The limits of signal privilege

by Collin Lysford

Sarge, my leg hurts something fierce!” The solider is in the hospital bed, and can’t see his leg as it’s obscured by a sheet. Sarge can, and knows something the solider doesn’t: his leg is blown clean off. There’s nothing there. When the solider says my leg hurts”, is he wrong?

Well, what does it mean to have leg pain? Is it the discomfort? The solider can’t really be wrong about having discomfort. If people perform worse at some cognitive task when they’re in pain, the solider will perform worse at that task. To the extent pain is an experience, the soldier is really having that experience. But leg pain” is also an attempt to explain that experience, and as an explanation, it’s clearly false. Leg pain” is a representation of a signal that implies certain ways that signal will interact with other processes in the world. Icing your leg will make it feel better, walking on the leg will aggravate it, something that blocks the nerves in your leg could clear it up completely. But your leg” is an empty set for the solider, and none of those processes can possibly happen.

Hazard came up with the excellent frame of signal privilege vs. representational privilege, and we can use it here. The solider has signal privilege - he knows what he’s feeling, and Sarge doesn’t. For questions like is the solider feeling discomfort?”, the soldier can answer instantly and accurately, while Sarge has to rely on second-hand observations like how is he doing at this cognitive task?” Sarge has representational privilege - he knows how the solider ought to represent certain signals, even though he can’t directly observe those signals himself. The leg that is not there cannot be iced, so even if Sarge doesn’t know when the signal is present, he has knowledge about what kind of signal it can and cannot be, and how certain interactions will interface with the signal.

As far as representational issues go, this is an unusually definite one. Sarge and the soldier don’t disagree on how to verify whether someone has a leg or not. It’s just that Sarge has done that verification, and the soldier hasn’t yet. Once the solider has, no matter how much he still feels his phantom limb pain, he will agree that the pain does not make the leg and that the object he’s attributing this feelings to actually doesn’t exist.

It’s rare that internal representations can be verified by outside observers in such a concrete way. The solider has privileged access to all kinds of other internal signals whose explanations aren’t so straightforward. He feels nauseous - is that entirely a factor of the pain, or is disgust of what he’s seen playing a psychosomatic factor? He’s angry and wants revenge - or so he thinks. But he’s never been in this situation before, while Sarge has ministered to more war causalities than he cares to remember. This upset feeling the soldier wants to attribute to his stomach, this angry feeling the soldier wants to imagine would be diminished by a future violent act - while the soldier has signal privilege knowing that they’re there at all, there’s no guarantee they point to the world in real ways. It may be that the feeling the soldier is representing as wanting revenge” is pointing to an object as empty as my leg”.

This is something most people end up noticing or later. Your voice teacher telling you that you’re thinking too low”, grief counselors decoding your emotions in the wake of a tragedy, Don’t worry, newbie, everyone feels that on the first day”; people are broadly willing to accept that someone else may have representational privilege over them in certain contexts. But I haven’t seen discussion of it as a specific phenomena. It’s usually lumped into nebulous catch-alls like wisdom” or experience”. I think that lack of specificity is a major hurdle in communication.

Consider a teenager complaining to her mom: You don’t understand how I feel!” If she’s operating from a signal privilege lens, this is a trivially obvious statement that only the most bone-headed parent would deny. Her mom replies Honey, I understand better than you do” - asserting her representational privilege of knowing how many teenagers have felt about teenage problems. How could you know?” the teenager replies, offended by the dehumanization of (she thinks) her signals being blatantly ignored. And if mom says something like experience”, she’s stuck, because experience is a bad explanation for the more nuanced concept of representational privilege. Sure, most versions of representational privilege require at least some experience, in the same way all trees of a certain height are at least a certain age. But there are plenty of techniques that can let you update your representations quickly and efficiently, and there are plenty of people who’ve had a lot of experiences they never really learned from and remain representational novices. Thinking of those people, teenager knows there’s no way that experience” is a sufficient reason to override her signal privilege, and slams the door in mom’s face.

By carefully carving out this specific concept, we can talk more precisely about when someone has representational privilege. If the teenagers problems are ones relating to social dynamics and personal changes in her body that are similar to what her mom grew up with, then her mom has a wealth of context the teenager doesn’t. She knows how many different people in the same boat described their feelings. She knows how people describing feelings a certain way ended up acting, and how they ended up feeling later. She knows of other, stronger feelings she’s had that cast formerly important-seeming signals in a new and lesser light. And this is what she’s trying to communicate to her child - that even if she doesn’t know the exact signal her child is feeling, she has a better sense of what to do about the signal.

Crucially, though, she doesn’t have a universally better sense of what to do. The benefit the mother has is context, so of course the applicability of that benefit is contextual! Maybe her child is trans and she isn’t, and so some of the signal is something she genuinely has no model for. This is the nuance that gets lost when we don’t talk about representational privilege specifically, often dependent on experience but certainly not the same as experience. It’s very important for people who want to allege representational privilege over someone else to be able to explain why they think their context has more explanatory power. Conversely, having this language should hopefully help those with only signal privilege understand how it’s possible someone else might be able to explain that signal better, and that this isn’t a refutation of their lived experience but a clarification of it into a form that will better slot in to the rest of their life in the world.