Speaking Truth to Power: Consequences

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.


Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention

IMG_1919April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Both are complex, dark, depressing subjects that most of us would rather not talk about. Perhaps that is why they both have their official ‘months’ during one of the most beautiful, spring, hope, and renewal times of year. I’m writing this post on the last day of April partly because I’ve procrastinated and wanted to avoid the topics myself. But I am also ambivalent about the practice of observing national months of awareness of such important public health issues, since awareness and prevention efforts should happen every month, every day, by all of us. These are societal issues that we are all implicated in perpetuating if we do nothing to stop them.

I want to acknowledge the hard work of all the wonderful school nurses, sexual assault center nurses, counselors, and other support staff who work with children and adult survivors of child abuse and/or sexual assault. Having worked as a nurse practitioner in several domestic violence shelters, in urban safety net hospital emergency departments, and with street-involved youth (with high rates of both childhood abuse and sexual assault on the streets), I know first-hand how emotionally challenging this work can be. It is important work, so let’s support them in any way we can.

Here are some of my favorite current resources related to child abuse prevention and sexual assault awareness/prevention:

National Child Abuse Prevention Making Meaningful Connections 2014 Prevention Resource Guide, by DHHS, Administration for Children and Families. (Full disclosure: I was a health care provider consultant on the development of this guide but there were hundreds of consultants/contributors including community and family members).

Moriah Silver’s Huffington Post article “The not so shocking news about campus sexual assault,” (4-29-14). (Shame on us at colleges/universities!)

National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

And this quote, from the last poem of a lovely collection of poems sent to me by Jane Seskin, a longtime therapist in NYC who works with women dealing with intimate partner violence:

“The Take-Away

Repeat/ 3 times a day.

I’m grateful/to be alive.

I deserve to be treated/with kindness and respect.”

(From: Witness to Resilience: Stories of Intimate Violence, 2013, Jane Seskin.)