"So yes: this column is problematic. I’m yet another of the men who dominate the opinion pages of newspapers." — Owen Jones, "Why More Men Should Fight For Women’s Rights"
Writing is a privileged profession. Being able to write in a national-scale magazine or newspaper is a sign of significant privilege. It is becoming a relatively common practice for writers to draw attention to their privilege: when they talk about this and that, they make sure we are aware that someone as privileged in so many ways as they are could never really understand this and that. (Which doesn’t stop them from writing about it, or getting paid for doing so.) Journalists from all parts of the broad "leftist" spectrum are becoming more and more aware of the various aspects of their social privilege, and they can’t wait to tell us about it.
But why do this? What’s the point of it? Well, the idea is one of "checking privilege" before making comment or action. "Check" here has a dual meaning. In the first sense it means to examine or inspect ones own background and advantages. But it also can be taken to mean "limit" or "control". In order to check my privilege, it is not enough to simply acknowledge it; I must also take some action to reduce the impact of my privilege. Without the aspect of limitation, the practice of privilege-checking is mere performance.
The above quote, from Owen Jones, is perhaps the most accidentally self-aware of all such performances that I’ve seen. Disclaimers like this, while showing a commendable self-awareness, do nothing to qualify the writer to talk about the matter at hand. Quite the opposite, in fact: they provide good reasons not to trust the writer in question. By his own admission, Owen Jones is not the person to tell us about women’s rights, but by telling us this he seems to justify his doing so. And we are expected to accept this. But understanding one’s own position and privilege in the world is no substitute for understanding someone else’s marginalisation.
Let’s think about what a writer can be to a marginalised person. As a trans person, the main thing I have in mind is the relationship between trans people and the press, but I hope that this post will be applicable to other axes of oppression as well. To a marginalised person, a writer can serve as an intermediary, allowing the general population to learn about the struggles of the marginalised group. By explaining our issues in this way, the writer helps to humanise and de-other members of the marginalised group, hopefully contributing to their eventual liberation. At least, that’s the theory.
I imagine that most writers who consider themselves leftists see themselves in these terms. Even those who write for right-wing tabloids will at least use it as a justification; they’re "just helping us to get our stories out there", of course. But what the right-wing tabloid writer knows (and the leftist columnist pretends not to know) is that this is not a relationship of equals. The writer may have to get their work approved by editors, subeditors and lawyers, any of whom can be blamed for flaws in the final product. The marginalised person has no direct contact with these people, and thus has no way of knowing if such blame is appropriately placed; as far as they are concerned, the process is a "black box". As a result, the writer can say more-or-less what they like, and discard all responsibility for what is eventually published. The writer’s position as intermediary thus serves to prevent the marginalised person from having any say in what is written about them.
This issue raises two questions. The first question is: "What can a marginalised person do to use a writer as an intermediary without being exploited?" The second is: "What can a writer do to serve as an intermediary without exercising their privilege over marginalised people?" The two questions are complementary – we cannot answer one without addressing the other. In general, I believe the answer is to move towards a model of journalism where marginalised people are not just passive things that are "written about", but first-class citizens in the writing process. Likewise, the writer must cease to be an intermediary and start to be an advocate, not only in what they write, but also within the writing and publishing processes themselves.
That’s theory; now let’s talk practice. A simple way to put these ideas into practice is to offer marginalised people the chance to veto the publication of anything written about them as a matter of course, so that anything published therefore has some degree of approval behind it. Ideally this approval should be sought from a diverse group of people, and the writer should make some effort to avoid asking their friends who may inadvertently function as uncritical yes-people. This is almost certainly incompatible with the usual workings of modern daily print journalism, requiring loose (if any) deadlines and multiple rounds of drafting and redrafting until the editor, writer and the people being written about are all satisfied with the final product. However, this may not be a bad thing: relaxing the time pressures will almost certainly lead to better and more thoroughly-researched content than is usually possible. (It may be that journalists will need to put their own house in order before they can give this kind of work the time and resources it deserves.)
The ideal form of journalistic advocacy may be even more radical than this, however. West German left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof believed that the best way to represent people was to include them directly in the writing process itself 1. This is essentially the concept of "Nothing About Us Without Us" 2, but applied to journalism and propaganda instead of policy. A partnership of writer and marginalised people may represent a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach: the writer has access to the experience and knowledge of the marginalised people, while the marginalised people are able to tell their story with the writer providing assistance in preparing it for an audience. Ideally, the marginalised people would be given a decent wage in exchange for their participation, as compensation for their time and emotional labour.
Both of these approaches are built on a kind of consent-model for writing. Consent is key when writing about marginalised groups. When marginalised people are written about in ways they do not consent to, this has the potential to be a source of significant trauma. Furthermore, just like consent in other areas, writers must not obtain this consent by pressure or coercion, be it deliberate or accidental. This kind of coercion is most obvious in cases like the tabloid-writer’s favourite phrase "this story will break anyway, we just want your side of things", but it can be much more subtle as well; writers should err on the side of caution in this matter. Consent under pressure is not consent at all.
Many writers nowadays are fairly eager to take up the standards of marginalised groups. Trans people and women seem to be particularly popular causes today, with some other groups (people of colour especially) falling behind. The subject of which groups do and do not attract journalistic advocates is certainly worthy of discussion, but this post is fairly long already, and I don’t feel qualified to give this topic the attention it deserves.
In short: writers, don’t just write about us. Work with us. If you really want to help, you need to show us that you mean it. After all, actions speak so much louder than words.
"But she went a step further: she no longer wanted to write about or for people, but with them. Meinhof wanted those who have something at stake to have a say in what is being written about them. … She wanted them to participate in the process of writing." — Karin Bauer, "In Search of Ulrike Meinhof". In Karin Bauer (ed.), Everyone Talks About The Weather… We Don’t. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2008.↩
The phrase "Nothing About Us Without Us", or "nihil de nobis, sine nobis", has an interesting history, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page. The phrase first entered common usage in English with disability rights activism, but has since been adopted by many other marginalised groups.↩