Speaking Truth to Power: Consequences

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Detail from “Chaos” 2016, mixed media/Josephine Ensign

Speaking truth to power always has consequences for the speaker. It is dangerous. That is part of the definition of parrhesia, the ancient Greek word and concept of free or bold speech. There is an ancient Greek word for someone who speaks truth to power: parrhesiastes. To me, Rachael Denhollander is an excellent current example of a parrnesiastes. 

As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault stated in his 1983 speech on the subject, “…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.” (From Michel Foucault’s speech, “The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia.“)

Substitute ‘she, her, hers (and herself)’ for the above—and recognize that by death Foucault meant not only literal death but also a large personal loss such as one’s personal or professional reputation—and we have an excellent description of the courage of Denhollander (and the other girls and women willing to testify) in helping bring to light and to justice the despicable actions of the serial pedophile and sports physician, Larry Nassar.

As Denhollander writes in her recent (January 26, 2018) NYT op-ed “The Price I Paid for Taking On Larry Nassar”, as a result of her being the first to go public with her accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, she lost her church, her closest friends, and her privacy.  Also, since she happens to be a lawyer, she was accused of being an ambulance chaser and an opportunist. Despite all of that, she used her freedom (and her privilege), chose frankness and truth and moral duty to speak the truth to oh so many powers. Because, as she points out, it was not only Nassar who was at fault here, but also all of the institutions (most notably Michigan State University), as well as the many coaches, trainers, and psychologists that colluded to allow him to perpetuate his abuse of girls as young as six.

Denhollander concludes with this call to action for each and every one of us:

“Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.”

My hope is that we all choose to be part of a community that works to prevent this type of abuse to happen and that fully supports those who have the courage to speak truth to power. And, we should remember the consequences of not speaking up, of staying silent.

 

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