Adding Nuance to Social Justice: The Difference Between Speaking “With” and “For”

By Gillian Ariela Tisdale (Smith College)

Abstract | Allyship means working towards the equity of a subject demographic other than your own. A common issue and topic in social justice is the question of how and when allies should speak. Writers such as Alcoff have argued that allies have a political responsibility to speak, but that those words are rendered less relevant by one’s lack of lived experience. I hold Alcoff to be implicitly arguing on the basis of prior knowledge that the best outcome is an egalitarian one; while I too hold that conclusion, I shall argue in favor of a system that does not assume any particular outcome or truth, whether that be universal or contextdependent. Such a system would allow for error on the part of the philosopher’s political alignment.  In this essay, I shall argue that no one, even members of a group targeted by oppression, should speak with any full authority over all components of this oppression, but everyone, allies and opponents alike, should instead express their opinions by speaking “with” one another.

i.    Introduction

Within the scope of identity politics, social justice groups may exclude the voices of allies who do not directly belong to the subject demographic as holding irrelevant perspectives that should be discouraged from speaking when they do not directly correspond to the identity politic’s dominant narrative. As a result, those allies often no longer attempt to speak in such setting. While an understandable defense, this can result in minimizing voices with great potential value. The perspectives of those who do not belong to the subject group can provide vital insight, thereby contributing to the greater dialogue wherein those from varying backgrounds express their takes on a matter, adding, combining, and refuting each other to form the best possible result and truth value(s).

While different aspects of a voice’s background can give it more or less prominence on a subsection of the matter, authority over an entire subject cannot be presumed. Additionally, even opinions that are perhaps directly against the common good have value, even if only to spark and expand conversation (Mill 16). In fact, whether truth is absolute or relative, the expression of all opinions brings value. While we must recognize demonstrated authority, as when an individual can speak to their direct experience as a group member more than another, neither this potential nor realization should prevent us from speaking with others (Alcoff 15). Additionally, the ally, while not having that direct experience, should have more authority on their experience as an ally than would a member of the demographic.

Yet, even in those circumstances where one gains an aspect of authority, speaking for must be done with care as a small subsection of the greater dialogue, whether historically or literally, of speaking with.

Linda Alcoff reaches a similar conclusion of speaking with (although she does not explicitly express it at such), but her ‘with’ differs in intentionality, and her argument is based on an absolutist truth system that mine is not. While Alcoff appears to be in favor of traditional identity politics with the addition of increased support from privileged allies, my distinction between speaking for and with, accompanied by the underlying principle that we should all speak, offers more nuance to identity politics. Organizing around an identity should be inclusive such that no point of view is preferenced over another in the overall discussion (a voice can have more authority on a particular subset of experiences, however) more so than to counterbalance normative inequality regarding presumed right to speak. In order to be effective in reaching truth, as well as in blurring disjunctions regarding the formation of identity and issues of intersectionality, the politics of social justice should not be dominated by any participating group.

In this essay, I use speaking “for” to communicate that one presumes to be speaking on behalf or in the best interests of the subject, to achieve which one speaks authoritatively and perhaps paternalistically (Emanuel and Emanuel 2221). I use speaking “with”, on the other hand, to represent a dialogue wherein all voices are treated with equal value, even if they are not in agreement; the speaker speaks “with” this dialogue by recognizing the worth of all opinions. One aspect of this must necessarily include listening, even if that listening comes to no productive result, as otherwise it would not be true dialogue and input would be pointless in context. I will argue in favor of speaking with, elucidating how it necessarily leads to the best and most truthful conclusions for everyone involved. Lastly, I would like to clarify that by discussion, I am referring to public discourse, and not eliminating the use of safe spaces wherein these principles may not apply; my argument is intended to address finding greatest truth utility, and, while safe spaces do not do this, that in no way obliterates their usefulness to those undergoing discrimination or other hardships.

