Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Can We Speak to Each Other? Who Can, Should, Is ... Able to Speak on Public Issues

The recent controversy over BLM-TO and Pride raised an issue about the character and scope of political action and who can, and should, speak to certain issues, particularly as they take racialized or gendered or class, etc., forms. There is one school of thought which suggests that only those who come from that background -- be it its racialized markers, gender, orientation, etc., -- can speak to those issue. Class tends to get a bit lost in this discussion for reasons that are, to me, both deeply telling and intensely problematic, but that might be a subject for another day.

The first thing we should note is that this issue -- who can speak? -- is, in fact, not new. I don't know when it first surfaced but I've been listening to it, engaging it, disagreeing with it, supporting it, since I was an undergraduate. So, we are talking about at least the late 1980s as a starting point. What is interesting to me is that in that time -- a span of a generation -- we have not really advanced in our discussion. There are people who still say "person X cannot speak to issue X" and people who quickly, then, accuse the first person of censorship or bigotry or something like that. This is, in other words, not an issue that becomes politicized but an issue that is always already political because it deals with questions of power, marginalization, identity, respect, equality, and the like. The fact that we have been discussing this issue without resolution for such a length of time suggests that it is either (a) an intractable problem (which I don't think) or (b) that we have not made the level of social progress we might like in addressing issues of marginalization and inequality in society (which is what I think).

This leads to the first thing that we should learn about this discussion: there is a need to listen as well as speak. Some people -- say, BLM-TO -- are saying things. They are saying that they face inequality, marginalization, disrespect, and institutionalized and personalized violence. For those of us who do not fall into the identity/subject position that they represent, one thing we might do, rather than ask if we, too, can now speak ... is to listen. After all, if Canada with its systemic inequalities and power relations has failed to resolve this issue up to now ... maybe some new voices can indeed offer some hope for the future.

The second thing is that after listening, those of us who are not part of the group speaking (be it LGBTQ, gendered, racialized, etc.), should look to find way of supporting movements for equality if we truly support equality. I find it rather odd that there are those who claim to support equality but who quickly say "I can't support X or Y because I believe in equality for everyone." This is a bit of a linguistic trick that really has nothing to do with equality. It is, in fact, a way of avoiding supporting a movement for equality. It is a way of saying that Black or gay activists or women are not actually interested in equality, or linguistically marginalizing them and treating them a group that has some sort of nefarious agenda. If one were interested in inequality and addressing it, one would support  those movements that address that problem. If you're not interested ... you won't. Is it is as simple as that ... maybe not ...  but it is also not a lot more complicated.

Support, in the case of these groups, takes a variety of forms. Many groups are looking for people to be allies as opposed to leaders. They generate their own leaders, their own ideology, their own politics and don't need advise or direction from those outside the group. One need not even go to the protests and as long as one does not oppose the movement, one avoids becoming part of the problem. There may, too, be things that people can do in their own lives, whether it is making space in class (say, using my job as an example) to discuss issues or raising uncomfortable questions at work.

I make these points because I think people are often too quick to demand that their voice needs to be heard as part of a movement that does not really involve them. They complain that Black activists are silencing *them* or that feminists aren't listening to *them.* I am arguing that they can speak to these issues (and others) but that they should do so with caution and only after they have tried other things, like listening or not contributing to the problems that these groups mean to address.  Said differently, a desire to join in the discussion and start telling activists what they should be doing or how they should modify their demands or politics is a premature step. Other steps should be taken first.

With this in mind ... can someone speak to issues or politics or problems that stand outside their identity group? The short answer is yes. Why? There are, as far as I can tell, a three reasons.

First, because communication is a powerful tool to share ideas, feelings, politics, activism, etc. Said differently, I -- Andrew Nurse -- as a white middle-aged middle class straight man simply do not share the experiences of others as part of my identity. This should be acknowledged. But, we can talk about issues with those people who do have those experiences, read their words, listen to what they have to say. We do not have to share experiences as the only way of knowing about an issue.  If we pause and think about it, we can see that this is true. Communication allows us to know about more than our own experiences. We often relate stories that happened to other people about which we find out by talking to them. We can convey their emotional state (how they felt), the facts of the matter (what happened to them). We convey information to others that we learnt from reading (say, about the past) or from social or other media. Said differently, we communicate every day and in the process of communication we learn from the experiences of others.

