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Speaking for Others

A philosophy PhD student explores how and why people come to be representatives for individuals whose identities and experiences are different from their own.

Wendy Salkin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy, where she is completing her dissertation, The Nicest Problem: Informal Political Representatives and Their Responsibilities to the Represented. Her research interests encompass political and moral philosophy, the philosophy of law, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and bioethics.

Salkin began her doctoral studies at Harvard in 2007 before heading to Stanford Law School, where she earned her JD in 2013. After law school, she clerked for the Honorable Judge Rosemary Barkett and the Honorable Judge Adalberto Jordan on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and served as a legal advisor to Judge Barkett on the Iran–United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague. She returned to Harvard in 2015, and spent the 2015–2016 academic year as a graduate fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. In December 2017, she was appointed a Harvard Horizons Scholar.

What was the genesis of your dissertation?

One of the requirements of the doctoral program in philosophy is to write a qualifying paper—the second-year paper—which doesn’t have to be directly connected to what you think your dissertation topic might be. I wrote my paper on informal political representation. That allowed me to try out an idea I was curious about, which was a good thing in my case because it served as the basis for my dissertation project.

I was inspired by an article published by philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff called “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” which led me to a series of connected questions about what it means to speak for others in particular contexts, and the distinctions Alcoff makes between speaking for others and speaking about others. After reading her article, I thought, “There’s even more to be said here about the circumstances under which we’re responsible to speak for others, the duties we have to speak for others, and the duties we have to speak for others in particular ways.” And then I became interested in the conditions under which we come to be in the position of speaking for others.

What is informal political representation?

When someone stands in for you, speaks in your voice, acts in your stead, makes agreements on your behalf, concedes a point you might not have wanted them to—that’s informal political representation. It’s not your congressperson, your lawyer, or your spouse—nor anyone else authorized by means of a formal election or selection procedure. An informal political representative is someone you did not elect, would not elect, of whom you may never have heard, but who speaks—or is speaking right now—on your behalf.

In my view, you may come into the position of an informal political representative by virtue of having that status ascribed to you by an audience. Someone else can—by encouraging you to speak or by hearing you say that you speak on behalf of others—claim that you speak for a certain group. So what’s interesting about this relationship is that an audience can create an obligation in you to stand as the informal representative of a particular group.

What do informal representatives do?

Even though informal representatives are neither elected nor selected, they can be present in a number of contexts and they can be politically influential. For example, they may increase the visibility of marginalized and oppressed groups, give voice to interests not adequately expressed in formal political fora, influence public discourse, and serve as conduits between the represented and policymakers. They can, as Martin Luther King, Jr., did in Montgomery, negotiate on a group’s behalf. They can make it the case that an audience recognizes a collection of individuals as a group with shared politically salient interests. They can even make it the case that a collection of individuals come to see themselves as a group with shared interests.

What are the implications or consequences of speaking for or about others? Is it always an act of advocacy, or is it ever an act of appropriation that silences those seeking to be seen and heard in the public sphere?

A number of problems might arise from being put in the position of speaking for others. You may not want to be taken to be speaking for anybody. You might not want to be the designated speaker for a group. Or, you might think you have a special obligation to speak for a group, if that group is one that is especially vulnerable, that is marginalized, and doesn’t have anyone else to speak for them.

In my dissertation, I provide an account of how people come to be in that role. When you speak for people even though you don’t share their identity or their experiences, you might believe there are special things you can do by virtue of not sharing their identity or experiences—political spaces into which you can give voice to the concerns of represented parties that might not otherwise have been given a hearing in those spaces. This, of course, is in tension with the concern that not being a member of the group may mean you are not well-situated to be the speaker for them. And so, I try to provide an account that is sensitive to tensions like those.

It strikes me, too, that this is a phenomenon that is arising for us in new and unanticipated ways, as speakers and audiences find one another on Twitter and other social media platforms though they are geographically dispersed. A contemporary example that I often discuss is Kim Kardashian West, who has an immense (if that is even adequate to describe it) social media presence, and who uses that platform in a number of ways, including to bring attention to the Armenian Genocide. In virtue of that work, she often gets uptake not just as an Armenian-American celebrity, but as a spokesperson for Armenian Americans.

How did you go about identifying the case studies in your dissertation?

In my dissertation, I ask two central questions: What duties and permissions do informal representatives have toward those for whom they speak or act? And how do they come to have those duties and permissions? These questions have led me into both historical and contemporary debates in political philosophy, legal philosophy, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and bioethics.

Alcoff’s piece engaged with real world examples, which gave greater force to the discussion about the ethics of speaking for and about others. This inspired me to think about philosophy as a discipline where we should strive to engage with and respond to real world examples. One aspect that distinguishes my work is that it is populated with examples that come out of real life and historical texts I’ve read, such as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, to which my advisor Tommie Shelby, the Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy, pointed me.

Professor Shelby also suggested I read The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, and that text was a turning point in my thinking about informal representation. In several chapters in my dissertation, I engage with arguments advanced by Du Bois about the nature and scope of the role of the informal representative. The third chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” has been deeply formative for me and has guided me as I develop the way I think about obligations to speak for others.

Why law school?

I knew from the time I was an undergraduate that I wanted to study law and I wanted to study philosophy, but decided not to apply to law and philosophy programs at the same time. At Harvard, I was able to begin my PhD studies, then take a leave of absence to earn my JD before returning.

My training in law has also guided me as a student of philosophy. It has helped me to better understand the ways the fields of philosophy and law intersect, how to advance a philosophical argument so that it is of interest both to philosophers and to broader audiences, and what sorts of legal questions may benefit from philosophical treatment.

Speaking for others seems essential to what it means it be a lawyer.

Legal training prepares you to speak for others in ways that are very specific to the law: to look out for the interests of your client and to make sure they are well represented, given that in many cases a lawyer is going to know more about the law than their client. That’s not always true, but in many cases a lawyer will know more about the law and take a particular client’s needs and translate that into something legally cognizable.

How has your legal training shaped your philosophical thinking about the problem of speaking for and about others?

I took a class on negotiation that informed some of my thinking about what a person is doing when they are speaking for others. Some of what I think about and write about in my dissertation concerns the varieties of speaking for others. It’s not only one thing you’re doing: you might, in speaking for another, negotiate on their behalf, and so thinking about what people are doing when they negotiate has given me a framework for thinking about varieties of informal representation. This enabled me to make more and better distinctions between different ways people might speak for one another, and different purposes for which they might do so.

What’s Next?

Right now, I’m finishing my dissertation and enjoying my final year at Harvard. I’m also a Mellon Sawyer Fellow at Boston University this year, participating in a series of seminars on the theme of “Humanities and Technology at the Crossroads.” In the fall of 2018, I will join the Department of Philosophy at San Francisco State University as an assistant professor. 

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