This week, I had the opportunity to reread Linda Martín Alcoff’s famous essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” The essay, published in 1991 at the height of Identity Politics, is one of the most insightful interventions into the politics of who can speak for whom that I have ever encountered.
The question of who can, and who should, speak for whom is an enduring one within feminist thought. It comes up in research, teaching, and activist contexts. One of the main things that I take from Alcoff’s work is an attentiveness to a politics of responsibility and accountability. How does one fairly represent a community about which one is writing about, teaching about or with whom you’re doing activist work? This question is important, regardless of whether you claim membership in that community or not, but is particularly salient for identity groups that have seen their histories erased, distorted, or only partially represented within dominant culture.
This question has come up for me repeatedly in my own research on feminist magazines like BUST and Bitch. These are feminist texts, and yet I write in ways that are frequently critical of them. Sometimes, I worry sometimes that my criticism overrides what I see as the value of these texts. One of the challenges of academic work is how to do justice to work that one may be critical of in a way that isn’t dismissive.
Alcoff’s thinking on the topic of speaking of others emphasizes the importance of context. She demonstrates the ways in which a universalized position, such as “it is always a problem to speak for others” or “it is never a problem to speak for others,” is untenable within a framework of feminist ethics.
One of the ways in which Alcoff makes this point is through Foucault’s concept of the “rituals of speaking,” which emphasizes the ways in which speaking and writing always occur within social spaces. Speaking is not simply a matter of autonomous individual choice (this is why people who say, “just speak up if you have something to say!” really irritate me). Rather, the rituals of speaking call our attention to the contexts in which speaking and being heard are made possible.
Alcoff criticizes those who argue that speaking for others is always problematic, suggesting that this “retreat response” abdicates one’s responsibility to addressing injustice. But it is also worth noting that there are contexts in which stepping aside might be appropriate. I think of a panel discussion I attended last year on the Occupy movement, held in a large lecture hall. There were two microphones set up in the aisles for audience members to line up behind to ask questions. Each line had 6-8 people in it. There was one woman in line. When she got to the microphone, she stated that she had observed the gender disparity in who was lining up to speak, and encouraged other women to ask questions. Then, someone yelled from the audience, “and maybe some of the men could step back!” I found this intervention really fascinating, because it makes visible the ways in which these social spaces are shared spaces to which everyone is responsible. It’s not just about telling folks who are silent or quiet to “speak up.” Equally, or perhaps more importantly, social justice work is about creating the conditions that help make listening possible.
3 thoughts on “On the Problem of Speaking for Others”
This issue of who gets to speak for whom comes up a lot in my research. I do a lot of work on disability studies and MUVEs, using interviews and focus groups as source material. We have to be careful to do justice to the people who are entrusting us with their experiences. And we have to be careful about the language used and how these experiences are being characterized; however, the chief investigator and myself have close relatives impacted by the illness experienced by the people in the study. In my own research in life writing, the subjects have passed on but that does not release me from an ethical responsibility in my handling of their experiences. It also comes up a lot in classroom contexts.
I do wonder who gets to speak and of what–what stories and personal experiences are told (particularly as studied and discussed in academic environments) and which are relegated to the dark recesses of oblivion (or pop-culture). However, being too bogged down by who gets to speak on another's behalf also introduces the problem wherein important issues and experiences are not discussed because no one feels that they have a right to speak on those issues.
The issue of stepping back is a really important one too–when others monopolize the floor time devoted to particular issues it becomes more difficult for others to step forward. That reminds me of a personal experience I had once in a group of people. One person (a straight woman) was regaling us with tales about how difficult it was to come out as a queer person–as told to her by her gay male friends–meanwhile queer people (like myself) were being shut out of the discussion or talked over so our voices could not be heard. We end up being retold as “other” as something else to be appropriated and examined.
Where do we find that balance between ethical representation and non-representation, though?
As a side note, I am somewhat concerned with the tendency in some academic circles to demand self-identification as a way of justifying your right to speak on a particular issue. First of all, it can be limiting to make it necessary for people to belong to certain groups in order to permit them to speak; secondly, I think it is dangerous to demand a coherence between academic and personal life; third, self-identification can be dangerous for some people so 'outing' others or ourselves can have serious consequences. This last bit is inspired by some people I know who are in the fields of social work and psychology who do research on sex workers and the sex trade industry. Some have come forward as former workers, but I wonder what impact that has on their careers and on their conceptualizations of their spaces as safe.
Not sure if I'm contributing, but I think you bring up some really important points in you review, Liz. Thanks!
Jessica: Thanks so much for this amazing reflection! I don't have answers to any of the questions that you've raised, but I really love these spaces for dwelling with the complexities of the ethics of (self-)representation.
One of the things your post reminds me of is that the ethics of (self-)representation are always context-specific and shift around constantly. There's no “one size fits all” answer, which is part of what makes this issue an enduring one for people engaging in feminist work.
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