This year I have been organising around proposed changes to City of Melbourne by-laws that, if passed, would ban rough sleeping. I am horrified by this possibility. However, my activity has caused me to think hard about my right to use my voice on this issue – especially since I have never experienced homelessness before.
There is a legal principle known as ‘standing’, that I think is useful there. ‘Standing’ is essentially the right to commence legal proceedings. Basically, if you want to take someone to court, you have to have something to lose. The issue arises most often in administrative law (that is, the laws that govern the activities of government agencies). For example, if someone seeking asylum wants to challenge a decision made about their right to stay in the country, their standing is generally fairly apparent since they will be materially affected by the decision. If a public interest group wanted to challenge the issue, however, they would likely have more trouble establishing they have a private right or a special interest to be protected, and probably would not be granted standing.
I am currently thinking about what it means to extrapolate this legal principle of standing from the world of law to the realm of public debate. What if I publically assert my opinion as to what is right and wrong only when I am able to show that I am affected by the issue at stake? Otherwise, if I weigh in on a debate on some topic that doesn’t actually impact me, it raises important questions as to what my motives might be. They may, in fact, not actually be aligned with the interests of those who are actually or most affected.
The way the law of standing is played out in the courts is strict and individualistic, and I don’t mean to say that we should adopt the same tough tests when it comes to giving people a voice in public debate. After all, the court room and the public stage are two different spaces. But I do think the concept of thinking carefully about who has a right to contribute their voice – and who does not – is a useful one.
It is imperative that struggles for positive social change are led by those who are most oppressed by the system being challenged. It is these people who understand most intimately the nature of the oppression, and can articulate an alternative that does not simply perpetuate more injustice. People seeking asylum should lead debates about justice for asylum seekers. The voices of people with lived experience of homelessness should be centre stage as our community grapples with how to engage with homelessness. These groups have the most direct ‘standing’ in the issue at hand, because they really do have something to lose or gain, based on the outcome of the public debate.
“Nothing about us without us” pretty much sums this up: a slogan taken up powerfully by the disability rights movement, who refused the patronising voices of others speaking on their behalf. What they did instead was turn up the volume on their own voices. It is their voices, after all, that are most relevant and insightful when it comes to disability rights.
As for those of us less affected, but concerned nonetheless? We need to think carefully about how issues we care about affect us personally. That way, if we choose to be allies to others who are more directly impacted, we do so in genuine, fully-embodied solidarity, not intellectual paternalism. And then we move over to make sure the right people are taking up the air time.
As Murri artist, activist and academic Lilla Watson challenges us:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let us work together.”
I can think of times where I have not done this well, which is why it’s important that I’m thinking it through now. What is my ‘standing’ in relation to the rough sleeping issue? How might I activate in solidarity, rather than paternalism? Stay tuned, because that will be the subject of my next post.