I hear a lot these days about the need to “speak truth to power.”
Most of this talk comes from the left, which isn’t surprising, given the balance of power in Washington, D.C.
At its core, speaking truth to power is an act of resistance.
Indeed, speaking truth to power is inherent in the Biblical exhortation “Justice, justice shall you seek” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
In the Torah, Moses spoke truth to power by demanding that Pharaoh free the Hebrew slaves, and Abraham petitioned on high, urging that Sodom and Gomorrah not be destroyed, for the sake of the good people living there.
Today, everyone with access to a keyboard seemingly feels compelled to speak their truth, and frequently in unvarnished language.
Truth may be defined as “being in accordance with facts,” but the latter can be arranged to distort the former, and those who feel entitled to their own facts (no matter how provably wrong) find comfort in the truths they create.
By the way, both the right and left are guilty of this practice. It just depends on the issue being discussed.
The “power” in question may be an individual, or an institution, such as the government, a corporation, the military and academia. From another perspective, it may be a segment of society, singled out by race, religion, ethnicity, and gender.
What may be overlooked is the origin of the phrase.
In 1955 the American Friends Service Committee published “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.”
The title may have come from “a charge given to Eighteenth Century Friends,” though numerous accounts cite a 1942 letter written by African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, a co-author of the Quaker publication.
The document’s foreword states, “We speak to power in three senses:
- To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.
- To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.
- To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.”
It also cautions that, “Speaking truth to power is not about moral superiority. In order to be effective, it has to be aimed at changing the target’s fundamental attitudes towards violence.”
That piece of wisdom apparently has been lost in certain quarters.
No matter how entertaining some found actor Robert De Niro chanting “F**k Trump” during the Tony Awards or comedienne Michelle Wolf’s caustic monologue at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, their remarks were not designed to change attitudes and came off as rooted in a presumed moral superiority.
Truth can be spoken by voice, but also by deeds, such as:
- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From The Birmingham Jail.”
- The Buddhist monk who set himself alight in Saigon in 1963 to protest discrimination by the South Vietnamese government.
- The young man who blocked a convoy of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
- Natan Sharansky, who endured years in the gulag for speaking out on behalf of Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union.
- The “Freedom Riders,” who risked limb and life in the civil rights struggles in the South in the 1960s.
To these, I add the spectrum of faith groups voicing objections to government policies that separate children from parents who illegally enter the United States, a practice they view as running afoul of fundamental religious precepts.
“The rabbis of the Talmud teach us: Shtikah k’hoda’ah dami – silence is acquiescence. Our silence in the face of wrong behavior means that we accept the immoral action. Silence in the face of evil, is not just terribly wrong, hurting the victims of those actions, but it also encourages this behavior to continue, creating future victims,” Rabbi David Lerner, of Temple Emunah, in Lexington, Massachusetts, wrote last year.
Lerner may have been referring to the case of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, but his words can be applied more broadly.