The Lie Called “Speaking Truth to Power”

by Jyotirmaya Tripathy - Apr 20, 2018 05:25 PM +05:30 IST
The Lie Called “Speaking Truth to Power”Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi participates in support of the campaign ‘Not In My Name’ against lynching of a Muslim teenager Junaid, at Carter Road, Bandra, on 28 June 2017 in Mumbai, India. (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • . . .or what is the difference between speaking truth to power and speaking into an echo chamber?

One of the most self-perpetuating platitudes of our contemporary intellectual life is the truism that intellectuals speak truth to power. Not that there is any scientific evidence to it; in fact, subjected to scrutiny, this truism will betray itself as a self-congratulatory job-description to advance the interest of intellectuals who believe in a particular ideology rather than an objective template to know the ways of the world. The intellectuals reiterate and flaunt this label to remind others (the not so intellectually endowed or the subalterns) to take the intellectuals seriously and accord due respect to them, even when what they say contradicts values that form the core of people’s lives. But more than convincing the subalterns, the intellectuals try too hard to convince themselves that they indeed are the conscience keepers of the world, particularly at a time when intellectualism as a profession and a gateway for material/cultural benefits has been questioned. The anxiety gets aggravated when the subalterns go by their own agentic understanding rather than being chaperoned by intellectually ‘superior’ professionals.

That said, there is something about intellectuals (authors, academics, activists, journalists among others), which makes them a tragic-hero of sorts, the last men standing between a democratic society and its disintegration. So when the authors return their award (if not always the prize money), which has been derided as award-wapsi episode, they are hailed in mainstream media as speaking truth to power. Similarly when an editor like Rajkamal Jha or a journalist like Akshay Mukul refuse to receive an award or question patronising politicians, they become a part of journalistic folk-lore.

But questions remain as to why certain types of dissent/challenge to a certain kind of political dispensation gets established as ‘speaking truth to power’ and why the whole business of truth-speaking is discarded in another (read secular/socialist) political dispensation. No wonder, former cabinet minister P Chidambarm (the one accused of helping his son amass wealth through unfair means) has sought legitimacy by calling his recently published book Speaking Truth to Power. The fact that a former finance and home minister (literally the source of power), feels compelled to ‘speak truth to power’ means one must be really powerful to speak truth to power. And there is the rub.

What is this ‘sacred’ pursuit called ‘speaking truth to power’? Common sense would construe that it is standing up for some ideal, a principle that binds people and make them a community in the face of mounting onslaughts that undermine democracy and citizenship. It also involves taking a political position even when that position comes in conflict with the dominant belief-systems of the high and mighty. Apparently this sounds a noble mission; nothing can be more gratifying than taking the risk of challenging injustice and authority for the social good. Starting from the old Quaker saying, the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’, which had a religious origin, has traversed multiple geographies and histories, but never before in a non-Western society (with its derivative modernity and democracy) had this expression become the benchmark of intellectualism or the source of intellectual legitimacy as in India. What is this ability to ‘speak’ and who is empowered to ‘speak’? What is ‘truth’ and who decides the ‘truth’ quotient? And what is this ‘power’ that must be challenged? In the following paragraphs I aim to unpack these terms and establish that ‘speaking truth to power’ is actually a survival strategy in the face of growing irrelevance.

Who Speaks?

One is reminded of the Marxist dictum that proletariats cannot represent themselves and so must be represented by those who understand social relations better. We have also been told ad nauseam that speaking is an intensely political act and that it distinguishes subordination from resistance. Again the typical Marxist position complicates the situation. Given that the have-nots of an industrial society have not experienced a life outside their material circumstances and have no clue as to how life can be lived outside their situation, they are not in a position to imagine a better life. They cannot transcend their life-world and so cannot organise themselves for something (better life), which they cannot yet conceive. Now comes the intellectual, the philosopher, the activist who has a life of privilege, knows that he lives a good life, and since it is good for him it will be equally good for the proletariat. The same applies to all subordinated and underrepresented groups who do not have the means to articulate themselves and be heard.

More often than not, these intellectuals are the aggressive professional academics/journalists/activists (often committed to meeting a certain target or given to a sponsored research project) with a fat salary, comfortable life of privileges, the reason why they are often dismissed as box-office intellectuals, champagne activists or Lutyens media. This is combined with a romantic desire to be the voice of the voiceless (of course without compromising their elite lifestyle). Very often the desire to speak for the other is intended to advance one’s career. Examples are when environmental activists or academics instigate tribals against development plans even when the tribals themselves seem to welcome it. Or when the subaltern starts speaking on her behalf, the intellectual dismisses that articulation as another instance of false consciousness. So speaking is not an objective way of representing the unrepresented; it could equally be an act of silencing the subaltern. But more than that it is an act of legitimation of the intellectual. It ensures the visibility of the intellectual and the invisibility of the subaltern.

Interestingly, academics are aware of the recent trends within philosophy of language, unlike their journalist and activist counterparts, about the slippery nature of language and how the latter unsays while saying things. Even then they pretend to believe in the transparency of language system and claim to speak for others. The fact that language cannot capture any reality (in fact, language constitutes reality) makes the whole exercise of speaking either futile or agenda-driven. So speaking truth to power, like any other speaking, signifies only within intellectual circles but hardly conveys anything outside of it.

