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.