Are you speaking up for others, or are you shouting them down?
Once, when I was younger, I got to hear a speech by a well-known curmudgeonly sort, who shall remain nameless here because it was a long time ago, and at present he’s likely not long for this world. He ranted back and forth about the shallowness of media culture and the short shrift he’d been given by critics, and at some point he referred to something as being “an oxymoron, like the phrase ‘rap music’.”
When the audience failed to react to this with the expected laugh, instead more of an awkward silence, he elaborated. “And don’t try to tell me how it’s an expression of African-American culture or whatever,” he said. “Ella Fitzgerald, that’s an expression of African-American culture. Rap is… I don’t know what it is, but it’s crap.”
At the time, I wasn’t quite sure exactly what bothered me so much about that. I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Recently I got in a debate with a trans guy I know; I was making one point about terminology for trans people, and he was making a different one. Finally, he clarified that the people who should make the decision here are the ones who are affected by these issues every day, i.e. trans folks, and while they might end up agreeing or disagreeing with my point of view, it was ultimately up to them to decide what their names are.
He was, of course, right, and on reflection I realized that. What was embarrassing wasn’t that I was wrong, it was that I was wrong in exactly the same way that cranky old bastard had been wrong, the way I couldn’t put my finger on.
Short version: cranky old white guys don’t get to decide what is and is not African-American culture. That’s kind of more up to the people making that culture. And I don’t get to decide how trans people should exist in the world; that’s up to trans people.
An awful lot of bad actions come from this basic assumption: that one’s own experience means one can speak for people with different experiences. Right now in our society, one sees a lot of multimillionaire pundits patiently explaining how the only reason people are poor is because they lack good character. There’s also religious types saying how they’re not gay, so obviously nobody else is, they’re just deceived by evil forces or whatever. Same shit, different day. You know how these things go.
Whether it’s non-depressed people saying that the depressed just need to snap out of it, or men saying that they don’t see how women experience any disadvantages, we get a lot of this stuff. We’re all guilty of a lot of this stuff, if we want to be honest with ourselves.
Let me give a specific example. There’s a phenomenon a lot of women report, where they will be asked by strange men to smile. Just going about their daily routine, some guy will tell them out of the blue “You’d be so pretty if you smiled” or “C’mon, put a smile on that face” or somesuch.
Now, I’ve never been told that. Lord knows I don’t recall ever saying that to a woman I didn’t know. I don’t recall ever observing a guy telling a woman to just smile for no reason. But then, I wouldn’t, would I? Women in the company of a big, broad-shouldered guy don’t get the same kinds of random intrusion into their lives that unaccompanied women do.
So yeah, there’s part of my brain wanting to say “I haven’t observed this phenomenon, ergo it doesn’t exist.” I’ve certainly heard other guys say that. But that’s the issue: every woman I know has reported it happening to them or someone they know. Their experience of the world is different from mine in a specific and irritating way.
What kind of asshole would I have to be to say that’s not the case?
An all-too-common kind of asshole, unfortunately, and to be fair, there’s a reason why. It’s very easy to perceive this rule, about not speaking for other people or trying to define their experience for them, as a restriction on one’s freedom. Why shouldn’t my opinion about what to call trans people be just as valid as anyone else’s? Isn’t the fact that I haven’t personally seen or experienced something at least evidence, if not proof, that it’s nonexistent? By gum, why should I allow my voice to be cavalierly silenced in this damnable fashion?
There’s a reason people think this way, of course, and that’s that this rule is an infringement on their freedom. Just like the rule against insulting people to their face, the rule against making fun of small children, the rule against using racial slurs, and the rule about not calling your grandma a cross-eyed ass-grabbing old bitch. (Seriously, she hates that.)
All these rules infringe upon your freedom to be a total jerk to other people. To put it another way, if speaking for someone else, defining their own experience for them, is the most important issue for you, maybe your priorities are already screwed up.