I majored in Social Work in college because I wanted to help people who were marginalized and discriminated against by society. I wanted to live out my Christian faith and “do justice” in our world. When speaking to many in my Christian college circle, I talked about my desire to be a “voice for the voiceless.” The phrase “voice for the voiceless” is a common cliché in both religious and secular communities that is used to express a deep desire and conviction to help others. It sounds like a good and noble thing and those in helping professions are often commended for using their career to help others. However, there is one problem. Attempting to be a “voice for the voiceless” is a toxic and counterproductive mission.
Many people who desire to be a “voice for the voiceless” are well-meaning and good-hearted. They are genuinely concerned about the plight of the disenfranchised in our world. Unfortunately, many of them are ignorant about how paternalistic and oppressive social justice and mission work can be. They fail to recognize that their desire to save and “speak” for the “voiceless” can further harm the very communities that they want to help. As I mentioned in 6 Wicked Ways of the White Savior, many people who attempt to do good work domestically and abroad end up doing more harm than good because they reinforce systems of oppression. Being a voice for the voiceless is a good example of doing more harm than good. Below are 7 reasons why you should not be a voice for the voiceless:
1. Being a voice for the voiceless censors the voices of the oppressed: When people say that they want to be a voice for the voiceless, they mean that they want to stand up for the rights of those who cannot stand up for themselves. The problem with this idea is that it suggests that marginalized people are somehow incapable of speaking about their conditions in an articulate and concise way. Furthermore, it sets up a strategy that ignores the real perspectives, ideas, and worldviews of the oppressed. When you speak on behalf of a critical social injustice without actively engaging and connecting with people directly affected, you are using your privilege to achieve a social good through your own means.
2. Being a voice for the voiceless reinforces poverty and powerlessness: Many people define poverty exclusively through material lenses. What people fail to realize is that much of poverty is the feeling and reality of powerlessness. The very nature of oppression is to marginalize people in a way that they have little power. Systems of racism, sexism, classism, and imperialism are designed to marginalize and oppress people. Unfortunately, much of the charity and social justice work does little more than reinforce poverty. While social justice advocates and missionaries offer articulate and brilliant critiques about systemic issues (domestically and internationally), they are often unwilling to recognize how their very presence contributes to the oppression and marginalization. When you claim to be a voice for others who are suffering, you are reinforcing the very system that you want to fight.
3. Being a voice for the voiceless ignores and undermines that activism of oppressed communities: One of the biggest problems specifically with some of the mission work around the world is that many missionaries are ignorant of the actual work that is being done by communities overseas. Such assumptions result in many white missionaries going to other countries and advancing their own agendas. The same goes for churches that seek to do church planting in poor neighborhoods without understanding the dynamics of particular communities and learning about the churches that are centralized in key neighborhoods. When you ignore the work that is already being done to a dismantle a problem, you undermine, and in many cases, disrupt any movement and momentum to address a social problem. Furthermore, you prevent yourself from being an effective advocate with those who are affected by the injustice.
4. Being a voice to the voiceless prevents you from building relationships: When you try to simply be a voice for someone else, you are preventing yourself from building relationships and getting to know the “voiceless” people. Without relationships and actually understanding the problem, your work is meaningless. One of the problems with a lot of public policy work today is that proposals to fix a particular problem (criminal justice, homelessness, sex trafficking, ect.) is being proposed without any input, information, and instruction from people who are directly affected. When that happens, laws become passed without any meaningful impact.
5. Being a voice for the voiceless is selfish: It is selfish because it assumes and suggests that you are the right person and most moral human being to be that voice. People who think this way do not consider how they may be perceived (and the unintended consequences of their platform) or the reality that those who are marginalized need to be heard and valued. It so frequently becomes an attempt to show how committed you are to achieving a social good.
6. Being a voice for the voiceless is not necessary: It isn’t necessary to be a voice for others. It does not make you a more moral and passionate person nor does it remedy social ills. Do what is necessary to stand for justice. Don’t try to censor others voices and control the conversation around an injustice.
7. Being a voice for the voiceless is not effective: The bottom line is that being a voice for the voiceless is not effective. It merely does not work. It does not work to speak for others and share experiences that you aren’t qualified to share. What works is being effective partners with marginalized communities and learning from them.
It is important to understand that this critique is not suggesting that you shouldn’t want to help others or be vocal about injustices. It does not mean that mission work and advocacy is inherently harmful. There is absolutely a need to use your platform to speak out against injustices. It is important for white people to use their platform to call attention to white privilege within their own circles and ranks. It is important for Christians to support and call attention to the egregious injustices both domestically and internationally. It becomes a problem when white people censor the voices of minority communities and suggest that they have the answers to racial justice. It is a problem when pastors do church planting in poor communities and undermine the great work that established churches have been doing in such neighborhoods for decades. As a Christian and an advocate by profession, I think it is essential for people to stand up against injustices (through education, information, and involvement). It just needs to be done in a way that does not reinforce oppression. Advocate, educate, inform, and use your platform to do good. Just don’t try to be a voice for the voiceless. It is harmful.