Most political movements, in fact, count on this communicative active as a means to meet their goals, whether they articulate this perspective or not. Again, pause. If I -- as Andrew Nurse -- could never understand what it meant to suffer discrimination or violence as a gay or Black Canadian ... then, why would I ever sign on to support their agenda? If I knew only my own experiences, then there would be no reason for protests, for social media, for signs, for books or songs, etc. If political movements are interested in change, they are interested in communicating to people outside their own movement and group. Thus, far from doing something unusual, speaking to an issue with which one might have limited or no direct experience is, in fact, something that we do all the time. There can be problems; there can be confusions, but it is not an odd or unusual thing.

Second, while we need to recognize that some people may indeed have problems speaking to an issue -- that they might need to look things up or listen -- we also want to be careful about limiting who can speak to an issue because it sets a precedent that people might not want to set. What if, people could only speak to issues with which they had direct personal experience? That might work if we think on a broad level. I, Andrew Nurse, could speak to middle-class, white, straight, anglophone, able bodied, etc., issues but not others. But ... could I really speak to those issues that seem to be consistent with my identity? I am, for instance, a Christian. Can I speak to an issue of a middle-class, white, straight, anglophone, able bodied atheist? Some of my friends who are atheists don't think so. Can I speak to issues of people who are white, straight but in different social classes? Or people who have different family structures?

And, can other people speak to my issues? For instance, can someone who is Black or gay or a woman speak about issues in my life? Said differently, identities are fundamental, important, and political but they are complicated and overlapping. We have some identities at some points in time but not at others. Sometimes, for instance, I am a father; at others, a son. The assumption that person X cannot speak to issue Y assumes (a) that they cannot transcend their lack of experience through communication and (b) that their identity as X stable and encompassing. If, however, we take (b) to its extreme, what we discover is that people can, in fact, speak only about themselves because there is no one else who fully shares your personal and individual identity. I might be white but I don't live in Ontario, have a gay uncle, been unemployed recently, or any myriad of a number of different factors that can and do affect my identity.

(As a digression: this is particularly true and important for historical study. No one, to the best of my knowledge, makes this argument any more, but back in the day there were those who argued that, say, white scholars could not speak to the historical experience of Blacks of Original Peoples or men write about women, etc. You can, I am sure, see the immediate flaw in this argument. It is twofold: (a) one could write history only about one's own group and thus the elite white men who wrote only about elite white men were, in fact, doing nothing wrong by ignoring the rest of humanity since they could not speak about them in the first place and (b) it assumed that experiences -- as the basis of knowledge -- are consistent over time. Thus, a person living in the eighteenth century had a great deal in common -- so this argument necessarily assumed -- with someone of, say, the same colour living in the twentieth or twenty-first century. This is a problematic assumption. People might be marginalized or suffer violence [and my point is not to minimize the violence and repression of the past or the present] but no one living today experienced the Irish potato famine at first hand or the highland clearances, to be just a couple of examples. Thus, if no one has these experiences ... no one can speak to them. This, then, became the irony. An argument -- only X can speak to Y -- when transposed onto the past because an argument that, in effect, said "no one can speak to this history." It became an argument for historical silence and that is clearly not what was wanted.)

Finally, I might not -- do not -- share the experiences of Black Canadians but I might  be able to contribute to resolving the problems that affect Black Canadians and do we want to stop that possible contribution. To be sure, I don't solve the problems in the manner of the movie where the white male protagonist solves the problems for Natives for Blacks or women becoming  a supposed "hero" in the process. But, if we can create multi-vocal dialogues about the problems that affect our society ... then, my view is, we have a better chance of building that multi-vocal society that seems to be the goal of much current protest. Said differently, there is, in my view, a benefit in people talking to each other.

To conclude: I am not arguing that any time an activist raises concerns about voice that they are doing something wrong. I think they are not. I think that those people who are quick to call activists bigots because of their concerns about voice should pause and think about their own perspectives. Have they stopped and listened to what activists or marginalized groups have said? Do they have anything to contribute to equality by speaking or would a different role be better and more useful? Do they simply assume that they have a right to speak to any and all issues and ... when did they start believing that? And, are they speaking honestly and in good faith? Do they really want to contribute to addressing the problem or do they, say, just like being a leader or a speaker?

Marginalized groups have had their voices quieted for too long. It would be a shame if, upon reclaiming them, their speech was challenged by those who would deny their concerns.
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