Whether consciously or not, we all speak for someone. Of course, we speak for ourselves. But even what we speak in our own self-interest most often represents others; we live in a pluralistic place which guarantees that what we say likely echoes someone else’s views. Over the past months I have listened- sometimes intentionally, other times involuntarily- to a host of political voices seeking to speak on my behalf. Despite the fact that I would be quite uncomfortable having any of them speak for me, each seems to lay claim to the privilege of speaking for a majority of the electorate, including me. And as I have wrestled with the reality of someone purporting to represent my thoughts and feelings, it got me to thinking about the rest of us. Who do we speak for?
I thought about the people I know best. One of my close friends, passionate about the outdoors his entire life, has come to teach environmentalism to college students at a time when most of his peers have retired. Another has devoted his energies to the cultivation of the arts, and on a broad scale, in a manner that embraces not only accomplished artists but also the most fledgling efforts of the virtually unknown. A third has ended a career of pastoring his congregations with a voice for social justice, even when doing so might have generated unrest and personal discomfort. Each has chosen a cause, a purpose for his voice, a deliberate act of representation.
A lot of people attempt to speak for others but miss the mark. Government officials are notorious for speaking what the constituents want to hear, or what the officials want them to hear. Religious leaders for centuries have tried to tell their followers how they should behave, only to be challenged by shifting societal norms. CEOs everywhere adopt the role of corporate spokespersons, but the perspectives of employees are often far different from the company line: ask a CEO about his/her company’s culture and then interview an employee or two.
Others of us are much less overt- quieter types for whom introversion is a safer form of existence and who are far less likely to mount a figurative soapbox of any kind. Who or what do we represent in our relative silence? For assuredly, not to speak is still a statement of one kind or another.
One of the lessons I learned long ago during my earliest years in business was that “silence is acceptance.” If I was not willing to challenge an idea, then the fair presumption was that the concept was acceptable to me and that I would support it. While the wisdom served as a potentially liberating management tool, more broadly the notion described the societal reality in which we live. Just as in the truth of “not to decide is to decide,” there is truth in “not to speak is to speak.” And there is potential danger in words that are never spoken.
For instance, an article in The Minneapolis StarTribune describes the growing number of “speakers” fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in rural towns of the Upper Midwest. The self-appointed proselytizers, whose expertise ranges from used car sales to conspiracy theory, possess an understanding about how to use their words to stoke the fears of the unknown in the minds of their audiences. Of course, there are many unbiased residents in small-town America. But the silence of their voices provides amplification to those who portray all Muslims as like-minded, radical jihadists. The “preachers” speak only for themselves, I hope.
Then there is the case of words spoken out of the side of the mouth. The same political candidates referenced above, with choruses from their legislative colleagues, have all decried the disappearance of the middle-class in the U.S. in the most recent case of a near-extinction. But while each has accentuated the importance of the species and pledged to save it, their words belie their true loyalties. While the middle-class faces utter disappearance, the top 1% of the population continues to amass unprecedented wealth. The reality begs the question about who truly speaks for the vanishing strength of America, its middle class.
For whom do we speak? Whether we dedicate our words and actions to the natural world, the creativity of the arts, the circumstances of marginalized people, a political ideology or something else, our words leave a legacy. That legacy will be a fingerprint of our lifetimes, a precise identification of who we were in our time, a picture of what was important to us, an identification of our stewardship, the depth of our love, and whether we left the world in any better shape than we found it….