The Problem With Defense

The Problem With Defense

All seems sweet when we are able to stand for one another, but here are some thoughts on how the situation can sour when we speak—or shout—for others, rather than let them use their own voices.

Mae McDermott

In the spoken word poem "Lost Voices," poets Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley steal each other's voices. Scout, a young white woman, tells harrowing stories of what it is to be a black man, and Darius, a young black man, tells of what it is to be a woman and a feminist, while the other mouths silently, unable to tell his/her own story. Finally in unison they conclude that "the problem with speaking up for each other is that everyone is left without a voice."

We are fortunate to live in a time when, in spite of systemic ignorance, hatred, and indifference, there are people who are passionate and want to defend and stand for others. This can be seen in inspiring acts of the past year like the March For Our Lives, events that stand out against the political canvas like exhilarating, bright red paint. Where there is passion, there is undeniably promise and potential. But every point in time is delicate, because every point in time is the step before what arrives next.

Creators of change, particularly people with relatively unfettered access to political and social channels that do end up creating this change, are in a delicate position. Even the wholly well-meaning and impassioned have the potential to yield great damage as well as good, for when we speak too strongly for each other, we can take away each other's ability to speak for ourselves.

History is awash with opinions of all kinds—well-meaning, misguided, malicious—expounding upon the practices and lives of others, studying, explaining, and drawing passionate and decidedly "correct" conclusions. These are speakers who have the privilege of taking the floor, and use it either consciously or circumstantially to make assertions that can powerfully shape minds and create change. We examine some of these assertions centuries later in our history classes; these casual expressions of the men who speak because they can become the bases of our written history.

A prevalent example is the staggering history of white men writing about what is best for people of color, or describing their "ways" and "practices" as though they can be synthesized in an academic journal or essay. Take the Scramble for Africa of the late 1800s, in which colonizing European forces used the ideas of civilization, salvation, and the re appropriated logic of Darwin as a guise for soulless consumption, using their technology to steal the lives and lands of Africans who, in their weighty historical conclusions, too often remain nameless.

My Personal Essay professor is a very sharp individual who builds her curriculum around perspective exploration. We write responses to essays we discussed during the week, and after reading "The Loudproof Room," in which Kate Lebo chronicles her hearing challenges, and "I Am Curious Yellow," in which Gabrielle Loisel discusses her synaesthesia or blending of sensory mechanisms, we were prompted to write about how our non-normative bodies alter our perception. When a classmate asked if she could write about a family member who struggled with a non-normative body, my professor, to my surprise, advised her to steer clear unless her aim was purely to describe her own experience. Then she brought up mothers who publish memoirs—extended personal narratives—about their children's experiences with autism.

Just as there were surely some men writing in the 1800s with good intentions who wished to shed a light on the experiences of people of color, there are absolutely mothers today who wish to illuminate the reality of life with autism. A deliciously strange comparison, this, and it would be wrong to generalize that all of these writers are at fault. But they are not writing about their own lives. They are extrapolating beyond what they have access to, delving into a pocket of the human condition of which they are not a part. And with these people doing so, have people of color or creators with autism gotten their own work, their own perspectives, their own voices, published?

Before we dare write or speak—I say "dare" because words are weighty, and they are not to be used lightly—we must ask: am I a person who is qualified to say this? Am I the right individual, the right speaker, writer, or creator?

Does this question limit action? What if change needs to be made today, and one wishes to speak but is in fear of overstepping? The point is not to impose further trepidation upon our interactions with those who differ—there is already quite enough of that, quite enough fear and limitation. The point is indeed to act in the best interest of others. The point is to be sure that everyone has a voice and an opportunity to speak. There is no limit to passion, defense, kindness, but we can assume no one's perspective or voice, not ever, lest we accidentally perpetuate what has been done for many centuries before us by the insidious and the good-hearted alike, and lest we steal what we are fighting to protect.

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