arguments, self-determination arguments, and crowding out arguments. 

To begin with, knowledge arguments contend that "a party who is descriptively similar to the members of the group in some respect is likely to know more, or better about the group’s members than those who are not descriptively similar." Supporters of knowledge arguments for descriptive representation argue that someone may have epistemic privilege with respect to a particular body of knowledge by virtue of their social location. For instance, supporters of knowledge arguments contend that men are not capable of representing women because they do not have the same kind of experience and struggle that women face. Similarly, supporters of knowledge arguments hold that non-Black people cannot represent Black people due to a lack of understanding of the latter’s interests and perspectives.

While Salkin does not deny that certain types of information may be easier to acquire by virtue of one’s social location or experience, she also aims to challenge some shortcomings of knowledge arguments. For instance, Salkin considers whether knowledge arguments might reinforce the objectionable assumption that all members of certain groups share an essential identity.

While Salkin does not deny that certain types of information may be easier to acquire by virtue of one’s social location or experience, she also aims to challenge some shortcomings of knowledge arguments. For instance, Salkin considers whether knowledge arguments might reinforce the objectionable assumption that all members of certain groups share an essential identity.

Moreover, Salkin argues that knowledge arguments produce an unintended consequence, which is the expectation of members of marginalized groups to fully shoulder the responsibility of explanation and presentation. As Salkin puts it, "The background assumption that descriptive representatives are epistemically better suited to the task of representation than nondescriptive representatives can also unduly burden descriptively similar parties. That is, these epistemic arguments can generate an assumption not merely that descriptively similar representatives are better at representing groups whose members are like them but that, by virtue of their epistemic advantage, they ought to take on the burdens of serving in these representative roles." Consequently, this expectation can leave those who are not descriptively similar with the impression that they either need not or even ought not speak or act for groups whose members are not like them.

Salkin then moves on to the second argument for descriptive representation, which she calls "credibility arguments." According to credibility arguments, a representative who is similar to members of the group they represent is more likely to be regarded as a credible source of information concerning the represented group than a nondescriptive representative would be. While this argument has some intuitive appeal, Salkin contends that it overlooks the fact that descriptively similar representatives are sometimes regarded as less credible by members of the societies that systematically discriminate against them. An audience’s prejudicial attitudes may cause them to specifically discount statements or actions made by representatives from marginalized groups. For instance, if the audience believes that women who report sexual harassment are liars, a woman discussing the issue of violence against women may face trouble being seen as credible by the prejudiced audience.

The third argument for descriptive representation identified by Salkin are self-determination arguments. Such arguments advance the idea that subordinate groups should have the rights to make their voices heard and make decisions regarding their communities. According to Salkin, self-determination arguments are fundamentally different from both knowledge and credibility arguments. Whereas both knowledge and credibility arguments assume the epistemic privilege of descriptive representation, self-determination arguments do not rely on such an assumption. Instead, self-determination arguments are motivated by the recognition that groups historically regarded as incapable of self-government should be allowed to express their own voices and determine their own futures.

The last argument type, which Salkin calls "crowding out arguments," advances the idea that the attention given by the public to representatives for a given group is limited. Hence, when someone claims to represent a given group’s interests, they take away attention from other representatives. To illustrate this point, Salkin cites the example of U2 frontman Bono. Supporters of crowding out arguments claim that people like Bono have seized political space and media attention which might otherwise have been occupied by Africans.

After reviewing the aforementioned arguments for descriptive representation, Salkin asks: when, if ever, are nondescriptive representatives appropriate? In the rest of her talk, Salkin discussed five contexts in which nondescriptive representatives may be permissible, which she calls, respectively, “restricted access, burden, explicit request, discounting, and risk of exposure.”

As it can be burdensome for a member of a marginalized group to have to always speak or act for the group of which they are a member, there may be contexts in which nondescriptive representatives should step in and share communicative labor with descriptive representatives. 

First, given that some fora are intentionally designed to exclude marginalized groups, unless nondescriptive representatives speak on behalf of members of these groups in such fora, members of these groups will have no representatives in the exclusionary fora.

Moreover, as it can be burdensome for a member of a marginalized group to have to always speak or act for the group of which they are a member, there may be contexts in which nondescriptive representatives should step in and share communicative labor with descriptive representatives. In doing so, nondescriptive representatives can help remove the burden that would otherwise fall disproportionately on the shoulders of members of marginalized groups.

Next, nondescriptive representation may also be permissible when it emerges as a response to an explicit request from members of the subordinated group to be represented. Here, Salkin gives the example of White Nonsense Roundup, which consists of white people who step in at the request of people of color and fight back against racist comments on social media. 

Furthermore, nondescriptive representation may be permissible when descriptive representatives from subordinated groups continue to be discounted by a prejudiced audience. Nondescriptive representatives can use the privilege that comes with their social standing to help make voices from subordinated groups heard.

Finally, nondescriptive representatives can be crucial when it would be risky for descriptive representatives to speak up or reveal their identities. In such contexts, as Salkin puts it, "nondescriptive representatives can give voice to the imperiled groups’ concerns free from fear of the harms that would befall an exposed descriptive representatives."

In short, through her talk, Salkin aims to critically reflect on the limitations of descriptive representation and the contexts in which nondescriptive representation may be permissible. Through her nuanced analysis, Salkin pushes us to consider what solidarity means and how to achieve it in the creation of a more just world. 

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