Speaking for others: When a right becomes a duty

The first amendment has become a battleground in this era of protest and dissent. There is a lot of focus being put on showing the world that we can speak, that we can get our voices heard, and that we will not be silenced.

There has arisen, however, an unintended consequence in the way we have pursued our right to speech. In our rush to prove we can speak, we have inadvertently helped to contribute to the silencing of people who need to be heard the most.

“You don’t know how privileged you are to be able to afford to protest,” is a common issue pointed out by Sam Marks, a local activist leader in Philadelphia. When he talks about this, he goes on to explain how many of the people who are the most disenfranchised can’t attend rallies, protests, or other mass events because they financially can’t afford to do so. The people who are hurting the most in this nation are also the ones living paycheck to paycheck and are lucky if they can pay their bills every month. They are often assigned to weekend or evening shifts, the times when most activism takes on visible forms. For them, going to an event would require taking off from a work shift, and forces a choice between protesting and eating.

“I wish I could have gone yesterday, but I had to work. There is another one in Doylestown today, but again, I have to work,” I was told by the lady behind the coffee shop this morning as I wrote this and we discussed recent protests.

In addition to the economic barriers to speech, a number of other factors many people forget about can also play huge roles in silencing those who should be heard. Transgender people are targeted for assault and murder, are at risk to lose their jobs, and suffer other brutal forms of oppression and discrimination. Showing up to a rally and disclosing their transgender status in public can create real dangers for them. People of color are often met with a stronger police presence when they assemble for peaceful protest. And if you are protesting immigration policies in this time of aggressive ICE raids, fears of being swept up from the stage are very realistic.

The mistake we are unknowingly making is that our push to stand up and speak for ourselves, we have assumed that everyone else can as well, and we have forgotten those who can’t. Those are often the voices that need to be hard the most.

The controversy that arose during the 2018 Women’s March in Philadelphia arose because of this issue. There was a decision to include a heavy police presence with guarded entry points to the rally where bags would be checked. From the viewpoint of people who have had a mostly positive relationship with police, this seemed like a reasonable idea. What was forgotten was that many of the women who are being hit the hardest by the current administration, and have been hit the hardest even before the current administration, are the ones who have had traumatic relationships with the police. This caused a huge outcry from those who were afraid that this safe space for women would become another opportunity for them to be harassed. And despite a last-minute policy reversal, the damage was already done, and many of the people who provided such strong voices last year, representatives from the transgender community, women of color, the Red Umbrella Alliance, etc. did not show either because of formal boycott, or out of personal concern of the repetition of the abuses they faced in life occurring when they crossed a checkpoint.

So, what can we do?

The first thing we must do is change the narrative of speech being about out first amendment rights and make it about out personal duty to take care of others. Every right, after all, comes with it a responsibility to use it properly. Without this moral responsibility, that right can degrade to an infantile entitlement focusing on self-interest, which is the problem that we see in the groups we often protest against. To counter this, we must make certain that our speech is more than just about us. We must adopt the duty to make sure we are speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But even before that, before we speak, we must make sure we are taking every step to help others to speak. A mistake commonly made by groups that do want to do the right thing and speak for the right people, but we forgot to make sure we really know the issues. We made this mistake when we started out as well. At our transgender rights rally, there was decision made to include one of our leadership in the list of speakers, focusing on his status as a doctor of psychology and overlooking his status as a cisgender male. When the problem of that decision was realized, there was a rush to make sure the speech was as informed in the subtleties of the transgender issues as could be, but the agreement was made that next time we spoke for a community, we would work to identify experts of those communities to represent the issues and speak for themselves. In addition, we must make sure to provide for the safety of the more vulnerable people as well. In one of the early protest actions in Philadelphia, there was a fear by a woman of color about the police being there, and she worried about being targeted for harassment by the police. One commenter on the thread gave her this promise, “I will be there and use my white privilege to protect you.”

Finally, we must make the promise that before we speak, we will listen. We must acknowledge that when it comes to the problems of the world, we each approach the problem from the perspective of our life experiences, and this perspective is as much limiting as it is informing. The phrase “check your privilege” is often uttered in social conversations, and many people wrongly associate this this with an attack. But the truth is, the phrase is meant to just remind you of the limits of your understanding that come from the fact your experience of life is not the same as the others, and what has been true for your experience may not be true for others. The request made is not asking you to invalidate your own thoughts and views, it is a warning that if you proceed down the path of speech you are going, you are risking invalidating the thoughts and views of the people who are in need. But if you heed that warning, or even better, spend some time just in circles with the intent of listening without responding, then when the time for you to speak comes, you will be better informed by the multiple perspectives of the issues we face.

So this is the challenge we are offering to you. When the time to speak comes, don’t just speak because you have the right to, but be intentional about your words. Don’t just speak for yourself, but remember that there are those who are being blocked from their right. Make every effort to give them a voice, whether that is directly by giving them the tools the to speak for themselves, or by learning enough about the issues of those silenced so that those issues can be represented in our speech.

If we can do this, we can be a stronger force for facing the many social issues in the world. We will have the power to speak effectively on the issues that really matter. But if we fail in this duty, if we forget those who cannot speak for themselves, we risk splitting the activism community into two ineffective halves. The first half is loud and proud, but unaware of the larger issues in play, which  can get placated by the easiest concessions so that it fades out easily. The second half will be rooted in the larger problems that attack our most vulnerable members of society, but it will have too small a voice to protect and aid those that need it the most.