Posted in Politics Social Justice

If a person speaks and no-one listens, do they have a voice?

If a person speaks and no-one listens, do they have a voice? Posted on 27 March 20132 Comments

Everyone has a right to free speech but only a few are heard.

As World Social Forum 2013 opens its doors in Tunis today, I mused on how little the UK’s “civil society” engages with the grassroots networks based in the Global South, despite our common ailments. While the British government forces poor families onto food stamps instead of short loans; while job centres are encouraged to ensure the poorest have the least access to the money they need; and while the political elite only seems to be getting richer; our ‘developing’ neighbours tell us that these are the same forms of oppression they have faced for the last few decades! The battles we fight in Europe are familiar ones, and our allies lay ever more to the south as to the east and west of us. But their voices that remains silenced despite their calls for a global unified movement.  Why?

It all comes down to what we actually accept as knowledge, and therefore what we listen to. So much of what we know and what we accept as fact comes from “credible” sources. By this we mean that they speak the language of authority and legitimacy:

  • They perform their research in a way in which we find accountable.
  • They support their arguments in a way that we find rational.
  • They write/speak in the way we find comprehensible.
  • They dress, look and sound like they are well grounded.

These are the codes we use in order to judge what knowledge we accept and don’t accept. We are taught these through our education, and our interaction in the social world. We have learnt to think in a particular way because these (invisible) codes and procedures keep us safe from accepting any old knowledge and being fooled. In the meanwhile, we have been taught to ignore whatever does not fit these rules.

Spivak called it the “hegemonic ear” – the idea that only a few select people could be heard by those with power, and by the masses. It was not only codes and procedures that made some ignored, it was their gender, their race, their class, their sexuality – their physiognomy. These days we talk about it through the angle of intersectionality, understanding that people are more or less listened to based on numerous intersecting scales of power.

But more than the people, it is the message. For those who reaffirm the fears of the population through comfortable lines of argument, and for those who try to rejuvenate hope through rose-tinted nostalgia, being heard is easy. For a simple analogy, this is much like giving a baby a pacifier to stop it from noticing it can cry. For anything more challenging, not only do we have to wrestle the pacifier from the baby, but we have to teach it to talk as well! The message has to unsettle people from their comfortable view of the world while also teaching/encouraging them to speak out against this injustice.

Telling the UK to work with people around the globe is possible, but it will take a million tries before the message begins to be heard. First we have to break the illusion – we are not alone, and nor are our politicians, the rich and the media. Behind them they have the power of numerous nations.

In order to win, we cannot just work alone and speak the same old language of socialism. This is not about a single nation dealing with its economic crisis, it’s about a world order creating a global economic crisis, a world order only interested in keeping things unequal and unfair. But together, we can put them to rights. If only can we make them hear.

Woman calling for freedom
The People Want Freedom at World Social Forum 2013 via @codepink

2 thoughts on “If a person speaks and no-one listens, do they have a voice?

    1. It’s not listening to me that I’m worried about. I know I have a voice because I’ve been called many-a-thing, including aggressive, irrational, old-fashioned, etc. My concern is for the majority world, where voices cannot be heard because we simply do not give them the space to listen.

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