A Voice for the Voiceless?

Raise your voice
I'm a grumpy person who always needs to find something to complain about. This time, it's more of me being a dick, of course, and complaining about being a voice for the voiceless!

You see, the term disquiets me. And you see, the term doesn't disquiet me because I think it's absolutely shameful that privileged people should do something to help oppressed people - I'm not that evil, you know. It disquiets me because...well...I don't really know how to explain it in a couple of succinct sentences, so let me explain it by digging out my old copy of To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you ever had to study this book, "those poor Mrunas" probably stuck in your head a bit. At least, they did in mine. According to Mrs Merriweather, "the most devout woman in Maycomb" (for which read: pious but wholly disagreeable), the Mrunas live in "sin and squalor" and need to be saved by the "saintly" J. Grimes Everett.

You know, because the Mrunas are obviously incapable of doing anything for themselves without the help of a white American missionary to "save" them by enforcing white Christian American values upon them.

It's this idea that I find really problematic about being a voice for the voiceless - well, it's actually an idea made up of a couple of basic assumptions, which I will elaborate on now:

Drawing of a white man gagged with a cloth
1. Oppressed people are all one monolithic block. I don't know how to say nicely that this is demonstrably untrue - but it is. Communities tend not to be monolithic by virtue of being made up of many people with different tastes and quirks, and while it may be easier for a human mind to lump people together into monolithic blocks for narrative purposes (the good guys, the bad guys, the weak guys, and so on and so forth) to make understanding the world a little less difficult, it's also counterproductive; it encourages people to think of different cultures and communities as all being homogeneous when they are not. To stop pussyfooting around and actually give a vaguely concrete example, think of the way that <insert demonised group> are all portrayed, like how immigrants are all lazy benefit scroungers trying to destroy British culture when they can't even speak English properly. Aside from it being a complete lie, it also lumps "immigrants" into one block rather than recognising that immigrants vary wildly and do not fit the monolithic stereotype. (There are other examples I could have picked, but I feel more comfortable speaking about attitudes to immigrants as I've got lived experience with that, and it's one that probably won't get me denounced as evil by virtue of being born in a certain part of the world.)

2. Oppressed people cannot save themselves and therefore need privileged people to do the saving for them. If you haven't heard of this before, google "white saviour" (see also "mighty whitey") or "white saviourism". Those links do a better job of explaining than I do. Actually, a quick Google search for those terms is probably better than asking me or having me try and fail at doing some edumacating (I'm privileged so not only would I be fucking up at explaining, I'd also be encouraging people to ignore people who are far smarter than me and actually know what they're talking about thanks to lived experience by saying the same things as them except from a privileged position...If I've fucked any of this up, which I probably have, feel free to call me out with as much vitriol as you please).

This latter assumption is incredibly problematic, as it assumes that the same groups of people whose ancestors oppressed others and who have institutionalised privilege over them automatically have the necessary skills and knowledge to go over to some Third World country without knowing anything about its struggles and conflicts and fix everything for the people they institutionally oppress, because oppression apparently means needing a privileged person to fly in from halfway across the world and save you.

Fundamentally, that's my problem with being a voice for the voiceless: it carries connotations of speaking for others. This is something I have a massive problem with, because...well...I'll try and explain, although this will require more convoluted examples.

Let's say I have lived experience with X, and let's also pretend that I'm oppressed and so people listen to me less than they would do to someone privileged. Now let's say some well-meaning privileged person with no experience of X comes along, claims to be a voice for the voiceless, and speaks about X.

Frankly, I would prefer it if I, the oppressed person, had spoken freely about my experiences with X - preferably without help from someone with institutional privilege over me. Firstly, since that privileged person does not have any experience of X, they don't know what they're talking about and will probably get things wrong - but that's not even the most important point. Although that privileged person meant well by speaking for me, the oppressed person, by not shutting up and getting me to take the platform instead they reinforced their privileged position over me. This is what speaking for others does, and this is why I'm uncomfortable with it. As someone who for whatever reason wants suffering and oppression in the world to end (some people will say it's out of the goodness of my own heart, others think it's to assuage my guilt over being privileged, I say that intention is of little importance when the consequences are a better world), I don't think that drowning out the oppressed with privileged voices is much of a way to help; instead, as a privileged person it would be better if I shut up to let other, wiser, more qualified people speak and concentrated on ways to support them if my help were asked for, rather than barged into the proverbial spotlight and started throwing my nonsense around.

I recognise that my shutting up, my being able to withdraw, is itself a sign of privilege - but I think it's better if I remain silent and fade into the background while more experienced voices speak, rather than if I arrogantly claim to speak for them. I also recognise that self-advocacy is sometimes not possible, because (for example) the people in question cannot communicate in any way, or if you're advocating for animals, and I know that it's not my place as a privileged person to say anything more, but...If people wish to advocate for themselves, I would rather not drown them out with my privileged voice and my privileged blinders.

I recognise that by waffling on for so long I'm a complete hypocrite, so I will just leave you with other people's thoughts:

The Problem of Speaking for Others - An important essay by the feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff. If you get the time, the rest of her site is brilliant too.

The Best Advocacy is Self-Advocacy: The Dangers of Speaking for Others - from This Ain't Livin'.

Decolonizing Solidarity - Common sense, awesomeness, and plenty of it.