Voice vs. Avenues for Voice

In response to a Twitter exchange among Digital Democracy, Emily Jacobi, Sam Gregory, Audacia Ray and myself, Brian Conley posted on his site a further discussion on using the word "voiceless" to describe populations in disadvantaged communities.

I've always disliked the phrase "giving voice to the voiceless." The term "voiceless" in the context of social change is pejorative, and the phrase connotes a power balance that we should try to disown. Besides, it just doesn't make any sense: As Emily says on her own website, "I’ve never met a person without a voice. Not in a refugee camp, slum or rural village, not at a guard desk or janitor’s station in a hall of power."

My own comment to Brian's post contained this: "If we seek to truly collaborate with people... to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets... For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system...there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?... Yes, there are people who don’t know how to exercise their voice or don’t have the courage, and yes, there are a number of people lacking relevant knowledge or information. But that’s true for any group of people, disadvantaged and privileged alike...[But] calling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools, not for our own fundraising or report writing, but as leverage to effect positive change."

This series of posts brought back to mind a conversation I had a few years ago with Uzodinma Iweala, the author of Beasts of No Nation, to talk about "voice" in art, media and fiction relating to social change issues. I had met Uzo at the PEN American Center's World Voices Festival where he spoke about his aim to provide avenues for the voices of his protagonists, and the work that goes into constructing aesthetic frameworks (the community's or the artist's) around the subjects. He was very clear that, as an artist, he does not and can't provide "voice." He argued that, on a wide scale, we as artists, activists or media creators, need to create new tropes because our frames of references come from the privileged and from a top-down perspective. On an individual scale, we have to look at efficacy of voice-- the question of more voices vs. more effective voices (or blanket awareness vs. influence): Just because there are lots of voices doesn't mean they are effective. He therefore focuses his writing around "voice shaping," allowing his characters to speak outside of stereotypes. He resists making value judgments against others' perspectives-- "You can't blame someone for growing up with a certain framework"-- but instead focuses on his responsibility as an artist to to create new frames of reference. And each piece of work related to an issue transforms its frame of reference in an iterative process, an ever-growing body of work that provides firm grounding for shifting perspectives, through character, plot or setting. It's the role of the artist to break down the constructs and expose humanity. And it's important for an artist to move beyond what dehumanizes a subject, and look at them for their daily problems and daily lives, and provide context. This shifts the angles and puts pressure on the frames.

There's a rich analogy here for social change. As a change agent, you also are not speaking for someone else. You are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. You might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that's your role in the project. Either way, they're not voiceless. I think we need to shift the angles and put pressure on the frameworks in relation to communities involved in change.


David Barrie said...

This is *such* a useful post! Being a change agent is about providing and orchestrating media, not acting as a liberational theologian.

Pam said...

Powerful thinking here!

In a similar vein, can we avoid calling certain people "needy"? It's the same deal ... making assumptions about who has the resources to make change. Those we want to "help" often have more resources than might be immediately apparent.

Well, much more one could say, but I just wanted to say thanks for this insightful piece.