Exclusivist identity politics have overall proved problematic throughout varying social justice movements, as the distinctions which comprise individual identity are loosely defined and there is significant variation within universally recognized and self-identified demographics. Wealthy women of colour, for example, are faced with dramatically different circumstances than are white women on welfare. Additionally, it is difficult to discern where to parse the aspects which comprise individual identity, whether self- or externally-assigned; for example, at what point do “white” and “of colour” become distinct? This touches on the concept of intersectionality, as detailed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her pivotal writing: “Mapping the Margins”. Crenshaw outlines how those in marginalized groups additional to the subject one are often marginalized within that subject identity politics. The community organizers may push these voices aside to give room to a particular, traditional view of the marginalized identity around which they are organizing in the first place, but in the process, they mute the voices of those who have additional, contributing experiences.

Yet, not only do identity politics create dynamics of oppression as a result of attempting to obliterate it, they devalue other experiences which can be just as valuable regardless of their dominance, prominence, or assumed relevance as originating from a societally privileged speaker. Cathy Cohen attempts to address this issue by suggesting a sort of extended coalition building, wherein we organize on the basis of marginalization; this, however, should also be extended further to include all people, in part because many are marginalized in some way that we do not often recognize (even the white, upper class man may have an invisible disability, and was likely oppressed by ageism as a child), but also because neutral or distanced opinions can provide valuable insight as well (Cohen 1997). This in no way is to suggest that everyone has experienced oppression equally, or that a distanced observer is more rational, but rather that experienced oppression is not necessary to make one’s opinion valuable.

In order to effectively approach issues of social justice, one must have a firm and critical understanding of the situation. While those who are oppressed and organize as a result certainly understand why their oppression is wrong, as they have fully experienced it within their particular intersectional scope and often share their experiences with their peers, their experience renders certain critical approaches difficult. In fact,

the critical relation depends as well on a capacity, invariably collective, to articulate an alternative, minority version of sustaining norms or ideals that enable me to act. If I am someone who cannot be without doing, then the conditions of my doing are, in part, the conditions of my existence. If my doing is dependent on what is done to me or, rather, the ways in which I am done by norms, then the possibility of my persistence as an “I” depends upon my being able to do something with what is done to me. (Butler 3)

We all have “being” connected inherently with our “doing”, and both are an effect of our social positionality; this prevents us from being critical, regardless of our identity. We can inform others of our being to create a collective critical positioning for the doing, but cannot ourselves fully do without the collection of perspectives. These perspectives can, and should, range across the spectrum of those who could be included in the subject group, as well as allies. In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler suggests just this: we all should inform each other of varying perspectives and discuss to collectively organize with the input of all perspectives.

From this clearly arises three problems: how do we counterbalance privileged up bringing that encourages certain individuals to speak more than their fair share?; how do we counterbalance current ideology to provide the prerequisite room for new ideas?; finally, what if an individual enters a group and begins to express opinions that make others, particularly those in the subject group, uncomfortable?

To begin: when individuals are steeped in privilege, they are implicitly told their voices are more valuable and have more of a right to be heard. Would encouraging them to responsibly make room for other equally valuable voices infringe on the validity of their own voices? No, this would not, as it would simply work to level the intellectual playing field. This would require a less extreme version of the prevailing dynamic in identity politics which we currently wish to address. While this is unfortunately impossible to ensure, and may be reduced to ineffective catchphrases such as “check your privilege”, it can arise from a recognition of the relation between our own social positioning and that of the subject demographic. It can be self-policed within groups, and, if I may employ the concept of the Panopticon,[1] if we encourage a subculture that values this recognition, it is self-sustaining. Doing this would aid in ameliorating the second problem, that of counterbalancing prevailing norms. If many individuals tout the same nonsense because it is the currently accepted nonsense, those opinions get undue weight. Often, those prevailing views are held by the ‘majority’, as it is the majority which primarily controls idea-propagating resources such as the media. If we encourage the aforementioned productive version of checking one’s privilege, this can be counterbalanced.[2]Currently, argument is commonly tempered by fear instead of acknowledgement or respect. One fears being called bigoted, or speaking out of turn, which, in turn, suppresses contextually privileged voices. If, instead of fear, we establish a basis of discussion, we could remove this fear and replace it with acknowledgement. For example, we can set up a speaking order, which, while not intended to specifically rank oppression, can remind people how they are relevantly privileged.[3] This may be difficult regarding issues of intersectionality. For example, if the topic is women of color, we shall have women of color start the conversation. Then, should we have white women speak, or men of color? While this is not a perfect model, it would aim at reminding people of their directly relevant privilege within a given context. If this is repeated in all discussion groups, those who are privileged, say, on the basis of class, will have that fact salient in their minds even when they are talking about race or sex. The model can act as a mediator for the discussion, grounding it in acknowledgement.[4]

