Speaking out of turn

I wrote this some time back. Seems timely now to air it.

What does it mean to “speak out of turn”? It is to speak when one is not supposed to, or towards a person or persons one is not supposed to speak to, or about something one is not supposed to speak on. To be seen as or accused of speaking out of turn is to be reminded one has no right to speak. It is to have one’s views be cast as illegitimate because of who one is. It is a kind of illegitimacy that has less to do with the content of the speech and more with the position of the speaker relative to that of other speakers in a field.

As a weapon, how does it work? Not everyone can cast this aspersion. It has to come from a place of actual power. Once cast, a signal is sent that it is free for all. There is a pile-up, compounding the thing, and attacks get increasingly personal and vicious.

Speaking out of turn—the existence of such a phenomenon—should alert us to this: discourse exists within a field of power. The world of discoursing—of opinions and ideas and truth-claims moving and traveling and coming into conflict or meeting resonance—is not flat. Not everyone gets to make truth claims; not everyone gets to accuse others of speaking out of turn; few get to never experience being accused of speaking out of turn.

When one knows there is risk in speaking, one learns to turn down the volume, think strategically about when and where and how to speak. It is labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts the mind.

Because it is not really about substantive content, we see attacks on persons—sometimes as individuals, other times as groups. The marginalization of social groups—sometimes along lines of gender, class, ethnicity, or sexuality—is partly about marginalization in discursive space. Marginality means bearing greater risks of being accused of representing narrow interests, violating larger interests, when speaking.  Marginal social groups never get to claim their views as neutral, universal views.

Once there are aspersions cast on someone or group, some whiff that they are speaking out of turn, substantive arguments become less relevant. If one insists on following ideas, tracing debate, weighing evidence, one is bound to be frustrated, confused, perplexed. It works for a while, but then suddenly, it is all shade—thrown at the speaker (speaking out of turn). You’re crazy. You’re disrespectful. You’re unpatriotic. You have vested interests. You’re not qualified. You, you, you. One can try to ask questions about context or attempt to bring things back to regular “conversation”—what is the historical backdrop of the issue at hand? What are the different sides? What are the points of agreement, the baselines? What are the places of conflict? What were we talking about to begin with? Those questions make sense for a while, but then, BOOM, shade thrown on the person—how dare you speak out of turn, not following the rules—and all hell breaks loose again.

When one knows there is risk in speaking, one learns to turn down the volume, think strategically about when and where and how to speak. It is labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts the mind.

Why should we care, if we’re not the ones being accused of speaking out of turn?

For this, we have to go back to our original conceit, our aspirations for our society, our dreams that we refuse to get away from: “democratic,” “inclusive,” “harmonious,” “justice,” “equality.”

There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can speak. Over time, as people stop ourselves before we have spoken, our muffled thought and ringing silences constitute the public arena.

All of these ideals point to the centrality of rights to voice. A democratic society is one where people have rights—substantive, and not just as formality—to have thoughts and express them. A harmonious society requires safe spaces for diverse persons to speak so that we can figure out how to live together. In an unjust world, and that is the world in which we live, we have to make conscious and concerted efforts to ensure the terrain of debate is open, is fair, is safe, so that inequalities and injustice can be redressed. Drawing false equivalence—pretending that ideas are neutral and that each one is already valued equally as every other one—prevents the creation of space for addressing inequalities. For all the ideals to come to fruition, the safety of a discursive space for everyone, not just those high in the social hierarchy, is a key condition. There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can speak. Over time, as people stop ourselves before we have spoken, our muffled thought and ringing silences constitute the public arena.

That “speaking out of turn” is a thing we can observe in contemporary Singapore, that contentious issues quickly devolve into the territory of singling out persons—naming of names and use of derogatory labels—tells us that we are lacking in this substantive right to voice. This is disturbing.

We must watch how leaders do or do not single people out for speaking out of turn. We should see how they do or do not level the playing field for public discourse.  We should look at how they do or do not step up to protect the Singaporeans they do not agree with, do not approve of, are ideologically opposed to. And then after we’re done glancing up, we should look to ourselves, and persist, recognizing that in a democratic society—the one we want to live in some day—there should be no such thing as speaking out of turn. Justice, equality, inclusion, harmony—these are just words, mere rhetoric, until there is a field on which these principles can live.

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