Sockpuppets and the Vox Populi of Identity

I can't speak for anyone else, but.

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Imagine you’re in a situation where a reporter is asking you a question regarding a social identity you hold (e.g., your race, gender, class, religion). They’re working on a story covering a certain dimension of that identity’s experience in the world, and looking for a quote from you.

Now, if they’ve kept up with social justice, they know that they can’t ask you to be a Spokesperson for All of Your Identity (“Move out of the way, I, or you can call me ‘What Poor People Think’, have arrived!”).

You’ll also know that you can’t speak for other people, even people of who share that identity with you. And if you’re following social justice dogma (SJD), you’ll likely be wanting to pass the mic to someone more oppressed anyhow.

A savvy journalist will know all this, and they’ll frame their questions with language like “In your personal experience…” and “I’m not asking you to speak for other people, I just want to know what you think.”

What they’re struggling to do, and hoping you’ll help them with, is figure out a basically-unsolvable puzzle: “How do ______ people feel about ______?” Where the first blank is a social group, and the second is a current issue or hot-button topic.

And they have a deadline. They need to write that answer today, so they’ll find an answer even if you’re not the one who gives it to the.

What’s the best way for you to respond?

Three Snafus in Identity-Based Opinion Sharing

The hypothetical journalist who was interviewing you for the beginning of this piece was well-intentioned, and I think that’s worth something. But they still wanted to know how you felt as a representative of your “group,” so they could report on how that group feels.

It happens all the time. And not just in formal journalism.

That journalist asking those questions can stand in for a lot of people in Social Justice Land beyond journalists: writers, politicians, non-profit leaders, educators, and, of course, activists.

These days, a lot of us find ourselves in a role similar to that of a journalist in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s for work, a hobby, or just something we’re passionate about, we’re out in the world collecting the facts.

When we feel like we’ve found a truth worth sharing, we publish it in our own little newspaper, which might be or Facebook or Twitter feed (or other social media), a blog, or just by spreading the word via email or talking to real humans IRL.

It’s like we all have our own opinion column, where we might share our insight on the rage du jour, or the latest hot take on some buzzing issue.

If we’re a social justice person, then a lot of the facts that we’re finding ourselves reporting on are related to group identities, the experiences of marginalized people, and doing our best to motivate the hearts and minds of the people in our life to care.

Sometimes that means sharing with others a perspective on an identity we hold. Expressing ourselves to help educate or inform others. And sometimes that means amplifying the voice of someone else, or shedding light on the oppression of others.

All the times, we do our best to get the facts, and get them right. And, simultaneously, we are trying not to reify oppression, and toe the line of social justice dogma, so we’re cautious about how we ask questions, and how we report on what we hear.

So we end up reporting things like, “People of Color don’t want ______,” or “It makes women feel unsafe when you ______.” But we have misgivings about it. We know that no group is a monolith.

There are two competing forces pushing and pulling us every time we want to share some identity-based truth:

  1. We know that no person can speak for their entire group, and that asking them to do so is frowned upon in social justice.
  2. We are constantly put into situations where we need to amplify marginalized so people in power can hear them, and the suffering of a group can be seen and rectified.

If those competing forces feel confusing, it’s because they are. And there are three snafus we run into when we try to find a clear way out.

Snafu 1: I’m not even sure about me.

I’ll use myself as an example here.

Technically, anything I say or do could be taken as a representation of any of my group memberships, social identities, or immutable traits.

If you see me doing something, and you know something about me, it’d be accurate to say “Hey! Look at Sam, he’s a ______ person who ______!”

  • He’s a poor person who sneezes constantly during cedar allergy season!
  • He’s a hazel-eyed person who ate too much hummus today!
  • He’s a White person who has complicated feelings about wearing shorts!

It’d be weird to say those things, but not inaccurate. You got me. But it’s more like a “gotcha” than “getting.” You got me, but it doesn’t mean you get me.

