Agreement and the Right to Speak

People who identify themselves as a member of a community sometimes limit who can represent “their” community, especially if they perceive the community as marginalized or misrepresented in some fashion. Generally, the argument is that only those identified as being within the community have the right to make public representations of it. As an example, a few who identify as Hindus have complained about those not born as Hindus making public and academic assertions about things designated “Hinduism.”

Arguments such as these generally cloak an effort to enforce a particular ideological position, a specific representation. If you are not born as a Hindu, some who identify as Hindu and who disagree with your assertions may employ your identification to dismiss your right to make such representations. If you were born and continue to identify as a Hindu, some who disagree with your assertions may still dismiss what you say because your mind has been colonized or you have “sold out” your community. In contrast, whether you are born as a Hindu or not, if you say the right thing, then these gatekeepers will recognize happily your authority to speak, whomever you are.

Being granted the authority to speak, then, often has more to do with what a person says than any notion of their identification. It is not about whether the person truly “understands” the community (whatever that means) or has overcome whatever privilege people associate with the person’s birth. Assertions of identification become a tool to legitimize or disempower other voices, depending on what representations and ideologies someone appreciates. Much like the strategic use of essentialisms among scholars that my colleague has critiqued, labels of identification and their legitimizing effects serve strategic ends.

Of course, academic assertions of whose work counts as serious or good scholarship reflect a similar notion of affinity rather than some intrinsic state of being a scholar.

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