symbolic manipulation

Matt Yglesias:

A lot of today’s politics is taken up with issues that are not just cultural, but symbolic — what do we teach in middle school U.S. history classes, which meaning of the word “racism” do we use, is it okay to watch Dave Chappelle, which statues do we pull down, etc.

People care about symbols for a reason, and I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of it. I, personally, enjoy the symbolism of living in a neighborhood named after Robert Gould Shaw near a traffic circle named after John Logan and sending my kid to a school named for William Lloyd Garrison, and I would be upset if it was all named after old racists instead. That being said, with my rational brain turned on, it is obvious that this symbolism is less important than whether zoning rules in the neighborhood promote displacement of working-class Black people, and the answer is that they do. And given those bad zoning rules, everything else you might try to do in the neighborhood (better schools and parks, better transportation, safer streets) has weirdly perverse impacts via rent increases.

I think everyone agrees on some level that these material impacts matter more than the symbolism, but we seem to really struggle as a society to focus on concrete things. And that’s a shame. Concrete things are not only more important, but precisely because they are concrete, they are more amenable to compromises and win-win solutions than zero-sum symbolic battles over symbolism and social status. 

This is an old theme for me also. As I wrote seven years ago — almost to the day! — “people who habitually traffic in symbolic manipulation — which includes pretty much everyone who spends a great deal of time, vocationally or avocationally, on the internet — tend to overestimate quite dramatically the power of symbolic manipulation. These people are so scrupulously attentive to how symbols (images and words, above all) are being handled in their corner of the online world that they can scarcely be brought to think about the quite concrete suffering and injustice that happen away from their (and everyone else’s) screens.”