You may have come across the expression “speak truth to power” and wondered quite what it meant, and it’s origin. The Quakers coined the phrase during in the mid-1950s. It was a call for the United States to stand firm against fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. But it means something different these days.
It can take two meanings.
The first meaning is in keeping with the Quaker use and is typified by Shari Runner in this Huffington Post article:
Speaking truth to power means believing deeply in what you say and fighting every day to have that heard.
It may not be popular; it means taking a risk, it means standing for something.
But depending on the context, it has a second, less grandiose meaning that I can best describe like this:
“Speak truth to power” means speaking what we believe to be true to someone in authority who might take it as a criticism or be offended and who has the power to punish us in some way.
There are many reasons why we might be reluctant to “speak up” – fear of authority is just one of them.
I use the expression in a slightly different way. Fear comes from the power difference between two people. We feel we have less power (perceived or real) than them and so are afraid.
There are many forms of power difference other than authority:
- social class
to name but a few.
The challenge is how we can learn to “speak truth to power” in all of these contexts and create conversational environments that make it easier.
- Article: Speaking Truth to Power
[Status: work in progress. I plan to write more on this topic and further develop my views on “power difference”. This also relates to my post on speaking up. I may end up merging them.]
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