To really get me, you’d need to pick a trait and a behavior, preference, belief (etc.) that, to me, relate to one another. You’d have to find two things that, in my own experience, or my sense of self, are connected, or explain each other.

Taking this a little further, it would be a huge stretch to take any of those [technically true] statements and apply them to the rest of those groups:

  • Poor people sneeze constantly during cedar allergy season.
  • Hazel-eyed people ate too much hummus today.
  • White people have complicated feelings about wearing shorts.

One of those, just by coincidence, might actually be true. I’m sure you know which one I mean:

  • White people have complicated feelings about wearing shorts.

I’m kidding, of course. I think. I hope I didn’t just stumble into an actual stereotype again, and teach some more oppression.

Seriously speaking, what I’m saying is that there are some aspects of who I am and aspects of what is important to me that are interdependent; and there are many, many more that are just coincidences.

And, not to speak for you, but that’s true for all of us.

I, of course, was talking about the “poor people sneeze constantly during allergy season” example. That might be technically true, and we could figure out ways to connect the dots in a social justice sense (access to allergy drugs, nutrition, etc.), but, for me, it’s not the reason.

I eat allergy pills like tic tacs, and have done everything I could this month in record-breaking cedar-shaking central Texas, and I’m still over hear sneezing up a storm. That all goes to say that it’s not a “poor” thing, for me.

How do we know which is which? How do we know when a behavior, belief, preference, passion, comfort, or discomfort is connected to an aspect of our identity? As opposed to it just being a thing that we happen to have, or makes us an outlier?

That friends, is the epitome of snafu number one. Hang onto it while I introduce you to its buddies, after which I’ll explain what this mysteriously-titled “Sockpuppet and Vox Populi” shtick is all about.

Snafu 2: Who do we trust to speak for a group?

Building on the first snafu, if we’re not sure, in our own experience, if something is connected to a dimension of our identity, or just a coincidence, how do when know when to trust someone else report that a thing an identity-level phenomenon?

We can’t necessarily use the metric of “believe the marginalized person,” because a lot of the time (all the time?) you can find two people holding the same marginalized perspective who have completely different takes on an issue.

I don’t do a lot of class or poverty-based activism, and one time I was riding in a car with a colleague I’ve written LGBTQ+ curricula with. We got an email from a poverty activist asking to adapt our curriculum, and in the email they included a little addendum that said something like:

“As poor people, we’re constantly having our culture appropriated by middle- and upper-class people, so we wanted to double-check that this was okay with you, and not do the same thing to the LGBTQ community.”

I remember reading the email aloud, then turning to my friend and saying, “We are?!” in response to the appropriation statement. Ostensibly, this person was speaking for me (they had included me, as a fellow poor person, in their “We”), and this was the first time I had heard of this thing that’s apparently constantly happening to me.

The other implication in the email that tripped us up was that not only was this person being a representative of poor people, but they were asking us to be similar representatives of the LGBTQ community – to grant permission on behalf of the LGBTQ community for the poor community to do this.

I made a joke to my bud that “My people” (The Poor) are seeking the grace of “Your people” (The Queer), and all we needed was the blessing of the Elves and we would be on our way to Mordor to end oppression once and for all.

The funniest thing about this, to me, was that I didn’t disagree with what the person was saying (about me, and “my” experience). I basically said, “They probably know better than me. They’re doing poverty activism. I’m not.”

And so it was written.

As we’re doing our journalism as activists, and trying to get the facts straight, we’ll end up in lots of situations where there are multiple truths available.

Depending on our knowledge of the subject in question, comfort with pushing back, and our experience working that beat (so to speak), we have a few fact-checkers at our disposal. But the simplest way we verify whether something is true or not is “Who’s saying it?”

As long as they’re a marginalized person, speaking from their own experience, we usually accept it as fact.

As a power inverse of the Shoot the Messenger cornerstone of SJD, this might be, “Trust all marginalized people.”

If they’re a dominant group member, we’ll either flag it as “plausible” and ask around to corroborate their reporting (asking marginalized people to weigh in); or toss it out altogether, saying something like, “Pass the mic.” Then we’ll look for a marginalized person to speak from their own experience on the subject.

