Speaking truth to power
What does it mean to speak truth to power?
This may be the most urgent question of our time. The majority of us see the writing on the wall. We recognize how dire the crisis is. We see how deeply interconnected the problems are and how quickly the cascade of collapse is happening. There is no normal to go back to.
And we also — many of us at least — see the changes and solutions that are necessary. We may not want to make the changes (and get argumentative and defensive about it), but we know nonetheless.
Drawdown.org has analyzed and ranked over a hundred climate related responses and finds that most of them actually create jobs and save money. In other words, they not only tackle the climate crisis, they give a bump to the economy, too. The same is true for a host of effective responses to social problems like the housing crisis, drug addiction and mental health issues. Important elements are already embedded in the Green New Deal and attempts at structural economic changes like guaranteed basic income.
The solutions are there. Most have already been reality-tested and they work. They aren’t technically difficult. We don’t need to wait for any new technologies to save us. We have all the know-how and all the resources (including money) to implement all of them at scale with a positive mid-term impact on the economy and major short and long-term social benefits. There are no rational or technical reasons why we can’t get out of the mess we’re in.
All we lack is political will.
Unfortunately, political will is not created by demonstrating rational arguments or proving technical points. Political will is only tangentially connected with what we might call reality. These days, it is primarily the product of Power. And Power isn’t interested in Truth. In fact, Power has a vested interest in denying Truth. Power gets its power by stealing yours and it does that by conning you into the Big Lie — believing you don’t have any power to start with.
This is the challenge we face today. The main battle is not between workers in the oil patch and environmentalists. It’s not between those arguing to prioritize social justice and those trying to get the focus on the climate crisis. It’s not between Bernie and Biden. It’s not even between trumpsters and sane people. It’s between Power and Truth. It’s between the irrational inertia of an oppressive social, political, and economic force and us. And speaking truth to Power is the only weapon we have.
Ah, but here’s where we get it doubly wrong. First, we don’t understand what it means to speak to Power. Second, we don’t know how to tell the Truth.
The force driving us off the cliff — the irrational inertia of oppressive Power — isn’t a “Them” or even an “it.” We make the mistake of thinking about Power as some faceless entity. We ascribe it to places like “Wall Street” or “Washington” or treat it like there are boxes of Power sitting in someone’s basement somewhere. But Power only ever operates through living, flesh-and-blood people in every day life. Power is manifest in each individual Nazi guard or US ICE agent. It is manifest through the petty bureaucrat who says “sorry my hands are tied” and the unfair boss who only promotes his friends. It is manifest in the HR functionary who institutes the inhumane bathroom break policy and the careless landowner who clear cuts their property for a view.
We act like Power trickles down; each person in a chain “just following orders” from the supposedly more powerful person above them right to the very top where the mystical hand of the market imposes its will on helpless CEOs and politicians.
But actually, power builds up. No prison guards = no prison.
Power is a meme. No, not that kind. Memes are to society as viruses are to the human body. They attempt to use the host to replicate themselves. Some are beneficial, some are neutral and some are pathological, but mostly they have their own agenda: they’re in it for themselves.
Memes operate primarily through belief that motivates action that thereby confirms the belief. This is how memes feed. Beliefs, of course, often have little or no connection with reality. A better synonym might be delusion. Take slot machines, for example. Slot machines use something called random reward conditioning to create a false belief: if I put money in the machine, I’ll get rich! This belief is only “true” if we look at a limited period of time (that one lucky night) or for a small number of folks (those who actually hit the jackpot). As soon as we look at the big picture and make the connections, it’s clear the house always wins. In fact, the only reason the slot machine exists is to steal money from people who are bad at math.
But despite the facts, the belief is still highly motivating, even addictive. In spite of the overwhelming evidence that they are losing, random reward conditioning is enough to keep people hooked; to convince them they’re winning when they’re not. They point to the small wins as evidence while ignoring the debt they have amassed. When it gets really bad, they actually confuse the cause with the cure: they think the only way to pay off the gambling-caused debt is through more gambling.
Power with a capital P is just like that. It plants the Big Lie of “you’re all alone” which prompts people to act in ways that isolate themselves. It whispers “the world is against you” so they lash out at potential allies. It says “you are a loser” so they attempt to cheat by stealing from themselves. It is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the meme isn’t a personal defect — a merely psychological pathology. It infects the body politic — the collective mind of society. It creates a sort of social neuro-toxin. It disrupts the healthy functioning of the thinking pathways of society. Power robs the social neurons of their ability to make connections and thereby renders them impotent. Some social neurons stop firing at all; others become inflamed, firing at random. Left untreated, it causes collective insanity and death.
The toxin blinds us. It reduces a vibrantly mutli-coloured world to black-and-white. It creates a social auto-immune disease, causing the body to fight against itself. The reality of both/and becomes the farce of either/or; the violence of Us vs. Them.
It creates a false dichotomy: in control or powerless. But reality is not an either/or. It’s simultaneously neither, both, and some third thing beyond either. Face and vase combined. The Truth is no one is in control. Even collectively, we aren’t in control. But that doesn’t mean we are powerless. Neither, both, & something else. Not in control, but still powerful. No one has Power; we all have power.
So, when we speak to Power, we aren’t speaking to some faceless monolith; we’re speaking to insecurity. We’re speaking to a lie that infects our neighbours, friends and colleagues — and ourselves. It’s a lie that says “you are all alone” and “everything is against you.” When we lash out at “Power,” we define ourselves as a victim. By attacking Power as a “Them” we succeed in providing the random reward conditioning to prove the lie and feed the meme. But likewise, if we don’t act in the world rather than just in our heads, we still make ourselves the victim by blaming ourselves for the problems we’ve experienced.
To avoid this, when Truth speaks to Power it always says the same thing: we are connected. This is connected. Your actions and my pain are connected. My hopes and your fears are connected. His past and your present. We are all in this together. We have all played our part in the fantasy of Power. There are no “innocent victims” nor is anyone “evil incarnate.” When we see the connections, we see the trauma that gives rise to lashing out and the “best intentions” that perpetuated it.
In Truth, we rise up like waves on an ocean of history and potential, all pushed and pulled yet also pushing and pulling.
So, your voice shakes when you speak your truth because it causes you to confront the Truth — you are not in control but neither are you powerless. You came in in the middle of play with the deck already stacked, only one player of many — only a small part of the whole — but a part of the whole nonetheless. To speak Truth to Power is to call out the lie. There is no Power and no powerlessness. There is no one to blame, but neither is there innocence.
By speaking your truth to Power, you are transformed — you see the face-vase and you reclaim your power. You see that Power is a lie, but power is real. You are part of a whole — a neuron in a living being that transcends yourself. And as part of the whole, as a neuron, you have a job to do. Send the signal you need to send. Fire, when you feel compelled. Be calm when there is no action to take. Accept what you cannot change, but refuse to surrender the courage to act where you can. And when you act from that place and not from the lie of Power, you re-connect with your neighbours in the social neural network and your healing heals them.
Our body is very sick. The Power infection runs rampant in us and between us. Speaking truth to Power is the only cure. But first, we must learn to speak to our own insecurity, to counter the comforting lie of separation and innocence. To be connected is to be implicated. To recognize your power is to accept your responsibility and also your vulnerability. It may sting a bit at first, but it heals. We are all in this together. Together, we can heal one neuron at a time.