Speaking Power To Truth

“Speaking truth to power”, standing up and being counted, doesn’t always make a difference, even though it may take immense courage. We love it because it embodies and celebrates the ideas we most value in the modern age: integrity and strength of the self: the verbal demonstration of identity[1]

Power, being power, can often choose to ignore your truth and carry on as normal (sometimes after an initial retreat.) No matter how many gladiators and slaves stood up and claimed they were Spartacus, they were all still crucified along the Apian way, and the Roman empire continued for centuries, with slaves and gladiators. The leaders of the peasants’ revolt were executed; The Arab Spring led to widespread suppression, death and suffering. The Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring were brutally suppressed. 

Rebellions that work do so by being even more brutal than the regimes they replace. Rebellions that fail prove less ruthless than their governments. Without the claim to maintain order and peace, without a convincing charade of ruling by consensus, violence and fear become the only currencies of power.

In Syria Basher al-Assad butchered thousands of his citizens to stay in power. Nobody dared intervene once it became clear that he was being supported by Russia and Iran, despite huge amounts of press coverage and millions and millions of online condemnations. 

Slightly less dramatically, after decades and decades of scientific proof, almost complete consensus, and billions of online denunciations, very little is still being done to combat climate change. Vested interests have been perfectly happy to ignore the condemnation until it dawned on them that they might be personally and immediately threatened. And, even now, we lag catastrophically behind the most conservative targets for repairing our planet.

Of course, communication, dialogue, demonstration: all are vital for creating a better, fairer world. But you can’t just make a complaint to the management and demand that they sort it out. Without constructive plans and actions for reform within existing societies, without hard work and applied thought, protest is merely virtue-signalling and tribal identity; revolution is just vandalism[2].

So, push your chair back from your computer terminal, or your phone, and all those deep-throated roars of disapproval start to diminish, to sound tinny and shrill. The words become undifferentiated lines of black specks soiling the otherwise serene glow of the screen. Look around. There’s a big world wrapped all around you. You might even hear birdsong. Or, depending where you are (really, truly are, geographically), the snarling of engines as the tanks (literal, actual tanks) roll into position…

…Now imagine you are sitting in the ruins of your home in Homs, or another bombed out city, as the corpses of your loved ones decay beneath the rubble… How supportive are the tweets and hashtags? How powerful does the chanting sound, from there? 

Sorry. I’m ranting. I’ll stop.


[1] The celebration of these ideas explains, I think, #MeToo, a campaign where simply speaking out in solidarity was immensely successful. It also motivated the pre-internet protest slogan “Not in My Name” which was used in early protests against the Iraq war. Here it made less sense. Why, of all possible slogans, pick that one? Surely the main issue at stake was the lives of the Iraqi people, not the right of a bunch of British protestors to maintain a complacent sense of their own innocence. 

[2] And, no, I don’t practice what I preach. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite. I know I should. It makes me a spineless arsehole, but what I’m saying is still true. You know this. 

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