But how do we know when someone is speaking to a group experience, and not just their own personal experience within that group? And when we hear an identity-level truth claim, how do we know it’s that identity responsible, not another shared identity, or combination of things?

That’s snafu number two. One more.

Snafu 3: The data won’t save us.

When in doubt, we can always turn to the data. When we have access to really good data, and we’re proud of that, we might even refer to them in the plural, so people know we know what we’re talking about.

“Have you seen the data on that? They suggest otherwise.”

(Hot damn is that an “I have a master’s degree”-level burn if I’ve ever seen one. “Hey! Look at Sam, he’s a master’s degree person who gets excited about data’s subject-verb agreement!” Oh no that one is probably real.)

If we’re not sure if someone’s individual account of reality is representative of others’ accounts, we often turn to research. We’ll search for statistics, hop on if we’re feeling fancy, or share the ones we already know.

Often, other people will disagree with our data. Not just with the subject-verb agreement of them, but with their truthiness. For a lot of reasons.

The datum in question might conflict with their firsthand account, or they’ve seen other stats, or they don’t like the version of reality it describes so it must be wrong.

(“Hey! Look at Sam, he’s still going! ‘Datum’?! More like ‘Dayum! You know your singulars!’”)

When we end up in this situation, with conflicting data sources, we’re in a tough spot. Sincerely.

Good data are hard to come by, especially regarding people and issues marginalized by society. This gets trickier when we’re talking about solutions for oppression, or strategies for living social justice – because we can’t know if those will work until the future.

The truth is that we simply don’t have a lot of data on things like the suffering experienced by people oppressed by society, the relationships between that specific suffering and specific pillars of society, or the efficacy of strategies to dismantle oppression. It’d be great if we did, but we don’t. We’re getting more and more every year, but we still don’t have a ton.

But if we’re being good quasi-journalists, and we have the time, we’ll do our best to look at all the information we find and try to share what seems, to us, to be the more trustworthy.

Where with earlier truth-seeking, SJD offered us a clear path to follow (“Believe the marginalized person.”), when it comes to data and research and statistics we’re more on our own.

If we want the simpler path, SJD still offers us some guidance. There are some data sources we know to question (some messengers we can shoot), and any data that suggest that oppression isn’t the problem, or that things are getting better and oppression is a thing of the past, we can toss that out thanks to the Seconded Law cornerstone.

But otherwise, we really have to figure things out for ourselves.

And that’s the third snafu: beyond our personal account, and what the people we trust say, there’s no absolutely true source of information we can fall back on in every situation, definitely not one that’s easy to access.

How We Resolve the Snafus: Vox Populi and Sockpuppets

There are two common practices we’ve come to rely on in activism in order to still report on identity-based opinions, or to share the voice of an entire group.

Both are things that I think are worth us understanding, if for no other reason than we can put a spotlight on them when we see them in action. But also because I think a lot of us end up doing these things ourselves, without knowing exactly what we’re doing, or the implications of these tactics.

To be absolutely clear: I don’t think either are these are “best” practices. They’re not tactics I’m advocating for, and I don’t think they’re moving us close to living social justice.

I’m guessing this next subheading will make that obvious.

The Death of the Vox Populi

That heading might be more aspirational than reflective of reality, because in a lot of ways I think we’re in the midst of a resurgence of the Vox Populi. I wish for the death of the Vox Populi.

If the term doesn’t ring a bell, Vox Populi simply means “voice of the people,” and is synonymous with the form of reporting where journalists hand the microphone to random humans and ask them questions. You’ve likely seen it as “So-and-So On the Street” lots of times.

The idea behind that format, and why it’s called that, is that randomly hearing from a bunch of people will give you a sense of what “people” think about a given issue. Despite all the flaws of that sampling technique, it’s not necessarily a terrible idea.

But in the age of the internet and individual people creating platforms, it’s probably now more synonymous with parody than actual reporting. And that’s not what I wish for the death of (Love you, Billy Eichner).

