“Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.”
– Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag
We can unanimously agree that the hierarchies in our society exist because certain groups identified themselves in a spectrum, followed which a social order that continues to prevail even today. Identities matter, for it justifies the social, economic and political power of an individual in his social setting. Identities define our place in the society and which provides us with our individual set of experiences and power. More than that, identities give us sense of belongingness in a community – it makes us a part of one. These communities, like identities, could be defined by age, sex, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class status, religious beliefs, political beliefs and whatnot. When such factors intersect, they conclude to the type of opportunities and equities we receive. Such intersections reflect negatives as much as they reflect the positives or neutrals. They reflect the alleged “superiority” of one community or a group within the community over others.
People belonging to such privileged groups are taught not to recognize their privilege. Peggy McIntosh notes in her paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, that men might admit that women are at disadvantage but they have an “unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged”. Denying their privileged position helps them protect the privilege from being lessened or ended. Similarly, with other social groups, the obliviousness is so deep rooted that it becomes hard to point what is an outcome of one particular state of privilege. Say, the ability to buy a house in a good neighbourhood is an outcome of your economic power but it is also an outcome of other parts of your identity, for your definition of a “good neighbourhood” will depend on how they perceive those parts of your identity.
People who hold such privilege get the permission to escape merely because they were born in that group. Many whites think racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of colour. This gives them an unearned advantage over others which is, in its truest form, dominance. This distorts the humanity of both the holder and the oppressed groups.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.” – White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh
The corollary aspect of such dominance is the obviously suppressed communities or groups within communities. There should be awareness about the oppression and everything that comes with it in both the community and beyond it. But how we speak for others and about others is already a contentious subject for a couple of reasons. The problem of speaking for others lies in the speaker’s location (read, social position/identity). From where the person speaks for others can be used for both authorisation and deauthorisation of one’s speech. It should be noted that there shall be an inability to transcend one’s location, for it affects the meaning and truth of the idea being talked about. The advocacy for oppressed must be fundamentally done by the oppressed themselves. It provides them with the power to convey their message and the content of this message holds more credibility and becomes more significant. This is why when men speak about abortion laws, it is heavily criticised – they are not women, they don’t know what it’s like to be a woman – and of course, it takes away the authority of a woman on her own body.
Another problem that becomes consequential is the problem of how discursively dangerous certain privileged locations are. In many cases, when people from privileged positions, it has negatively impacted the “others” spoken for with more or reinforcement of oppression on them. Proving to be counterproductive for these groups or communities, in certain cases.
When we speak for others, we narrate their situation or describe certain of their characteristics and in both the cases, we are also talking about them. It will be practically impossible to communicate their particulars and story without talking “about” them. The act of speaking for others is of representing their needs, goals, situation. On a similar note, speaking about others is likely to happen with the perquisite of advocation of their message to others. Thus, speaking for them. Speaking about and speaking for, although appear different, work together in practicality.
Speaking for or about others from a privileged position, while it also lacks epistemically significance, the expectations to speak for others from a less privileged group (which is still more privileged than the oppressed one) ignores the prerogative aspect of it. Speaking for others, although is necessary, has repercussions to face. The risk of such comes at a greater price for the less privileged. At the same time, it can’t be used as an escape to ignore one’s responsibilities for society.
When feminist engaged in “retreat” theory, the idea was to retreat from speaking for others, because one can only know so much one can learn from their narrow individual experience. When we speak for others in the mentioned context, we seek awareness and maybe even an aid of sorts but its political effectivity can get easily undermined. Having said that, one can’t simply retreat.
Retreat allows one the immunity to criticism. When one sticks to their own individual realm, they give themselves an illusion of an unrealistic autonomy – that of a person so separate from its group that one’s speech will just not affect them. Criticism is important for political discourses. In fact, it’ll be impossible in a political ethos to avoid criticism. So, when speaking for others the dangers, however, can be reduced. With analysis, interrogation, introspection.