In the wake of tragedies like the Michael Brown shooting, the recent attacks in Gaza, unrest in the Ukraine, and the ongoing crisis in Syria, one phrase is championed over and over:
Giving voice to the voiceless.
It has a musical resonance that appeals to our sense of truth in poetry. It sounds good. It has the ring of truth. So it must be true.
But when people have offered this phrase as a description of my own work – teaching and building relationships between divided communities – I’ve questioned its validity.
There are at least two questionable assumptions contained in this phrase.
The first relates to the good souls who go into remote or disadvantaged communities and get the word out that ‘Hey, there are some amazing people out here! Listen up!’
I’m genuinely in awe of journalists, activists, and artists like this – individuals who reach out and perform staggering feats of human connection. They are doing vital work to make the media more open, and each of us more attuned.
That said, I don’t believe anyone has the capacity to ‘give someone a voice.’ We can listen, ask questions, write articles, build websites…but at the end of the day, we’re only engineers creating the infrastructure to allow new faces and voices to be seen and heard. Instead of ‘giving voice to the voiceless,’ perhaps a better formulation would be: ‘providing platforms for unheard voices.’
The second assumption relates to these unknown faces and voices themselves – people we broadly describe as ‘voiceless.’
The dictionary gives five definitions for this word:
1. having no voice; mute.
2.uttering no words; silent.
3.having an unmusical voice.
4.unspoken; unuttered: e.g. voiceless sympathy.
5.having no vote or right of choice.
Perhaps the last option, ‘having no vote or right of choice’, is the meaning most often ascribed to the ‘voiceless’ in society. But even this definition bears some serious critique.
Let me give you an example.
I’m sitting in a cozy East London office wedged between a Halal butcher and a Christian ministry. Children are sprawled in the hallway, coloring and playing with Legos. Zofia, a middle-aged woman with a sorrowful face and long black hair, is telling me her story – of fleeing Poland after the collapse of Communism and the rise of hate crimes against Roma (Gypsy) people.
It is a long and arduous telling, and Zofia speaks quietly in Polish, each word wounding her breath.
But when she describes the backlash she received as an immigrant in the UK – the derisive comments to ‘go back to your country’ from bureaucrats, the ignorance in doctors’ offices, the impossibility of finding a permanent place to live – she is emphatic:
“And I vote in every election,” she says. “My children were born here. They’re British citizens.”
Zofia is precisely the kind of person the media describes as ‘voiceless.’ She’s a refugee on welfare benefits – and a minority woman. Yet she votes, and even lent her name and testimony to a court case against the local government, challenging funding cuts that harm families like hers. Voiceless? Not quite.
At the same time, there is true urgency in the idea of voicelessness that must not be dismissed. Certainly, the percentage of people not represented or misrepresented by media and politics is astonishingly high – and, as a consequence, underreported. This distortion and narrowness of our communication channels is a real and present threat to inclusive democracy and social justice.
But labels have meaning. By affecting our perceptions of the labelled group, names influence reality in subtle but serious ways.
So who are the people we refer to as ‘voiceless’? They are also known as vulnerable or marginalized groups, all of which have negative connotations: These people are lacking something, powerless to do something, or pushed to the edges of something. Going into communities with these labels and perceptions sets up a barrier from the outset. Power is in the hands of the ‘voiced’ person who is not vulnerable and is part of the mainstream.
But let me tell you, I don’t know of a single human being who isn’t vulnerable. Or a single soul who doesn’t know what it’s like to be an outsider at times. The more honest we are about the undefended, margin-spaces in our own lives, the less likely we’ll be to talk to others from a safe distance. And the more likely we’ll be to really hear new voices, instead of fashioning them into our own echoes.
By calling huge swathes of the population ‘voiceless’ we are letting a nice metaphor hide a deeper reality.
For the reality is: The ‘Voiceless’ do have voices. The majority has just been deaf to them.
And what’s more, while we can and should engage and reach out to people as possible, the only voice we’re truly capable of giving the world is our own.