Honestly, the comedic parody of Vox Populi did a really good job of highlighting it’s deficiency: You can just keep asking people things until you hear what you want, and edit out all the rest. Or, at least, it should have.

Vox Populi has experienced a renaissance with social media, where instead of putting a microphone in front of random passers-by and asking what they think, outlets will quote people from Twitter or Facebook (often showing screenshots of the posts themselves).

This is great for any outlet publishing Vox-Populi-type stories for a bunch of reasons:

  1. The number of people “on the street” increased from “I’m not sure. It’s hot out today. People might not want to be outside, especially people who have complicated relationships with shorts.” to literally millions across social media, and they’re guaranteed to be on the street. They were already there before you had the idea for the story.
  2. The media outlets don’t need to go outside. Actually, they don’t even need to be in the same city as the people they’re talking to, or even country. So no camera crew, no van, just a [probably unpaid] intern searching Twitter.
  3. They can search for the keywords they want to report. Want to know what the Vox Populi think about this politician’s latest gaffe? Search the politician’s name and a keyword describing the gaffe and boom: So much vox, much populi.
  4. They can tell exactly the story they want to tell. With enough voices, and diversity of viewpoints, you can pretty much assume that every take has been shared about any issue. This is where things get dark, but not much more dark than before. They’ve always been able to edit out the people they didn’t want to hear from, but now they can include exactly the voice they want to hear from.
  5. You can tell a story that you want to tell (or your funders, sponsors, or “partners”), word for word, but tell it using other people’s voices. The voice of the people.

Every time you’re watching a news show or reading an article on a website and you see a screenshot of a tweet, know that you’re the #6 to those 1 - 5.

And if that unhappy list doesn’t get you calling for the death of the Vox Populi, don’t listen to me: Check out these 7 tweets you don’t want to miss that will make you say “Wut. OMG.” to the Vox Populi format!

Also I have more to say. Hear my Vox, Populi!

(I’m assuming that’s how the translation goes, but how fun would it be if the Latin for “Voice” was “Populi” and the “of the People” part was actually the “Vox.” I sure would love that way more than what I’m about to say.)

The Vox Populi is a uniquely pernicious idea for anything social justice. The first reason is obvious, and you won’t likely drop your jaw about. But the other reason is really uncomfortable.

Why is the Vox Populi format a red flag for social justice activism:

  1. People saying something doesn’t mean it’s true, useful, beneficial, healthy, or even something we want to associate ourselves with. Think back through the history of justice movements. At what point in time do you think “the voice of the people” would have said that all the progress we have now, and likely take for granted, was terrible? Right before that change happened in society, all the way back through forever.
  2. Even the people who we often think of as the direct targets of oppression don’t always (or often?) align with the social justice movement. There are lots of people who we might think of as hypothetical “beneficiaries” of social justice that, if given the platform, would use their voice to denounce social justice strategies, beliefs, and actions.

The first one, I don’t think needs any further explanation. But the second one is important for us to dig into. It’s part of where the Teaching Oppression idea comes from, and there’s so much more to it than that.

If we’re truly hearing the “voice of the people,” and in this case the people in question are the oppressed people any particular effort within social justice is hoping to liberate, what do we do when they disagree with something that’s become a norm, or truism, within our movement?

What happens when the Vox Populi, of the Populi we’re organizing to help, says what we’re doing isn’t helping?

This is where the three snafus above reenter the picture:

  1. First, we compare the marginalized Vox Populi against our own account, if we’re also marginalized in the germane way. Do we agree? Great. If not…
  2. Second, we compare the marginalized Vox Populi against any accounts we’ve heard from people in our lives. Does the Vox Populi take line up with what we’ve heard? Great. If not…
  3. Third, as a last ditch effort, we might try to double-check any Vox Populi takes against a data source. Unfortunately, there likely isn’t a solid data source, because Vox Populi are often more “bleeding edge,” zeitgeist type reportings. But if there is one, great! If not…
  4. Panic. Yell things you agree with, that you believe to be true. Maybe you are the voice of the people!