This brings us to the final problem: what if one checks their privilege and follows the model, but their opinions still make others uncomfortable? Should that expression be tolerated? Do these principles apply outside of coalitions, and even good intentions? These sorts of contributions may not be what Butler had in mind in Undoing Gender, but they are still beneficial to discourse, and I would argue should not be included in our list of problems to solve. We, as a society, gain greater net progress through holding and expressing varying ideas, and tolerating others to do the same (Mill 12). John Stuart Mill discusses this in On Liberty, in which he argues all opinions have value and should therefore be expressed so long as they do not cause the loosely defined “harm” that prevents others from accordingly doing the same, which would include making it unsafe, mentally or physically, for others to express their opposing opinions. While Butler articulates how expressions by those in favor of a given cause are beneficial regardless of background, Mill believes that any and all opinions should be expressed through voice and actions so long as they do not infringe on others’ abilities to do the same, as we know nothing for certain unless we experience it (Alleva 12, Mill 17). This, however, does not limit such expression to those who have a salient connection to the subject group, nor can we know if a movement is developing in the truthful direction, considering it cannot be empirically proven. Tempering our discussion with the presupposed salience of certain ideologies and with recognition of how privilege leads to ease of expression, what this says is all opinions need be expressed to create a comprehen sive understanding for all.

And so, it becomes clear through this that we have an obligation to speak in some fashion so long as it does not cause this ‘harm’. As Mill argues, regardless of the ultimate truth-values of our opinions (if any such truth-values indeed exist), we have a social obligation to express those beliefs, as it leads to increased discourse, whether in agreement or opposition; this keeps any communally held beliefs in social justice groups as “living truth” as opposed to “dead dogma”, and potentially leads to the advancement of knowledge (Mill 16, 34). Even if the opinions expressed are wrong in an absolutist sense and held by the dialogue’s minority position, they are still beneficial to maintaining discourse and fuel.[5] This incorrect minority gives proponents a renewed opportunity to discover and express the reasoning behind their beliefs, both for personal enlightenment and potential education; had they not expressed their opinion, the issues would remain unvisited and those incorrect beliefs would remain safeguarded.

I began with describing the group that is both empirically wrong and the minority position, since a group that is right and the minority position should clearly be expressed, for it is right and need convince others, and the view that is wrong and of the majority surely need be expressed to spark discussion and so identify and ameliorate the majority position. For, if that minority is indeed right, in expressing its opinions it provides the opportunity to, with persuasive arguments, convince the wrong majority of its truth. Mill’s utilitarian idea is that discourse will prefer increasingly beneficial combinations of concepts and opinions. This, however, also takes an absolutist point of view. What if truth is relative?

Some hold that truth is context-dependent, being specific to different situations and people (Alcoff 14). For the one, their opinion may indeed be best, and for the other, it may not. With relative truth, no truth is higher than another, and appropriately all ends of the opinion spectrum need be expressed for the highest possible truth-attainment through either the combination of relative truth or the furthering of each individual’s own highest attainment through conversationally-based and demanding reflection. Therefore, whether truth is context-dependent or universal, one is justified to speak, either through relative truth value or the advantages of arguing concepts leading to absolutist accuracy.

From this we conclude that we must speak, and do so without causing ‘harm’ (although that word still remains to be defined), but even the no-nonsense Mill worries about tone. How should that speech be conducted, ‘for’ or ‘with’ others? Is this contingent on who is the subject of speech, specifically, whether it is a group with which the speaker identifies? Let us, for a moment, consider how we think in order to elucidate the processes behind speech. Clearly, all we know and say is based off of our own memories and experiences, regardless of how accurate those are.6 Memory and experience, although not wholly reliable, is that from which we base our identity and from which we speak (Brison 46-47). And yet, with this, “the theorist who uses her own narrative … faces the dilemma, on the one hand, of speaking only for herself”; many purposefully seek this in order to avoid unduly speaking for others, but this avoids the “political responsibility” we all possess that compels us to use our own experience and opinions to contribute to greater social discourse, furthering the idea that that we should indeed speak in regards to more than ourselves (Brison 29, Alcoff 8). This is not to say we should generalize and speak for all members of a group, as they are loosely defined and do not have a cohesive and concrete identity; the different experiences within demographics renders generalizations incomplete (Cohen and Crenshaw; Alcoff 30). But, how does one determine when our experience is applicable to even a subset, and would we become the authority?

