“The Problem of Speaking for Others”-The Article every Educator should Read

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Alcoff’s The Problem of Speaking for Others, argues the issue of people speaking on behalf of others instead of letting them tell their own stories. I suggest educators read this article to help them make informed decisions about the texts they have their students read. Below, I highlight some of the main ideas from the article with my reflections. I end with a few vocabulary words used in her article to provide context to her stories.

The first concept that stood out to me was when Alcoff questioned, “If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?” (p.2). Before this, Alcoff was explaining how speaking for others can be problematic because you cannot speak to other people’s experiences, even if they are similar to yours. However, this can get complicated when you both share similar situations and are both speaking out on the same thing. I am glad she brought in the point she makes in this quote because it brings in the concept that there are still times when it is acceptable to speak for someone else. She expands on this idea further, “The major problem with such a retreat is that is significantly undercuts the possibility of political effectivity” (p. 5). While it is not okay to speak for others without letting them tell their firsthand accounts, there are times of oppression when some might not be able to speak out for themselves. For example, in current events, someone may be able to speak for Syrian refugees and tell of their struggles and despair to world governments. Because the refugees are displaced and in difficult situations, they might not be able to have the means or resources to speak out for themselves. In this case, I think it will take someone from the dominant cultures to speak out for these people so that their governments will provide them refuge and aid during the challenging time. Alcoff’s assertion that rituals of speaking are a political arena directly relates to this because people have to consider the political statement they will make if they choose to speak on behalf of the refugees. Speaking for others matters to me because as a future educator I will have to consider when it will be best to speak on behalf of my students affected by domination, exploitation, or subordination. While it is always better to let someone tell their own story, I will have to consider the potential political consequences of speaking for a student.

Another point that stood out to me was when she said, “A further problem with the ‘retreat’ response is that it may be motivated by a desire to find a method or practice immune from criticism. If I speak out only for myself it may appear that I am immune from criticism because I am not making any claims that describe others or prescribe actions for them” (p.8). I thought a lot about this point because it is difficult to pinpoint when someone is speaking for themselves to express their own perspective and when they are defending their unique perspective to avoid criticism.

Finally, Alcoff sums up the argument, “One cannot simply look at the location of the speaker of her credentials to speak; nor can one look merely at the propositional content of the speech; one must also look at where the speech goes and what it does there” (p.11). I  especially agreed with this quote because it sums up many of the arguments discussed throughout the article. I agree that you cannot simply look at someone’s credentials or who they are speaking for, but rather look at the function of the speech. This goes back to the political aspect of speaking for others. Is the person truly speaking for others to help them get out of a difficult situation for the sole purpose of being altruistic? Or does the person have a personal gain or political agenda for speaking for others? People have abused the power to speaking for others and has given it a negative connotation.

This concept of speaking for others is important for educators to understand so they do not tokenize and use resources that enable people speaking for others. Literature should depict people speaking for themselves, their own experiences, and telling their own stories.


Vocabulary Words:

feminism (in regard to speaking for others): holds the idea that speaking for others, even other women, is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate (p.1)

crisis or representation: “for in both the practice of speaking for as well as the practice of speaking about others, I am engaging in the act of representing th other’s needs, goals, situation, and in fact, who they are, based on my own situated interpretation” (p. 3).

rituals of speaking: “who is speaking to whom turns out to be as important for meaning and truth as what is said; in fact what is said turns out to change according to who is speaking and who is listening” (p.4).

 charge of reductionism: “metaphysically insupportable essentialism that assumes one can read off the truth and meaning of what one says straight from the discursive context. ” premise 1 and 2  on page 5 (p.6).

retreat response: to retreat from all practices of speaking for; it asserts that one can only know one’s own narrow individual experience and one’s ‘own truth’ and thus that one can never make claims beyond this” (p.7).






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