Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education

Day 12 of the 26 Day Big Shut Up: what are we fighting for?

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You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, consumer satisfaction or the climate emergency. The Brexit referendum was perhaps the biggest recent pretence at listening to the voices of the British people which taught us a lot about how voices are manipulated.

We at TMC place great store by our brand strapline, ‘Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people’.  It’s an aspiration at the heart of our mission statement and exemplified in the work we do..

Youth Voice is central to many youth engagement strategies: three inform our work at TMC including Hart’s Ladder of Participation, Treseder’s Degrees of Participation and Lundy’s Model of Child Participation.  In 2012, Karsten identified 36 different models of youth participation in which youth voice plays different degrees of importance: perhaps this tells us that trying to define youth voice as a singular entity is a lost cause from the outset.  

So, rather than define a phenomenon such as youth voice as one all-encompassing model, it might make more sense to see it as a polyphonal: multi-faceted, multi-structured and multi-purposed.

The Disney film, Toy Story 4 is a great demonstration of this.  

In an early scene Buzz Lightyear tries persuading our hero, Woody, to give up his quest to find Bo Peep and go home.  Woody refuses so Buzz asks his inner voice what he should do next.  But pressing his voice box buttons offers no solutions, and Buzz shrugs off the competing advice with Thanks a lot, inner voice. Something we all might recognise in times of trouble when it comes to listening to what we think our intuition, our gut feeling or what we might think of as our authentic voice is telling us.  

Scratch the surface a bit more and Toy Story 4 offers us some great insights into the phenomenon of ‘youth voice’.

For example, ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning.  This is demonstrated when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

They are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box.  Woody donates his voice box to her and this leads to her gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both her and the child’s, happy ever afterness.  

The theft of voice is echoed in Disney’s Little Mermaid too, but Toy Story 4 also shows how voice is constructed through acts of impersonation.   In the final chase sequence, one of the toy gang, Trixie, impersonates the family car’s GPS system leading to the toys taking control of the car.  

Elsewhere in the film, the concept of heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is also demonstrated.  Heteroglossia suggests that there are several distinct languages within any single language: with each of those different languages having a different voice which competes with the others for dominance.   So, for example, at a critical moment during his search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, hears competing instructions from his own voice box:

It’s an unchartered mission in unchartered space

No time to explain!”

To infinity and beyond!” 

 But finally, Buzz presses the button with the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” and this does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again.  ‘Inner voice’ is far more heteroglossic than we might imagine. Listen to your inner voice says Buzz Lightyear throughout Toy Story.  But which one, we might ask ourselves?

And finally, whilst there are no apparent hypnotists in Toy Story, you don’t have to look far into Disney’s work to find Ka, the snake in Jungle Book who exemplifies perfectly how hypnotists can construct voices of impressionable young people.

So, is the search for authentic young people’s voices a false one, given the heteroglossic, provisional and fluid nature of voice?  And if so, then what hope is there for organisations like ourselves who place great value on the need to hear and act upon the voices of young people?

The hope lies in the very plurality that the word ’voices’ suggests. The work of Bacon and Korza is helpful here. They argue in Animating Democracy: the Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, that it’s the very presence of the multiple voices which leads to civic dialogue and democracy.  They argue that the function of cultural organisations is not only as producer, presenter or exhibitor: but also as catalysts and forums for civic dialogue and for democracy.

This leads me to three final-ish questions.  If we could recognise our own multiple voices, might this lead to the democratisation of ourselves, and an acceptance of ourselves from which acceptance of others might follow?  

Could recognising the ventriloquists, thieves, impersonators and hypnotists in our own lives lead to greater tolerance of the multiplicity of the voices of others and lead to societies which are more at ease with themselves?  

And finally, when it comes to your time to hear the voices of young people, how do you perform?  Are you a ventriloquist,  impersonator, hypnotist or something else? 

This blog is contributing to The Mighty (Un)Mute, a campaign aiming to raise £5,000 to support the artistic creation for one of ten Globe Sculptures in The World Reimagined art trail across Leicester. The purpose? To recognise and honour those most impacted by the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans through the centuries to the present day.

The TMC staff team are going to support the campaign by taking part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on the 5th October. If you want to join us on the day and take a vow of silence, then please check out the campaign here. 

Of if the thought of donating your silence for 24 hours is really too much, then you can donate your hard-earned disposable income here.

Or if neither of these is possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcome and appreciated.

So… come and help me to shut up, once and for all. You know you want to.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

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