What truth?

Long ago Francis Bacon highlighted the inconvenience of truth and the lure of falsehood while referring to Pontius Pilate. From its early origin in the revealed Word of God to the claims of modernity and science, truth had always a historicist dimension. But the recent developments in philosophy has given us an understanding of truth, which is not an acultural universal but contingent and culture specific or even a facet of dominant paradigms. If earlier, truth was the buzzword ascribing legitimacy, the dismissal of truth-claim is a contemporary reality. Thus the earlier truth of Enlightenment is often dismissed as Western ways of dominating the non-Western world. Similarly, feminists question the truth-claims of patriarchal value systems, dalits dismiss the truth-claims of Brahminical social order and the list goes on. It is another story that for the mass of humanity, truth is still singular and universal as in modern science or medicine. However, for the knowledgeable and intellectually endowed, truth is a bad word, something which helps one group dominate the other.

So how does one speak truth when it is just an alibi for domination? And how do intellectuals peddle truth when they themselves have announced truth’s irrelevance. Here is the trick: when ideological opponents speak with certainty, it is a truth-claim, but when they themselves do the same, it is to empower the subalterns to see through truth-claims made by others. That means, intellectuals’ truth-claims are counter truth-claims, which only exposes the ideological vacuity of truth-claimers. So when someone says, I provoke people to think, it actually means thinking outside my paradigm is an impossibility. This anti-truth-claim truth had sway over people’s imagination for a long time during Nehruvian and later secular/socialist periods of Indian history. The moment that hold weakened and subalterns stopped believing in such anti-truth truths, intellectuals invented the arrival of post-truth. The basic premise of this post-truth order is the gullibility of common people who have the gumption to disbelieve intellectuals and their ways of speaking truth.

Speaking truth here is a kind of mourning at the realisation on part of intellectuals that their importance is eroding and that people don’t believe in them any longer. This is something, which had not happened before in this scale, and this has reduced intellectuals to rudalis (the professional female mourners in Rajasthan). Given that the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ is used to articulate all kinds of grievances including loss of privilege, reveals something very fundamental. It was anything but truth, or any more true than other truths.

Which Power?

Unlike ‘speaking’ and ‘truth’, which are used/claimed by the intellectual, power is that demonic presence which must be resisted and its institutions dismantled to uphold the spirit of democracy, multiculturalism, secularism, inclusive politics and so on. In such articulations, power usually refers to political/state authority, establishment, social/cultural institutions and other regimes, which control and discipline the behaviour of the citizens. If the citizens think/act in ways contrary to power, the latter sanctions oppression and the citizens are made to suffer until they internalise the inevitability of power. Intellectuals, on the other hand, by virtue of their superior intellect, know how to challenge power and instil among people the courage to follow their lead. Thus the intellectual raises voice against violence targeted at dalits, minority, women and all those who are marginalised. Or it may be against a particular policy, which creates unfavourable conditions for the poor and the underprivileged.

Like the provisionality of truth discussed above, the contingent and fluid nature of power is never discussed. A hypersensitive dividing line is created where one is either powerful or powerless; there could be nothing in between. In this framework, power is entirely possessed by the powerful that can ruthlessly silence the powerless. Though this is stuff enough for a Bollywood movie dealing with an evil zamindar and a hapless peasant, this does not offer a sound basis to understand power nor does it reflect the way things actually unfold in reality. Power is not a possession, but a strategy or a performance as a French philosopher theorised. Power comes into existence when it is exercised and all varieties of people exercise power in multi-layered and dynamic ways. An officer shouting at a clerk does not completely establish the powerlessness of the latter, because the latter may shout at the peon, and the peon may shout at his wife after reaching home. Secondly, power is also productive (not necessarily repressive as Marxists believe) in the sense that it leads to certain types of behaviour that may challenge or work around authority. In the political realm, today’s powerful will be powerless tomorrow and vice versa. It is another story that the culturally powerful such as intellectuals continue to exercise their power while fighting against power.

What is conveniently ignored is that such resistance or outrage against particular policy decisions reach their crescendo when ‘non-secular’ political parties are in charge and epithets fly thick and fast (fascist government, Hindutva brigade, anti-secular, anti-women etc) that establish the ontological depravity of the government. Even small time grievances are taken out of their local area of operation and are ascribed to ‘power’, meaning a majoritarian government. Equating power with the government and its core constituency of Hindus is not only politically expedient but also morally suspicious. It betrays either ignorance/naivety on part of intellectuals as to how power works or a cleverly designed strategy to delegitimise the government; this can also be a last-ditch effort to convince people that intellectuals still matter.

The clear difference between the truth-speaker and the powerful may be an exaggerated one. Just because Chidambaram is no longer a cabinet minister does not make him any less powerful or just because the present government fails in maintaining communal harmony in the eyes of some does not make it any more powerful than the previous government. On another note, it may be argued that the precondition for ‘speaking truth to power’ is another kind of cultural power which incentivises such articulations as in getting incorporated into world’s dissent producing industry or gaining legitimacy as public intellectuals or getting invited to various international forums. In a nutshell, it pays to be ‘speaking truth to power’ in terms of recognition, popularity, cultural capital and legitimacy. So if one power speaks truth to another power, there is not much hope for common people.

Jyotirmaya is a Chennai-based commentator and cultural critic.

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