To increase the saliency of this, let us consider the case where one is presumed to be most justified to speak for the subject: when the subject is oneself. It is commonly, albeit rashly, assumed that the speaker necessarily has the most information regarding the issue, and yet in fact it is impossible for us to speak purely rationally about ourselves (or any subject, for that matter), considering the previous premises regarding memory. Additionally, as Butler describes, we do not have all the information required to speak accurately and authoritatively regarding ourselves, only knowing our own perspective. Why, for example, do individuals visit psychologists, or ask advice on personal development from friends? While one has directly experienced one’s life, however tinted are the ways in which that experience may be remembered, one recognizes the value of additional input; when speaking about oneself, one in fact speaks with others, for how can an authority be determined? In terms of the psychologist-patient relationship, there is a particular reciprocity wherein the patient describes situations and the physician assists in discerning the causes for reactions. In this way, each speaks with greater authority over certain aspects, but neither has authority over the entirety; while one may have more control and perceived authority over the discourse, this discourse should still occur with the other(s) (Brison 30). This ‘with’ must include listening to some extent, for the subject does not listen to the therapist’s input, then they are not actually receiving any information and it would yield the same result as if they had assumed authority. While the subject need not accept the input, they need listen, in order to achieve anything from the process of discourse. Therefore, we should, and often do, speak with others, even in regards to the self.

This argument was originally inspired by Linda Alcoff’s piece, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, which addresses the issue of speaking in how it affects others, and if we should speak regarding everyone, those within demographics that pertain to us, or just ourselves. One obvious difference between our respective arguments is that she addresses speaking in terms of ‘for’ and ‘about,’ which she periodically conflates, only briefly elaborating on differences (8-9).  And yet, she too frames her argument in the notion that many individuals from external demographics are hesitant to speak in regards to those of less privilege for fear of offending (8). We do, however, draw different distinctions in how one should speak with others; she does seem to suggest ‘with,’ but does not explicitly state it, but her speaking ‘with’ differs drastically from mine, wherein speaking with is to entail an awareness of how the speech can affect others. As I explained in the introduction, I maintain that this awareness of how speech affects listeners is only necessary in safe spaces, and actually detrimental to the advancement of social justice overall.

Upon reflection, my argument may at first seem to also require such an awareness, as a result of my request that we attempt to recognize our own privilege in, while not dismissing our own opinions, making a conscious effort to afford additional room to historically marginalized ones. Yet, the key distinction lies in that while Alcoff, like Butler, requires we aim at a common cause (apart from that of truth), I maintain that even offensive opinions have value, so long as they are expressed in this conscientious manner. Since I do not rule out any possible truth, I do not restrict expression to sensitivity, but rather logistical necessity.

Alcoff, however, addresses a “political struggle” within speech apart from the aforementioned “political responsibility” to speak. While she does not believe that this struggle strips people of the right to speak, she does believe it renders some speakers less relevant (14-15).[6] “Who is speaking, who is spoke of, and who listens is a result, as well as an act, of political struggle”; from this, Alcoff derives the concept that this “dis-authorizes some voices on grounds which are simultaneously political and epistemic” (15). She combines this dis-authorization with the idea that we preserve the right to speak despite lack of neutrality, based on the premise that “the “ritual of speaking” … in which an utterance is located, always bears on meaning and truth such that there is no possibility of rendering positionality, location, or context irrelevant to content” (14). For Alcoff, truth is somewhat context dependent as it is affected by background, but this only means we take “accountability and responsibility” for the effect of what we say if we belong to the oppressor group, as the oppressed have more constant authority, not only over their lived experience, but over the issue as a whole (16). This differs from my argument in that I hold certain individuals or groups to have more authority over a section of experience or discussion, but for no one to have any greater say over the discourse as a whole, nor any overall “epistemic” authority, and for the only responsibility to be to listen and speak with others without seizing false authority.

