Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

What’s in a Preposition?

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions. – Antony Jay

As usual, I’m two or three issues behind in my New Yorker reading, so it was only a few days ago that I had a chance to finally read Alec Wilkinson’s controversial article about avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The article caused a stir not just because of the subject matter (at issue: did Goldsmith, in using the autopsy report of Michael Brown as a performance piece, demonstrate egregious and self-serving white privilege?) but also, in the aftermath of the article’s publication, for the way that Wilkinson characterized (or mischaracterized) the reactions of poets of color to Goldsmith’s act.

Merits and shortcomings aside, the article did at least try to explore some of the complexities and challenges that literary writers are facing right now in our increasingly polarized and powder-keggy society. It’s a tough subject to discuss constructively because of the centuries of cultural baggage that it hauls around behind it. There are layers of racism and sexism and power and class wrapped around the subject like explosives that have to be carefully disarmed without setting the whole thing off.

But for all the good intentions, there was a premise or a presumption at work in the article — and, by extension, in the dialogue — that troubled me. It’s best exemplified by this line from the last section of the article:

“Who is allowed to speak for people who have been harmed or who have suffered is an open argument.”

What snagged me then, and what continues to snag me, is the preposition for. There is something stealthily xenophobic about the whole “who gets to speak for someone” question. For all the concern about how the political right in this country has focused on the alienness of the “them,” the political left is just as busy focusing on the exclusivity of the “us.” They’re flip-sides of the same thing. Both the left and the right have tacitly agreed that the premise of the discourse is difference.

And in doing so, bam. You’ve tricked one group into wanting to build walls around others, and tricked the other group into wanting to build walls around itself.

Instead of asking who speaks for the people who have been harmed or who have suffered, the much more vitally urgent question is, Who speaks about them?

Because that had damned well better be everyone. And until it is, we will just go on inflicting and experiencing more harm and suffering.

We all must bear witness to people who have been harmed and who are being harmed. Young black men being murdered by unaccountable law enforcement is not an “African-American issue.” The subjugation of women is not a “feminist issue.” The denial of social rights to differently gendered people is not an “LGBTQ issue.” The disempowerment of indigenous peoples is not a “Native American issue.”

Like it or not, these are our issues. Because these injustices affect people first and foremost — regardless of the adjectives that are used to classify them. And encouraging people to split into squabbling identity groups is a divide-and-conquer technique that will prevent us from finding solutions to them together.

The premise of the discourse has to change. We can no longer afford to pretend that we are defined by our differences. We need to remember that we all bleed. We all cry. We all mourn. And we all celebrate. We all lift up. We all ennoble and embolden and encourage. We all dance around the fire and tell our stories and listen with wonder to the stories of others.

“These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the pathetic chant of the human voice.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything

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  1. JoeV says:

    Wow. This is powerful, succinct and so well written. This deserves to be published much more than that New Yorker article.

    Which reminds me, I too struggle to keep up on my reading, one of the down sides of having a subscription.

    • sottovoce says:

      Thanks, Joe! That means a lot to me.

      With regard to falling behind, every now and then I find I just have to sacrifice an issue or two by skimming them. But lately TNY’s editors have been making it harder to do that!

  2. Michael Höhne says:

    I suggest, “Who speaks with them?”

  3. Sam says:

    “We all dance around the fire and tell our stories and listen with wonder to the stories of others.”

    So nicely said; and, sadly, so easily forgotten. Well done.

  4. TCWriter says:

    With two young daughters (and a Mr. Mom task list), I’m all-too-often compelled to declare *New Yorker* bankruptcy, consigning the unread issues to oblivion and starting fresh with the latest arrival.

    Regret is too weak a word.

    The language of political discourse is probably too emeshed in the contest of politics to evoke anything approaching collaboration. I wish it were different.