Conversations with the World 111: Speaking Truth to Power and Ourselves (pt. 2 of 2)
“…I believe that democracy is a political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us, a spark of the divine, to participate in the shaping of our own destiny.”
The practice among some “leaders,” in recent years and months, of intentionally spreading disinformation to achieve political or military objectives has been all but normalized. The absence of ethicality in such a tactic is ignored. One example within the United States has become a constant source of material for late-night comics: it is the power which former U.S. president Donald Trump continues to wield over election deniers despite numerous documented reasons he should not.
[You can read part 1 of this conversation by clicking right here]
Late-night comics like Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, and Steve Colbert do a great job providing humorous relief from the stressful knowledge of very real threats represented by extremist followers of Mr. Trump. On the other hand, the televised findings of the January 6th Committee emphasize repeatedly how little there is to laugh about when examining in-depth evidence which suggests Trump played a more active role in the so-called attempted insurrection against the American government than most Americans wish to believe. Moreover, as evidenced by the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, the desire among election deniers to inflict physical violence upon Trump’s political opponents has not diminished.
Are the comedians and January 6 committee members directing their spoken truths more at Donald Trump’s personal powers of political persuasion? Or that of the American people’s collective ability to protect democratic values? Results from mid-term elections in the U.S., up to this point at the beginning of November, have been mixed enough to indicate many are listening but reaching different conclusions concerning what they hear.
Speaking Truth to Your Individual Power
Individual considerations concerning one’s own power, depending on the solitary soul in question, can result in a range of consequences. Some conclude that without substantial wealth, social influence, or political office: power is something they do not possess. As such, they avoid attempting to speak truth to those who clearly do wield some manner of authoritative might and readily follow questionable leaders without offering much input of their own. When George Benson and Whitney Houston sang their respective versions of Linda Creed’s and Michael Massers song, The Greatest, they may have summed up what many consider their only claim to notable strength: “No matter what they take from me/ they can’t take away my dignity.”
At the far opposite end are: those so convinced of their own capabilities they revel in notions of rulership and control which not only place them above all others, but above any governing laws or regulations. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes––an absolute lack of power or the sole commander of it–– attempting to balance the implications of both. That means those who believe they do not possess any significant measures of power nevertheless encounter situations where they are required to exercise the same. And those who believe they are “all powerful” discover the pain of disillusionment revealing them to be as susceptible to defeats or disciplinary actions as anyone else.
When ordinary American citizens, however, found their lives upended by Infowars host Alex Jones prolonged promotion of the conspiracy theory claiming the 2012 Sandy Hooks massacre was a hoax, they were forced to fight back. Already dealing with the grief of losing loved ones to America’s epidemic of gun violence, reliving the agony in a court room battle against orchestrated guerrilla decontextualization was likely the last thing they ever anticipated. Their painful truth leveraged against the substantial power of Jones’ influence resulted in multiple verdicts, in Texas and Connecticut, totaling just over $1 billion.
Are there any who can afford to ignore their individual ability to make a difference for the better: in such days as when Earth’s mightiest rivers are drying up due to human-driven climate change? When war on different continents destroys entire communities on a daily basis? And when the powerful prey with impunity upon the vulnerabilities and ignorance of those weakened by hunger and despair? Speaking truth to your own power first requires acknowledgement that it exists. Then comes reflections on what it means to exercise it in specific ways––or fail to employ it at all––just when it is needed the most.
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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Conversations with the World 111: Speaking Truth to Power and Ourselves (pt. 1 of 2)
People speak truth to power with hopes of accomplishing goals ranging from personal advantages and extravagances to collective acknowledgements and political freedom. The occasion for such a conversation might be something as simple as a teenager negotiating use of the family car for a date. Or it could be as serious as the parents of children slain in a mass shooting demanding officials entrusted with their safety be held accountable in some way.
When members of the American Friends Service Committee published their 1955 “report” titled SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, they were mostly concerned with addressing international conflicts. Contributing authors noted the title of the report was inspired by “a spiritual duty” assigned Quakers in the 18th Century. They considered themselves speaking truth to several embodiments of power:
Although his name does not appear among signers of the report, famed civil rights icon Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) has often been cited as one of its principal authors and originator of the phrase: Speak truth to power. Various researchers have pointed to archived correspondence and alternate versions of the report to verify Bayard’s now historic contribution to it.
Yesterday and Today
The concept and practice of speaking truth to power is no less relevant, or compelling, in 2022 than in the 1900s. If anything, it has likely become more so both within America’s borders and beyond them. People stunned to witness the skill with which President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested, via live video links, military assistance from international heads of state during the early days of his country’s current war with Russia know this for themselves.
Dialogues between truth and power may be engaged in a variety of forms. Young people like USA’s Mari Copeny and Kenya’s Lesein Mutunkei articulate concerns over environmental sustainability with a sense of urgency largely absent from discussions held by members of previous generations. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan, Hong Kong, Myanmar and other locations draw international attention as protestors present their case for greater personal freedom and human rights. The ongoing push to end racism in America has spawned a generation of activists who identify as anti-racists and routinely address concerns over the issue as the country’s demographic profile continues to steadily evolve.
In most of these instances, people rarely present themselves as “heroes” but as human beings struggling to correct imbalances––be they environmental, political, or social––which pose direct threats to their continued existence.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.