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Flipping the Tables: Speaking Truth to Power

Movement builders often describe the work they do as “speaking truth to power.” The term is related as one that originated with Quaker leaders who began using it during the 1950’s Civil Rights movement, but it was first used by Bayard Rustin in 1942, part of his commitment to social justice. Rustin was a Black, gay Quaker who later pulled the phrase from a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Rustin used it to write the 1955 pamphlet, Speak Truth to Power: a Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. It has long been a powerful tool to organize and motivate. Mahatma Gandhi employed satyagraha; a Sanskrit practice known as a “truth force” to resist efforts to silence his voice.

A similar term also appears in the Greek New Testament - parrhesia [παρρησία]. Philosopher Michel Foucault says that it a method where the speaker says everything, opening their heart and mind to other people. "Parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy." [1] When the time to persuade has ended but there are still things left unsaid, it is a method to reclaim our voices.

Death in philosophy does not always mean bodily death. Relationships die, or the cost can come as a loss of personal reputation. Many reach a place where the burden of staying silent feels far weightier than the loss that speaking truth inevitably brings. There is always a cost from taking that stand. Speaking his truth without saying a word cost Colin Kaepernick his career in the NFL. When gymnast Rachael Denhollander accused world-renowned coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, she was vilified by her entire community – including her own church. The many women who accused Hollywood elites like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein found their own careers blacklisted. Sometimes people find that they have reached a moment in their life where they feel they must speak truth to power, no matter the personal cost.

Every movement toward justice has been led by leaders who were compelled to speak their truth loudly and boldly, even if they die for it (MLK), are locked up for it (Nelson Mandela), are condemned for it (LGBTQIA+ people of faith) or lose the respect of their colleagues or peers (Republicans opposing the party line).

Speaking truth loudly does not mean that others are ready to hear.

We are taught to be deferential to power differentials in our lives. Children are taught to respect their elders. Employees are trained to be loyal to their boss or company. When we speak truth despite embedded societal conditioning against speaking, those hearing it are more likely on average to dismiss it as unfounded criticism or to be offended – and too often those we speak of use their power to punish or harm us.

This weekend the United States will recognize July 4th, commonly known as Independence Day. Every student is taught the story of how frustrated colonizers created a new nation committed to liberty and justice for all. But it has been almost 250 years, and we are still fighting to make that historical claim for those descended from people enslaved when it was made or who lived on the land of the Americas and Caribbean when the waves of European people began arriving here.

Millions of people have spoken their truth, and still their call for our national commitments to become lived truths, not just vacant promises, go unheard. It takes courage to stand and film a murder, knowing that the uniform worn by the perpetrator gives them the power to also end your life. It takes commitments to stand in the middle of a street in sandals and a dress to confront a person who is legally pointing a gun at you.


Above - Ieshia Evans, Baton Rouge, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Bachman


Unequal power affects our entire world.

We must learn to hear truth spoken to power with our hearts, even when our minds reject the words or the speaker. It is not a brain activity – but an act of radical compassion and embodied love. If we cannot hear the truth spoken by others with our hearts, we can never transform our world to be a place of justice.

What truth do you carry that you wish you had spoken?

What truth was told that you regret not being in a space to hear?

[1] “The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia, ” 1984 by Michael Foucault.

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