At root, her argument is based on marginalized demographics having more authority over issues related to their group; she precariously relies on only those with good intentions to help, as she too addresses the “political responsibility” I used for my relative-truth argument, but in an absolutist framework wherein we have political responsibility as members of privileged classes to speak in regards to others for a shared and defined truth endpoint. In this process, according to Alcoff, we must be careful to maintain power of the marginalized so as to let the truth of their narratives permeate and as not to oppress. My system does not denote this as necessary, as the political responsibility lies not in furthering a particular political agenda but any truth, whether relative or absolute, and accordingly, we need not be sensitive but expressive, and ideally, receptive. While Alcoff demands solidarity, I accept it if that naturally occurs, but do not claim it as necessary. This allows for looser participation, and overall, a more comprehensive and plausible theory.

This gets at the heart of our difference, as Alcoff illuminates in her “central point”: In order to evaluate attempts to speak for others in particular instances, we need to analyze the probable or actual effects of the words on the discursive and material context. One cannot simply look at the location of the speaker or her credentials to speak, nor can one look merely at the propositional content of the speech; one must also look at where the speech goes and what it does there (26).

My argument is rooted in utilitarian Mill, who argues not for any ideological endpoint, but rather a generally utility, or, in this case, truth, in whatever way does not infringe on the freedom of the individual, which would not cover “what it does there”, as Alcoff’s point suggests sensitivity. She appears to be arguing in favor of a humanitarian agenda wherein the highest truth is necessarily egalitarianism. While I personally believe egalitarianism to be the absolute truth in this situation, my argument itself does not depend on that, rather leaving truth undefined, while Alcoff utilizes egalitarianism as an implicit premise, never directly arguing for it. From this I hold that my argument carries with it greater legitimacy, as truth, which is hard to get at, need not be known for my argument to be effective. In fact, this process can potentially help us find greater truth than we currently imagine.

I argue for a system wherein truth is left undefined but the highest possible truth, whether that be relative or absolute, is increasingly attained. In attempting to work for specific ideologies, social justice groups often silence voices apart from their own, which, while perhaps acceptable in creating “safe spaces”, is detrimental to the overall cause, preventing valuable dialogue from realization. Instead, it is best, in conjunction with earned authority over subsections of discussion, for every individual regardless of background to speak with, not for, anyone and everyone.

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter 1991-1992), 5-32.

Alleva, Ernie. “Why be Tolerant? Locke, Mill and Rawls on Religious Toleration.” Unpublished manuscript. Northampton: Smith College.

Brison, Susan J. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Butler, Judith. “Introduction: Acting in Concert.” Undoing Gender, 1-16.

Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”. GLQ, Vol. 3 (Overseas Publishers Association: Amsterdam, 1997), 437-465.

Emanuel, Ezekeil J. and Linda L. Emanuel. “Four Models of the Physician-Patient Relationship.” Journal of the American Medical Association 267: 2221-2226.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Parker and Son, 1859. < books?id=3xARAAAAYAAJ>.

[1] . While the Panopticon is literally a concept for a prison, I employ it to refer to the idea that whether or not we ourselves consciously subscribe to a certain set of societally held morals, we abide by them subconsciously. In this context, if we encourage the aforementioned recognition, after time, we would not need to explicitly police and correct it, but it will become engrained in the culture of our subgroups.

[2] . This time, I do not mean it in the catchphrase sense, but as relating to the model I describe.

[3] . I would like to thank Professor Samuel Ruhmkorff for suggesting this model as a potential solution.

[4] . I would like to thank anonymous referees at the UChicago Undergraduate Philosophy Review for encouraging me to analyze the situation of an archetypally privileged individual who believes he in fact has the authority over an entire conversation.

[5] . This is not necessarily referring to minorities in the sense of oppressed groups, but any uncommon opinion (e.g. the minority opinion of being against women’s suffrage in the context of American politics).

[6] . As “politics is connected to truth”, the speaker’s sociopolitical relationship to the demographic at hand affects how conversation is perceived and perhaps manifested.

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