But hey – in case you forgot – those snafus from earlier, they’re still snafus. They are ways we determine the veracity of a claim about groups of people that leave big ol’ gaps and unanswered questions. Questions we still haven’t answered.

With that in mind, #4 above, the one you probably thought I was sprinkling in to keep myself entertained while writing this (having run out of data jokes), might be our best route – regardless of 1 - 3.

Let’s make this worse!

Enter Sockpuppets

If you know the word “sockpuppets” to mean putting your hand inside of a sock, then making it talk, you’re on the right track.

Sockpuppet is also a popular term on the internet as slang to mean:

“An online identity used for purposes of deception. The term, a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock, originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an Internet community who spoke to, or about, themselves while pretending to be another person.”

And there’s a third interpretation of “sockpuppet” that I want to add into the mix.

It’s actually the one that the internet slang was derived from, an Oxford English Dictionary definition from the 90s:

“A person whose actions are controlled by another; a minion.”

Now, what role do sockpuppets play in everything we’ve been talking about so far? Unfortunately, a big one.

When we combine those interpretations of sockpuppeting, and add one more dimension, identity, we have an invaluable tool for social justice people everywhere.

Adding everything together, here’s a description of the sockpuppet I’m talking about:

Speaking as though you’re representing the voice of a social identity, and that any disagreement to what you’re saying is disagreement with the identity of your sockpuppet.

In this case, imagine the sockpuppet, instead of being a particular person or character, is an entire identity group (e.g., it’s Muslim people, or trans people, or People of Color).

Both as a result of Vox Populi reporting, and as a replacement for it, these types of sockpuppets come in handy when we need an external voice to justify our argument, and it needs to come from a particular perspective.

If this all sounds ridiculously cavalier, it’s because it is.

While most people wouldn’t say what they’re doing is “sockpuppeting,” or that they’re trying to manipulatively represent someone else’s viewpoint, it happens quite a lot.

And I want to say this and be absolutely clear about it: it’s not done maliciously, or with the intention of “deceit” (at least not in the ways I’m talking about here, or think are worth focusing on).

It’s done because people aren’t sure how to handle the snafus from earlier, or because they have a partial picture and feel like they’re on the spot to paint the rest, or “for the greater good.”

Here’s what it looks like:

“Doing that makes People of Color feel unwelcome. Please stop.”

Innocent, right? But how is that a sockpuppet?

Well, first, let me preempt a potential assumption about the speaker: whether they’re a Person of Color or not, the “sockpuppet” phenomenon is still present here, because no one person can speak for all “their” people (and this is particularly true for broad coalitions like “People of Color”), so anyone who does is generally putting words in other people’s mouths: sockpupetting.

Now, following from the snafus above, here’s why this is likely a sockpuppet situation:

  1. If they’re speaking for themself, they’re connecting an “unwelcome” feeling they experience with their identity. That’s not necessarily a connection others are going to make.
  2. They’re speaking braodly, beyond the scope of one Person of Color, but for others as well.
  3. While they’re not citing any formal study, they’re presenting this as a group level fact.

Just adding the word “some” (i.e., “makes some People of Color feel..“) would clear up some of the nit-picky pushback to that statement, and also lead to it being more factually accurate, but it still wouldn’t absolve it of sockpuppeting.

The sockpuppeting here isn’t in the accuracy or inaccuracy, as much as it is in the performance.

To be crude, if I ask you what two plus two equals, and you put your hand in a sock and said, “Two plus two equals four,” that doesn’t make you wrong. It’s a weird way to reply, but it’s not wrong.

But if you put your hand in a sock and said, “My name is Balthazar and two plus two equals five.”

Then someone replied,“What you just said is wrong.”

And you responded,“No! What Balthazar said was wrong.”

You’re wrong twice. For one, two plus two equals four; but even if you got that right, you’d still be wrong, because your name is not Balthazar (and if it is, sincerely, please write to me, Balthazar. I want to hear your story).

