11 August 2007

do those for whom others speak wish to be spoken for?

Gerald and others have posted about a new book from the British Conference of Bishops. The book apparently trashes the pope and his predecessor, for among other things, being out of touch with the developing world, and for being raised “in a world dominated by white racism”, and so on, and seek to represent the plight of the developing world, and women, and other trodden upon groups for the reader.

Years ago, during my overlong education, I read an essay by Gayatari Chakravorti Spivak entitled "Can the Subaltern Speak?" The essay examines a theoretical standing of the lowest of the low, and to understand the question of the title: can the lowest of the low speak? The answer, in brief, is no, they cannot, for silence is the mark of the lowest, and if one begins to speak for oneself, one is no longer the lowest of the low.

I have a few questions for this. First, from a practical point of view, is there such a thing as the lowest of the low as defined here? Any anthropologist or sociologist or even social worker who seeks someone out to study their plight, who asks their subject questions about their plight, and gets an answer, is therefore not dealing with the lowest rung. So perhaps in this respect the lowest as defined here is a hypothetical construct, not a real one. But- and this is I think, important- the definition of the subaltern- silence- means that the lowest of the low does not speak, and is therefore always spoken for.

Take, for instance, the tedious feminists of my years at school. Women had a bad lot, they said. Women had always had a bad lot at the hands of men. Men had always dominated women.

Before going on, point one: Even the most cursory glimpse at history will show anyone that it is not the case that all men dominated all women. The hierarchical structures of most of the west indicates that women were part of the hierarchy, and noble women dominated lower born people. While it is true that it was usually men at the top, it is not true that women never got any power. The situation is not therefore men dominating women, but more along the lines of a few men dominating everyone.

So the feminist argument went that in the past men also spoke for women. They would do so until women spoke for themselves. In my time there was the former leader of the National council for action on the status of women, or some other such title (taxpayer funded and all) who would say every time a microphone was in front of her mouth: "And I speak for all Canadian women..." Over the next week there would be newspapers filled with women who wrote in to say "she does not speak for me!" but she never lessened her claims. So the situation went from some men speaking for women, to some women speaking for all women. And this was held to be an improvement, because only one women could know what another woman wanted and needed. But in their efforts they ironically recreated the situation of the patriarchy: a few speak for, and control, all.

So, back to this book. The Church has spoken for men, and women, and the developing world, and so on, for a long time, and it has been wrong apparently. It is time for the other world to speak back. But instead what we get are those groups spoken for yet again by others who have moved into a privileged position. And what words they speak for those poor masses:

"The Church in Asia must be baptised in the Jordan of Asian multireligousness...
Clearly, non-Christians are good and holy not in spite of but because of the
beliefs and practises of their religions."

"The attitude of the Catholic clergy towards women is that men were/are considered more in the image of the Man-God Jesus Christ and hence superior to women. Women are still not considered worthy of priestly ordination and of the exercise of higher teaching and administrative functions in the Church."

"Probing below the worst of the noisy rhetoric of the 'recovery of family values', one often finds a form of Christianity that is deeply connected to capitalism. Hence the association of 'traditional' families with financial as well as spiritual flourishing is made, and in one swift construction an entire capitalist economic system is also

These are the words spoken for the subaltern. Oddly enough, the subaltern apparently needs to be spoken for like a left wing third year university student.

The Church, and the Popes, have in the past spoken for all. But there are at least two differences to what the Church and the Popes say and what these others say: The Pope has the authority, the true authority, to do so. These authors have no authority beyond themselves and their limited theories, and a pretense that the lowest think just like them. Or, if they don't, they should.

The other difference is: the Pope is right.

No comments: