To what extent are you truly speaking for the people you purport to speak for?
This is the question I encountered a decade ago when I stumbled on the philosopher feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Can the voice of the subaltern be heard?
The “subaltern”, a term originated from Antonia Gramsci’s work on colonial hegemony, referred to “those colonial populations who were socially, politically, and geographically outside the hierarchy of power of a colony and the empire’s metropolitan homeland.”
The core of the argument was that the subaltern had to adopt western ways of knowing (thought, reasoning, language) and abandon their own ways of knowing the world (thought, reasoning, language) to be able to speak to their oppressors in a way they could hear and understand. This meant abandoning culturally customary ways of thinking, with their own knowledge systems being increasingly relegated to the domains of myth and folklore.
The colonized, the oppressed, the slaves had to speak to colonizer, oppressor, slavemaster in a language not their own. But to truly represent their case, academics and experts arose, to explain the oppressed to the oppressor. The oppressed, the subaltern, had to surrender knowledge to the western trained academic, in order for their true explanation to reach the oppressor.
Bell Hooks, in “Marginality as a Site of Resistance” (1990) described the relationship between the academic and subaltern as:
“[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain, I want your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I rewrite myself anew. I am still author, authority, I am still (the) colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.”
Disregarding Spivak’s warning of over-broad application of subalternity, and instead adopting Homi Bhabha’s assertion of the importance of social power relations in defining subaltern social groups as the oppressed whose social presence is crucial to the self-definition of the majority group, I have been grappling with these same questions over the past few years, in relation to the new contexts of struggle and activism.
The urban activism phenomenon offers pretty good lens to look at what Bell Hooks spoke about. As an activist (whether human rights, LGBTI, anti-FGM, gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, democracy, youth empowerment etc), to what extent is the language you have chosen to speak about these issues aligned with the language the oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged are using? Are you communicating what they are telling you or you have just co-opted their stories for your own use?
Is it possible that most people who have gained fame and fortune fighting against these vices have become what Bell Hooks phrases as “I am still author, authority, I am still (the) colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk”?
Do they know you get millions to speak about their stories in conferences in the city?
It is easier to speak against tribalism and tribal superiority thoughts when you are living in a metropolitan urban area, but to what extent are these values you hold congruent with what is held down there in the villages and if not, why?
What is the distance between you and the people you fight for?