The trouble with this analogy – beyond my sudden and intense need to know someone named Balthazar – is that we know the answer to two plus two. It’s easy to check. And if you ask a thousand people who know the rules of math you’ll get a thousand of the exact same answer. That’s not true for anything identity.

I wrote about this in my book Defining LGBTQ+ at length, but the short version is that with identity-related questions you’re never going to get 100% agreement. You’re unlikely to even get half of that.

So when someone says, “People of Color feel…” it doesn’t matter what the rest of that sentence is, or what their identity is, without the data to back up whatever they’re saying (which, understandably, they probably don’t have), they’re performing a sockpuppet.

And here’s where the Balthazar analogy becomes disconcertingly apt: if you disagree, you’re not disagreeing with them (the speaker, the person sharing the Voice of the People), you’re disagreeing with the group they are speaking on behalf of.

Vox Populi and/or Sockpuppets Resolve Any Snafu

The snafus above, which I’ll recap here, all feed into one other, and cascade from a series of questions without answers to a resolution.

Here are the snafus:

  1. How do we know something we’re experiencing is actually connected to our identities – and which specific aspect of our identities – such that we can speak about it from that viewpoint?
  2. When evaluating others claims about something being connected to identity (either theirs or someone else’s), how can we be sure they know that thing is connected to that aspect of their identity, and wasn’t a byproduct of something else?
  3. We don’t have good data on identity-based suffering, preferences, well-being, or really anything.

When we’re unsure of 1, we might retreat to 2. But 2’s foundation is ultimately the same thin ice as 1. And if we retreat from 2 to 3, we often don’t even have ice to stand on, just thin air.

This isn’t always the case, of course. There are times when we’re absolutely sure about #1 – we have no doubt that a thing is connected to our identity. And therefore there are times when #2 isn’t a problem, as long as we know the people we’re relying on are in that resolute feeling about #1. And while data are sparse, there are good data! They do exist (just not for everything, or everyone, or in as many ways as would be close to ideal).

But when it is the case, when the uncertainty cascades from 1 to 3, when we go from being unsure in our own experience to not finding good data to explain something related to identity-based oppression (or liberation) – and we’re put in a spot where we need to explain something – Vox Populi and Sockpuppets suddenly seem appealing, or even just the only way out.

And in SJD, we’re not allowed to not know. It’s not just that we’re not allowed to question the dogma, the dogma also tells us that there’s an unquestionable answer for everything.

So a lot of us ignore those snafus, and (in the least sinister, most benevolent case) go with a Vox Populi answer to a question about identity. We poll who we can, or search online for an answer that works.

And then we Sockpuppet the answer.

Never Wrong, Never Needing to Be Right

The potency of both the Vox Populi and the Sockpuppet is that with both – whoever you are (all I know is you’re not Balthazar, which, I think is a disappointment to both of us) – you aren’t wrong. You’re also not right. You’re not really the subject of criticism or debate or disagreement at all.

You’re a “neutral” third part, just presenting the facts. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.

And, again, this goes whether you’re a member of the marginalized group or not. As a poor person, I know that I can’t authentically speak for other poor people. But I also know that I could Vox Populi or Sockpuppet “poor identity” in a convincing and unchallengeable way.

I also know that I can easily do that on accident, or without any intent to mislead people, or manipulate people, just by sharing my earnest perspective and not thinking about how that does or doesn’t represent others’ perspectives.

Honestly, just that phrase I started with “as a poor person…” is enough to take us down this road. It’s hard to start any thought with “As a ______ person…” and not have it lead to Vox Populi or Sockpuppet outcomes.

Let me step back and do a quick “here’s what I’m not saying” aside: I’m not saying that you don’t know your experience, or that what you’re saying isn’t true for you, or that any time you share your experience with others you’re misleading them. I’m saying none of those things, and I’m not trying to say anything like this things.

