Some of the darkest pages in the history book of humankind are the ones in the chapter called ‘colonialism’. The systematic exploitation of both people and natural resources for domestic markets in the west showed the grimmest side of what people are capable of. Moreover, this chapter hasn’t ended. Both racism and the economic underdevelopment of a lot former colonies are still highly relevant issues today which deserve attention.
Yet, it’s always a bit difficult to write about these topics if you happen to be a well-educated, white, western, male. Who am I to represent the suffering of people which I haven’t experienced myself? A lot of these victims can’t speak for themselves because they are either dead or because they don’t have the same access to the physical infrastructure to make their voices heard in a politically relevant manner (write essays on a computer, appear on television without being reduced to a token minority, etcetera). So does the fact that they can’t speak represent their current predicament not better then someone who speaks for them?
The process of letting one’s utterances being counted as real speech as opposed to mere emotional background noise maybe the single most important definition of emancipation. The French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges was, therefore, spot on when she famously proclaimed that: “When a woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” Human beings who are needed as the scapegoats of systematic violence and exploitation should also have the right to make their voices heard. Yet, having the right to make you voice being heard and actually being capable of producing the speech which can resist systematic violence are two different things. The latter is something which not everybody is able to do.
Should we then speak for victims if they can’t speak for themselves? Preferably not. What Olympe de Gouges has in common with almost every other modern emancipatory figure, from Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg to Toussant Louverture, is that she received a comprehensive education based on the enlightenment values. A lot of these figures where even the first generation who received proper education, thus being able to see the difference between universal human rights and the actual living conditions their parents grew up in. Although a lot of products of western enlightenment are despicable, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A proper education is, and always has been, one of the most important driving forces behind revolutionary action. So instead of speaking for people it’s better to share knowledge with them.