So what can we learn from Yusuf Ali and his brilliant oratory today? Firstly, that however dominant some modes of speech (and some speaking bodies) are, inciting difference has actual value and can generate results even in the most conservative of contexts. It would be naïve to think that bringing more diversity to public debates is easy, but it can be done. However, doing so would probably require some cultural work in rethinking what counts as an authoritative, scientific or ‘expert’ voice and what is sounds like. Again, one could conclude that it is a simple matter of assimilation: if experts would learn to speak ‘like’ politicians, maybe they could be included more in the range of public voices heard as appealing, acceptable or present. But, as I suggested before, many experts already share a lot of their cultural values, practices and tacit assumptions with those who govern, and have to a large degree been cast in the same mold.
In fact, quite a number of the expert voices we do get to hear, at the moment, are very comparable to the very visible speakers of the Victorian debating club. Those who, by virtue of their privileged backgrounds and conventional faces, could profit from the equation between presence and voice and can ‘get away’ with somewhat unconventional behavior. The Cambridge Union recorded, around 1890, a speaker who “caused great merriment by imitating the action of Ulysses, with an umbrella” – something a South Asian speaker would not have been able to afford to do. Not entirely unlike these charming eccentrics of the Union, a number of (highly educated, white, male, ablebodied, etc) experts are now ‘getting away’ with modes of speech that would otherwise set them apart as incomprehensible outsiders. Insisting on ‘only relying on the numbers’, ‘viruses don’t have ideologies’ or ‘just looking at the science and not letting politics interfere’, many of them -unwittingly, perhaps- rehearse exactly the kind of combative political discourse that has made experts invisible in the first place, and reinforces the distinction between the worlds of politics and science.
Insisting on an intrinsic modesty or political neutrality of scientific speech, however, is not only ineffective, it would also be dishonest – or at the very least naïve. What we do as researchers and scientists is political, and what we say in public is even more so, whether we like it or not. Insisting on some intrinsic difference between the political and the scientific voice is, therefore, likely to be counterproductive. Meanwhile, simple assimilation into the current rules of political persuasion would likely erase the potential for diversity and difference that public debates so desperately need. A catch 22 we’ve known before, of course, but one that seems more important now, especially for those who find themselves in a position of being compelled to speak about their experiences and expertise, without being offered a platform.
For the ‘true’ subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself, the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation. (Spivak, 1988)
So what do we do, when we find ourselves in a speaking culture that is designed to exclude us? Or, more poignantly, what do we do when we find ourselves being given a platform because we live in culture that is designed to include us and afford us presence – and to deny it to others? We do what we’ve learned as overachieving first-generation insecure students: learn to master the language of power better than its native speakers, without forgetting to “gild” their “trite truisms” with the precious knowledge we carry with us from our plethora of different ethnic, geographic, class,…backgrounds. We turn to our brilliant friends and colleagues and push them forward where we can, amplifying those voices that should be present, muting our own where they are not needed or relevant. But most of all, we listen, and work to develop the skill to hear voices where our prestigious educations have taught us to hear noise.
This is what I hope my frivolous inessential course will do for my students: to help them develop an ‘ear’ for divergent voices, the skill of listening critically to public speech and recognize that what ‘power’ sounds like is a cultural construct, ready to be undercut by a skilful listener. To understand the situatedness of all voices in the public sphere and to reflect on the ‘presence’ of academic, political and activist discourse in our current soundscape of crisis. And maybe, having learned to listen analytically, critically and empathically, they will also develop the necessary skills to speak up and claim some presence for themselves. Because in all the clamour about who can or should decide how we should live in this new world of distance and digitalization, and in debates about the quality and values of our lives in the face of disease … it is the voice of the future leaders, experts, key workers and thinkers, that I would love to hear more.