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Anne Cameron, a very gifted white Canadian author, writes several first person accounts of the lives of Native Canadian women. At the International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, a group of Native Canadian writers ask Cameron to, in their words, "move over" on the grounds that her writings are disempowering for Native authors.
After the elections in Panama are overturned by Manuel Noriega, U. President George Bush declares in a public address that Noriega's actions constitute an "outrageous fraud" and that "the voice of the Panamanian people have spoken. At a recent symposium at my university, a prestigious theorist was invited to give a lecture on the political problems of post-modernism.
Those of us in the audience, including many white women and people of oppressed nationalities and races, wait in eager anticipation for what he has to contribute to this important discussion. To our disappointment, he introduces his lecture by explaining that he can not cover the assigned topic, because as a white male he does not feel that he can speak for the feminist and post-colonial perspectives which have launched the critical interrogation of postmodernism's politics.
He lectures instead on architecture. These examples demonstrate the range of current practices of speaking for others in our society.
While the prerogative of speaking for others remains unquestioned in the citadels of colonial administration, among activists and in the academy it elicits a growing unease and, Individual differences and stress essay some communities of discourse, it is being rejected.
There is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for otherseven for other womenis arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.
Feminist scholarship has a liberatory agenda which almost requires that women scholars speak on behalf of other women, and yet the dangers of speaking across differences of race, culture, sexuality, and power are becoming increasingly clear to all. In feminist magazines such as Sojourner, it is common to find articles and letters in which the author states that she can only speak for herself.
In her important paper, "Dyke Methods," Joyce Trebilcot offers a philosophical articulation of this view. She renounces for herself the practice of speaking for others within a lesbian feminist community, arguing that she "will not try to get other wimmin to accept my beliefs in place of their own" on the grounds that to do so would be to practice a kind of discursive coercion and even a violence.
In anthropology there is similar discussion about whether it is possible to speak for others either adequately or justifiably.
The recognition that there is a problem in speaking for others has followed from the widespread acceptance of two claims.
First, there has been a growing awareness that where one speaks from affects both the meaning and truth of what one says, and thus that one cannot assume an ability to transcend her location.
In other words, a speaker's location which I take here to refer to her social location or social identity has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker's claims, and can serve either to authorize or dis-authorize one's speech.
The creation of Women's Studies and African American Studies departments were founded on this very belief: The unspoken premise here is simply that a speaker's location is epistemically salient.
I shall explore this issue further in the next section. The second claim holds that not only is location epistemically salient, but certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous. This was part of the argument made against Anne Cameron's speaking for Native women: Cameron's intentions were never in question, but the effects of her writing were argued to be harmful to the needs of Native authors because it is Cameron rather than they who will be listened to and whose books will be bought by readers interested in Native women.
Persons from dominant groups who speak for others are often treated as authenticating presences that confer legitimacy and credibility on the demands of subjugated speakers; such speaking for others does nothing to disrupt the discursive hierarchies that operate in public spaces.
For this reason, the work of privileged authors who speak on behalf of the oppressed is becoming increasingly criticized by members of those oppressed groups themselves. However, we must begin to ask ourselves whether this is ever a legitimate authority, and if so, what are the criteria for legitimacy?
In particular, is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me? We might try to delimit this problem as only arising when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one. In this case, we might say that I should only speak for groups of which I am a member.
But this does not tell us how groups themselves should be delimited. For example, can a white woman speak for all women simply by virtue of being a woman? If not, how narrowly should we draw the categories? The complexity and multiplicity of group identifications could result in "communities" composed of single individuals.
Moreover, the concept of groups assumes specious notions about clear-cut boundaries and "pure" identities. I am a Panamanian-American and a person of mixed ethnicity and race: The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic.
Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary. Another problem concerns how specific an identity needs to be to confer epistemic authority.A software engineer’s page screed against Google’s diversity initiatives is going viral inside the company, being shared on an internal meme network and Google+.
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