Commentary

The Value of One’s Voice

 

 

After reading Nathan Goldthwaite’s ’18 article “On The Legitimacy Of Opinions,” I was filled with mixed emotions. I agree with his argument regarding respecting opinions and statements from everyone despite their identity because every voice is valid. This is true in most cases. People’s opinions, however, don’t always hold the same value compared to others based on their identity. As a result of the different experiences that people of different identities have, their voices hold different sentiments and values.

I must admit that while listening to Obama’s speech, I never paid attention to the fact that Atticus Finch was a white and fictional man. But, I think Melissa HarrisPerry’s question of why Obama d i d n ’t c h o o s e to quote the voice of an underrepresented person in his speech was important to make. The observation doesn’t invalidate the impact of his quote, but it affects the sentiment. It forces the audience to question whether Obama chose a white man in order to make white people feel good about themselves. It forces the audience to question why Atticus was chosen over all historic figures in history. Harris-Perry’s argument was not misplaced. Her entire presentation focused on giving a voice to people of color, in particular black women. While it is not the responsibility of minorities to constantly give a voice to those like them or other minority groups, as president, Obama had the power to do. Although Obama didn’t necessarily make the “wrong” decision to quote a fictional white man, he didn’t choose the “right” person either.

Goldthwaite argues that Barack Obama’s use of Atticus F i n c h ’ s quote f r o m “ T o Kill a Mocking – bird” was well chosen because it is a wellknown book, and he is therefore a well-known character to the American people. As a result, using an unknown Civil Rights activist would not have had the same effect. He states, “Had he referred to a lesser-known civil rights leader like Harris-Perry suggested, Obama would have excluded all but those who were well-versed in the Civil Rights Movement…” On that point, I believe a reference of that nature would have encouraged people to discover who Obama was alluding to in his speech. In addition, I believe that it’s okay for some references to be catered to certain groups of people. For example, Melissa Harris-Perry’s speech may have been more relatable to me — a black girl — than a white male, because that was the purpose. Harris-Perry’s presentation was meant to bring awareness to those that are not exposed to the story of black women, while giving a voice to people like me.

The experiences of minorities are different from that of white males, so the use of an Atticus Finch quote cannot express the same sentiments. While the quote is important, valid, and fits in Obama’s speech — a quote from a minority group or unknown civil rights activist would have created a stronger effect. I strongly disagree with Goldthwaite’s when he says, “Instead of focusing on the race and gender attached to Atticus Finch, we should instead consider the powerful message Obama conveyed through the fictional character’s words.” Not only does this dismiss Harris-Perry’s argument, but it ignores the fact that within our society, one’s identity matters immensely.

This questioning and listening can begin on our campus. We must organize more student held discussions in order to show that this is not simply important in the grand scheme of our society, but in our daily lives. Similarly to TED talks, we can have weekly student run f o – r u m s , in order to shed light on new topics, present the different perspectives of people, and provide a place to explore the impact one’s identity and background may have on their opinions. It would not only encourage more discussion on overlooked issues but provide a platform for many people. If we listen and question what people say in casual conversations and classroom discussions while keeping their identity in mind, we can develop a new understanding of one’s speech and its effect on us. When having conversations, actively pay attention to who is speaking and ask questions to ensure who is being included or forgotten in the conversation. Once we have an understanding of whose voices are forgotten, we can create platforms for those voices that are unheard.

In the end, yes, a statement or opinion should always be given equal opportunity to be heard, but we must always recognize the importance of identity. Whether we want to admit it or not, identity will always matter and create a different effect based on what a person is saying. Especially when people in positions of power dismiss the voices of those with less power, we must take into account who is saying what and highlight the voices of those unrecognized, f o r g o t t e n , and overshadowed. We must ask questions and wonder why those voices are not being included. We must constantly question one’s intentions and think about the reasonings and identity behind their perspective. In doing so, we will be one step closer to bringing people together and using their perspectives in building stronger communities.

Keely Aouga is a two-year Lower from Newark, N.J.

Feb 10, 2017