Subaltern is a word you find on almost everything I write. But almost nobody knows what the hell it means. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Subaltern? What’s that?” I would not be a starving author. Likewise, the irony of asking what a subaltern is, is creepy. And, since every time I use the word subaltern I hear Inigo Mantoya say “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” I feel obligated to explain.
Subaltern is a political theory word that leaks out of colonialism and post-colonialist thought. Basically, without going through all the mumbo jumbo heavy lingo, a subaltern is a group of people who are systematically erased from the dialog. They are what Noam Chomsky calls “un-people.”
The best way to explain this is to use really bad examples so here goes:
1. All people in the U.S. have rights under the law. All people outside the U.S. have rights under International Law. This is especially true during wartime. There are rules of engagement that prohibit torture and certain torturous and “inhumane” weapons (assuming such things as humane weapons exist). However, in most cases around the world, if you are labelled a terrorist, no law applies to you. The person with a terrorist label is effectively deleted from having any human quality and States are then permitted to beat, torture, permanently detain, or any other inhuman thing to that person. Why? Because they cease to BE human.
Now, this is a terrible example because the vast majority of poorly thinking people will say, “But these people don’t DESERVE rights! They kill innocent people.” To which I say, even if that is true, do we say, “You are accused of murder, therefore you do not deserve a trial?” Not usually.
Those less willing to agree with the above example will require another. So, here goes:
2. The only way a subaltern can become human is by joining the masses, aka joining the group that believes its so right, so correct, that it is the ONLY one that exists. Currently, in the U.S. the argument is that the Occupy Wall Street movement is a bunch of hippies who want handouts and freebies from hard working people. That all one has to do is work hard and you will be rewarded.
This mentality only takes into consideration those who are ALREADY fortunate enough to have opportunities available TO them. By living in squalor in a poor neighborhood, your ability to “work hard and succeed” are diminished to near zero. That group is essentially the subaltern: Be like the rest of us and you will succeed. Problem is, that person not only has to be offered chances, which they are not, but they also must change their culture, their skin tone, their mannerisms, and in many cases their language just to be ELIGIBLE for those chances.
A subaltern has to give up being who they are in order to be considered human. In the Holy Roman Empire, the subaltern was all those peoples who did not believe in Christ as the one and true God. Either die, or tell us you believe in Christ as your one true God. Give up being who you are and join us. Or you are not really human and we need not consider you as such because you are so barbaric, so evil at your core that you do not deserve the safety net we REAL humans have created for ourselves.