I’m saying that social justice activism creates a lot of settings where we end up doing one of two things:

  • We Vox Populi marginalized voices, saying that the “majority” of ______ group believes ______, or will benefit from ______. And we do this because we’ve asked a few people, or only listened to a few people, who represent that voice.
  • We Sockpuppet marginalized voices for the sake of social justice, putting words in their mouth, or using their words with our mouth. Then, if there’s pushback, we distance ourselves, and say that the disagreement is with that identity we were speaking on behalf of.

Now here’s where things get prickly (if they weren’t already prickly).

I’ve said repeatedly that we aren’t necessarily doing this maliciously, or in ways where we’re intending to manipulate others.

That’s true, and the following is also true. Sometimes, in the name of social justice, people are also using Vox Populi and Sockpuppets manipulatively and maliciously.

Some people are using Vox Populi in the cherry-picking and edited way, combing through social media to find a “marginalized person’s” viewpoint that supports their argument, whatever it might be, and ignoring everything else, and then they share that as the “voice of the people,” even when they know it’s not.

And some people are using Sockpuppets to speak for identities in order to advance their own goals, despite knowing that everyone (or even most) of that identity agrees with the viewpoint their advancing. The most common way I see this happening is by choosing a token voice of that identity that agrees with you, and amplifying that, while ignoring any dissenting voices coming from that perspective.

And this plays out daily, in workshops, trainings, conversations, and on social media.

If Balthazar says, “Latinx people want you to stop X.”

Because of SJD, we don’t ask questions. We ignore the snafus above, because the implication is “If you continue doing X, you’re racist.” Or, better, but still tough, you recognize that if you want to continue doing X, you’re not disagreeing with Balthazar, you’re disagreeing with Latinx people.

And let’s say someone responds, “Actually, I know a Latina who things we need more of X. Also, I read people weren’t uncomfortable with ‘latinx’, and prefer ‘hispanic’ as a group label.”

In that case, the person updates their understanding of X and the usage of “latinx”, or they double-down on SJD and dismiss the pushback.

If the pushback is coming from a marginalized person, you can dismiss it with a combination of “internalized oppression” and “that person is siding with oppression” (e.g., that person has internalized White supremacy, or they’re trying to appeal to White people and not cause a fuss).

And in general, people often just say the Populi of their Vox is wider or more representative, or they Sockpuppet a representative of the identity that has more clout.

I don’t know.

Going way back to the beginning of all this, when we’re being asked by a reporter to share our perpective as representatives of our identity, how should we respond?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

What I do know is that regardless of what we say, or how carefully we word things, the caveats we issue, and the amount of “I” language we use, the result will likely reported as: “______ people believe ______.”

And even if that’s not the headline, it’s the way it’ll get shared, retold, and used. Either through the practice of Vox Populi, or a simple Sockpuppet, it will go from “one person who is this identity said this,” to “people who identify this way feel this way.”

For me, unrepresentative voices of the people aren’t the goal, nor something I want to share. And impersonating the voices of identities isn’t something that excites me. Maybe you feel the same.

The beauty is that there is always an out: when you don’t know, say “I don’t know.”

“Is this thing caused by ______-ism?” “Does being this identity make you more likely to do that?” “Are people who were born in this way more likely to feel this way about that?”

It’s amazing how far an “I don’t know” can take you. We are often afraid to admit when we don’t know, because we think that will reflect that we don’t care, or that the question doesn’t matter, or it will be received as neutrality in the face of oppression.

But when it’s honest, it’s not just the honest response, it’s a path to finding the correct answer.

Feeling the need to know is a byproduct of hearts and minds activism as much as SJD, among other things.

Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know, is placing an inviting chute on our path to figuring out the path forward.

When you don’t know, and you admit that, you begin a conversation where all the involved members have equal footing. Where people are able to share their insights, their perspectives, what’s true for them.

And who knows, maybe you’ll figure out the answer together.

I don’t know, but I have a hunch.

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What do you think? 🤔

I opened up replies on this post because I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm @Killermann on Twitter if you'd rather talk there.