Lately, I’ve heard the phrase “Speak Truth to Power” in a lot of political commentary. The phrase is very succinct and packs a great deal of meaning in four words. The common understanding I have of the phrase is that it refers to someone who takes a public position that is viewed as being contrary to a generally held belief or position. Although this phrase has its roots in Quakerism and in the civil rights movement, its frequent use in the present political discourse indicates that some believe there are current parallels for which this phrase is most apt.
The phrase begins with the word “Speak” – a verb that denotes action and there is a lot of meaning condensed into that one word. It means more than being a witness as events unfold and historical moments pass by. It requires active engagement in the discourse. For some, who may be a singular voice in their family or community, such discourse may come at the risk of acceptance. Thus it often requires personal courage to “Speak”.
People have been arguing over the meaning of “Truth” forever. It can mean different things to different people. There have been many over the course of time that have made attempts to identify truths in both religious and civil contexts, not the least of which is our own Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yet, not all truths are self-evident and there are many lesser-truths that require observation, introspection, discourse, and study to fully understand. Whether it is the result of a personal journey or a legal proceeding, arriving at the truth is the destination – there is nowhere else to go. We have a sense that truth transcends us, it is its own thing. Truth is not defined by us, but it may be discovered by us. And once discovered, we are asked to speak it.
Consisting of only two letters, “to” is under-appreciated – indeed it doesn’t even merit capitalization. In the overall phrase it invokes outward movement. Speaking is directed – it is not just interior dialogue or discourse in and among those who hold similar views, it is focused outward to a certain person or place. In this case, it is directed to “Power”.
“Power” in this context refers to those who have the ability to impact your life, either positively or negatively through their use of relationship or responsibility. That impact can take many forms: praise or ridicule, acceptance or renunciation, promotion or demotion, to name a few. These all can have impacts socially, psychologically, and financially. Those who hold power can be any or all of us – a peer, parent, boss, or congressman. Power is the object in the phrase – it is what or who is spoken to. As such it is implied that the holder of power has not yet discovered the same “Truth” and as human nature has time and again demonstrated, people who hold different views will act on what they believe to be true and not necessarily on what they know to be true. Thus speaking to power can be a risky business.
When these four words are stitched together into “Speak Truth to Power”, we realize how meaningful the phrase becomes. It involves observation and discovery, risk of acceptance and personal courage to speak truth to those in power.
Courage wears many cloaks. The selfless act of a soldier protecting the lives of his or her platoon mates is an obvious example of courage. Similarly, the acts of police officers and fire fighters who put themselves in harm’s way for our benefit and protection are examples of courage. Other forms of courage may also include the word “No” spoken when instructed to move to the back of the bus. And certainly it can include the quavering voice of a citizen in a public meeting. As Americans, this act of courage required to “Speak Truth to Power” is part of our heritage. It is enshrined in our declaration of truths self-evident.
There is also a corollary that we must consider; if we are moved to speak truth to power, we must also be willing to listen when it is spoken to us. Each of us is never just one thing. Although we may hold the belief that power resides in others; bosses, government officials, business owners etc., each of us holds power at times in our own lives through our relationships, whether at home, through our churches or social contacts. Truth may be spoken to us too and we have to be prepared to listen.
KEVIN DEENY – a lifelong Levittown resident.