It would be almost ridiculous to deny that there are certain things that, in today’s climate, you just can’t say. While there are cases to be made for producing a more civil society, it seems that at its root, these efforts to silence are little more than tyranny and an attempt to manipulate not just what we say but what we permit ourselves to think. And this, in every sense of the word, is dangerous.
When we begin to censor ourselves, we give away our power to act and operate in the world. Whether it is through a wish to be considered within the Overton Window of opinion, or whether we keep our mouths shut to protect our jobs or position within the community, it would take a brave soul to suggest that they never filter themselves. But here’s the thing: this is encouraged, and it is to the motivations of those who do the encouraging that we must look.
The standard excuse for this encouragement is that it creates a better, more inclusive society. Inclusive language stops people from being outsiders. It makes the world a “nicer” place. And we all want to live in a kinder, nicer place – don’t we?
Is It About Truth – or Control?
The problem is: we don’t buy it. We don’t believe that the people espousing these flaccid excuses care for a kinder and better world; if they did, they wouldn’t be calling those who demand freedom of speech “nothing but racists and bigots.” If they wanted a kinder culture, they would not be vilifying those who disagree with them. It’s the fatal flaw in their argument.
What they want is control—nothing more, nothing less.
They know it is impossible to control every individual on a person by person basis. They seek, then, to create a societal structure in which people will edit themselves, out of fear that, If they don’t, the rampant harpies who have drunk the KoolAid will demonize them and attempt to destroy their lives. These are not good people.
Let’s use an example. Someone makes a twitter comment. Perhaps it’s racist; maybe it’s unkind – but that’s a subjective judgment. Maybe the comment is merely an opinion. All of a sudden, the mob swoops in and begins wishing death and destruction upon the commenter. These critics then forward the comment to the author’s employers; they light the commenter up all over the internet. Suddenly, this commenter cannot show his or her face in public – or maybe even get another job.
Naturally, the internet mob, or even physical protestors, are beaming with glee at the taking down of one more “fascist.”
But what if this guy has a family? They are punishing his wife and his children for his crimes; what if he employs people and has to shut down his business as they have demanded? What if the vitriol causes him to take his own life? It happens. This actually happens.
These are not good people; they are far from it. But, we often look at this as a modern phenomenon. It’s not. The only difference now is that the persecutors have almost total control. We need to look back to earlier days when the powerful and influential in society were the ones who stood up for the freedom of speech and expression.
On March 15, 1783, George Washington gave a speech to his officers. It is known now as the Newburgh Address. He encouraged his officers to petition Congress. Here’s the thing; he disagreed with the idea, but thought that his troops should be able to use their voices; it was an excellent reminder to them of why they were fighting.
“For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
Washington understood that all men and women must be able to exercise their own expression. Have we learned nothing from the last 50 years of pop culture that tells us repressing ourselves is bad for us? It is psychologically and physically damaging not to be able to be your true self, and in many cases, this means being able to speak your mind, or, as has become so popular nowadays, to speak your truth.
The Risks of Speaking Your Truth
I say “popular nowadays,” but in fact, speaking your truth is an incredibly old concept. We can trace it back to ancient Greece around 500 BC, but as an idea, it is likely much older. There’s a word: parrhesia. It has a few different translations, but at its core, it means “to speak boldly.”
But there is an undercurrent to the word parrhesia that is often ignored. To speak boldly comes with inherent risk – not always of physical danger, but perhaps of upsetting a relationship or of creating a crisis.
In Ancient Athens, parrhesia was quite literally a fundamental component of democracy. If you could not speak out in a public forum, then democracy was denied. All must be able to speak what they see as the truth.
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian, dug into the concept of parrhesia. He wrote that in certain circumstances, to speak boldly can result in danger:
“In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the “game” of life or death. “
I like this last line: telling the truth in the game of life or death. It’s powerful, and it cuts to the heart of the matter.
Those who want us to remain silent will, eventually, take harsher measures. History shows this. Those who spoke out against Stalin and Mao, those “political dissidents” who were sent for re-education, or disappeared never to be heard from again; this is the end result of what these monsters are selling. For now, we can choose to remain silent; eventually, it will be enforced.
Telling the truth is, and always has been, a game of life and death.
Read more from Mark Angelides.