Friday, June 23, 2017

Voices and the Voiceless: It's Complicated

In all the hoopla and hubbub that has resulted from the Downtown v. Cawley debate across the city lately -- in social media, in the Council chambers, and in those wonderful but ephemeral real conversations that still do sometimes take place -- I've noticed an interesting dynamic enter into the discussion more than once:

Someone claims to speak for the voiceless.  

Someone else, who belongs to one of the presumably "voiceless" groups mentioned by the first person, challenges the right (or, at least the appropriateness) of that first person to speak on his/her behalf.  

Interesting, eh?  

I would certainly say so.  And I would certainly also say that the whole issue is fraught with complication.  

First, I'll acknowledge that there really ARE people who can't speak up for themselves, in all kinds of circumstances and for all kinds of reasons.  So, someone who reflexively says that people "just shouldn't do that" is on one end of an extreme, and just as thoughtless as some self-appointed Savior of Others who never stops to question his/her own purpose.  

Perhaps most obvious, there are people with legitimate communication barriers.  They might be physically incapable of speaking up, or of speaking at all, so they actually depend upon others to help them in certain circumstances. 

Then there could be people who can speak, but don't feel comfortable doing so, for any of a myriad of reasons -- language difficulties, shyness, and fear of reprisal are all likely factors here.   

If we're talking about speaking in a particular setting, there are others still who won't be able to do so because of other, more pressing duties.  The parents of young children, or those who work second or third shifts, might have a hard time getting downtown on a Tuesday night to speak at a Council meeting, for instance.  I've had more than my share of downtime in the last month or so, but at nearly any other point in the year, I would certainly fall into that group.  

So I get it.  Voicelessness really *is* a thing, and there is nuance here.  

With that on the table, though, I think it's imperative that any person who claims to speak for others at least be self-aware enough to see why that could be problematic.  

In the last month or so, I have heard things from well-intentioned, liberal white people such as:
  • "If the high school is at [site], I just worry that poor students of color might sleep in through their alarms and then just not go to school at all that day."  
  • Poor people in this city will have to choose between groceries and the higher taxes that would come from the additional costs of [insert name of option]
  • If the school is [insert option], then there will not be equal access for [insert group]. 
I also heard quite a few bold pronouncements about how LPS students do -- and don't -- get to school, which more than a few times ran counter to statements on said subject from people much closer to the issue (e.g. actual students, staff, parents, and alums).  

In some cases, the people speaking about the impact of one site or another on some particular group were members of that group, or were close enough to the issue to deeply understand it (such as the parent of a special needs child, or someone who spoke about her own experience as a K-12 student in LPS and as the child of refugees).  

In other cases, though, I felt like I was hearing people cross the line from honest empathy and concern for others to a position in which they were some sort of self-appointed savior for people who didn't ask for saving.  

I'm not saying I know where that line falls, exactly, and I'm not sure that anyone does -- of course, it's a subjective thing.  But I just think that a bit of honest-to-goodness self-consciousness is required on the part of whoever decides that they need to be the voice for someone else.  

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