There are certain things that, in today’s climate, you just can’t say. While there are cases to be made for producing a more civil society through speech, it seems that these efforts to silence are little more than tyranny. They may be an attempt to manipulate not just what we say but what we permit ourselves to think. And this, in every sense of the word, is dangerous.
It would take a brave soul to suggest that they never filter themselves. But here’s the thing: This is encouraged, and we must look at the motivations of those who do the encouraging.
Is It About Truth – Or Control?
The problem is: Those who wish to control speech are not really interested in creating a more inclusive world. If they wanted a kinder culture, they would not be vilifying those who disagree with them. It’s the fatal flaw in their argument. What they want is control – nothing more, nothing less.
They know it is impossible to control every individual on a person by person basis. They seek, then, to create a social structure in which people will edit themselves out of fear that, if they don’t, they will be excluded from society.
We often look at today’s “cancel culture” as a modern phenomenon. It’s not. The only difference now is that the “cancellers” have almost total control. We need to look back to earlier days when the powerful and influential in society were the ones who stood up for the freedom of speech and expression.
On March 15, 1783, George Washington gave a speech to his officers. It is known now as the Newburgh Address. He encouraged his officers to petition Congress, even though he disagreed with their behavior.
“For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
Washington understood that all men and women must be able to exercise their own expression.
The Risks of Speaking Your Truth
Speaking your truth is an incredibly old concept. We can trace it back to ancient Greece around 500 BC, but as an idea, it is likely much older. There’s a word: parrhesia. It has a few different translations, but at its core, it means “to speak boldly.”
To speak boldly comes with risk – not always of physical danger, but perhaps of upsetting a relationship or of creating a crisis.
In Ancient Athens, parrhesia was a fundamental component of democracy. If you could not speak out in a public forum, then democracy was denied. All must be able to speak what they see as the truth.
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian, dug into the concept of parrhesia. He wrote that in certain circumstances, to speak boldly can result in danger:
“In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him [your friend] by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death.”
Those who want us to remain silent will, eventually, take harsher measures. History shows this. Those who spoke out against dictators, those “political dissidents” who were sent for re-education, or disappeared never to be heard from again, could have been saved if the people had said “no” to control before it was too late. For now, we can choose to remain silent; eventually, it will be enforced.
Telling the truth is, and always has been, a game of life and death.