Speaking the Truth

George Carlin, democracy, and parrhēssia (an ancient form of authentic truth-telling) all challenge free-for-all cancel culture.

(Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay)

In the new documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, Jon Stewart references Carlin’s iconic sketch on “stuff” and points out that “my shit is stuff and your stuff is shit” can be understood as a summation of the cancel culture that both sides of the political spectrum simultaneously bemoan and participate in today. It can be applied to almost every current conflict and controversy. That is, my idea/my truth is unquestionably right and your idea/your truth is wrong and shouldn’t be heard at all.

In other contexts, Stewart has made the controversial point that if we can stand up and complain about feeling canceled, then we aren’t really being cancelled. Rather, he believes, we are living in a world that has “democratized criticism” to an extreme. (Critics of Stewart’s position point to numerous examples of livelihoods lost and careers curtailed as proof of “cancellation.”) Since cancel culture has moved beyond challenges to historical mainstream oppression to a non-substantive charge coming from all sides, it’s apparently fair game for each side to use whatever brought on the other side’s supposed cancellation as support for their own argument.

Are we suffocating any desire to speak the truth* today or are we just in the maelstrom of an open season for relentless criticism?

George Carlin was adamant about pushing the boundaries of censorship, but where once the government exercised a certain amount of control over what truth was allowed public airing, today the literal ghost in the machine — the algorithm — controls whether others hear those expressions of truth. In that way, the control is now purchased by those with the most money.

Carlin’s fierce dedication to speaking the difficult truths set him apart and still does so 14 years after his death. He wanted to be that “truth machine” fellow comedian Steven Wright referred to him as and he worked at it unceasingly. Carlin noted that his approach to comedy is oratory, a form of rhetoric that generally has a studied, intentional rhythm to it. Over the course of his life, his self-educated grandfather (a policeman at the turn of the last century) copied out the works of Shakespeare by hand just for the love of it. And Carlin’s father was a champion public speaker who won the “Mahogany Gavel” over 800 other public speakers from the Dale Carnegie Institute. Though Carlin didn’t know his father or his grandfather, their passion for language and speaking made a significant impression on him. His mother also cared deeply about language and he grew up influenced by her concern for it.

But beyond all his hard work and determination coupled with this passion for language, it was Carlin’s authenticity and intense fidelity to his true self that was the real difference in what he eventually put out in the world. Carlin himself would say, “The audience doesn’t really figure into my plans.” As a professional, he did go for the laugh, adroitly making clear our collective ridiculousness. And, of course, he still needed the next booking. But he didn’t mind being a lone voice speaking the truth as he saw it. He didn’t care if people agreed with him or if he made some of them uncomfortable. It took him a while to find his own voice but once he did, he also found he cared a lot about speaking the truth regarding the injustices he witnessed and was so offended by.

His audiences loved him for putting that truth so directly in front of them in his inimitable oratorial way. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t all be like George Carlin. His Jeremiah yelling to the four winds, as Better Midler described him in his later work, was the culmination of his particular art form, his disappointment at how he saw the world, and his own well-honed truth-speech about that. As prescient and germane to the current times as his words are, they are still from a different time.

Today there’s more of a desperate clinging to what is presented as truth by a population inundated with more information and constant messaging than has ever been the case before. Throw me your rope and I’ll hold fast, even casting my own critical thinking aside as I do so (as advised, for example, in this piece in the New York Times last year). The rhetorical style that was authentic for Carlin is now put toward a kind of sophistry in which “winning” is the goal and out-yelling or out-grandstanding your “opponent” is how to play the game.

While such shouting and grandstanding can quickly shut down other voices, so too will our readiness to accuse others of intolerance or bias or some other kind of moral failure. Sometimes we will even suppress our own voices for fear of mis-stepping and being understood as saying the wrong thing. In any of these ways, whole areas of discussion are avoided. Trust, humor, and multi-dimensional perspectives are casualties in most cases.

I hear and read people demanding that other people be “canceled” in what has become a free-for-all cancel culture. How can that be possible? How can we cancel one another? Why are we so immediately unwilling to engage instead? Learning and growing requires nothing less. So does the ability to move others, perhaps changing their mind, most likely expanding our own. When we take the easy, self-righteous path of cancel culture, we stand firmly in the position that “I am one of the good guys.” (Read, my shit is good stuff and your stuff is shit.)

We may earnestly believe we are the good guys (versus those that should be canceled). But it’s a safe bet that none of us has always been right on everything or that we can know for certain the full perspective of the people we want canceled. There’s an arrogance and a rigidity that signals a closed mind when we set ourselves apart in this way. That seems a much greater cost when put up against the cost and potential benefit of engagement.

Democracy is founded on a reconciling of disagreements that by definition entail conflict. It’s when the conflict becomes either exclusionary or destructive that we have lost sight of our democratic goals. Cancel culture, extreme partisanship, and other forms of intolerance of difference in ideas leads to an inability to move forward together. In the worst case, it fosters violence and ultimately a loss of the democracy that we hold to be foundational. (Though throughout history democracy in practice has always been exclusionary for some, that same democracy is the means to continue to fight against such exclusion.)

The general disposition toward disagreement underpinning social conflict is embedded within human nature and is a permanent feature of any human society as they are by definition pluralistic. So, conflict is unavoidable. When conflict is about meaningful dimensions of our collective life, about substantive issues upon which we do not agree, we have the opportunity to become a better, more aware society through the negotiation of that conflict.

But conflict has as many serious dangers as it does benefits. When conflict is less about substance and more about psychologically “beating” the other side, it is belligerent grandstanding, tribal domination, or even violence with blind ideology as its excuse. With tactics like those used to “cancel” another person or side, we reduce the conflict by dismissing or completely excluding the other side. In more extreme ways, we ban verbal and written expressions of a certain perspective, we take measures to control the behavior of others, we even imprison, expel, or kill members of the other side.

It’s clear that democracy requires that we have a system for dealing constructively with conflict and dissenting opinions rather than simply eliminating them. The list of things we disagree upon — gun control, racial inequality, abortion rights, vaccination mandates, gay marriages, voting rights and processes, climate crises, transgender rights, immigration, union organizing, and more — is long and every item is profound. Most of them touch in one way or another on how we do or don’t make our society more democratic. We need democracy to first debate and then negotiate these crucial issues. But democracy seems more and more tenuous at this time. So, what can we do?

It might be effective to apply this same point about the need for dealing constructively with conflict and dissenting opinions to the social sphere that each of us exists within — the group of people we care about and who care about us, and where we still have some level of trust and ability to engage. Each of us is a part of a collective and is formed by the interactions, disagreements, and experiences that occur within that collective. Inside this social sphere, it’s crucial that we can still hold each other as equals and be willing to listen to each other. It’s because we do care about one another that the answer can’t be to just write each other off or cancel each other in terms of our ongoing relationships. Too often recently this has already happened amongst family and friends, neighbors and co-workers, as a result of ideologically-based differences during the pandemic. When our conscience is our guide, that is seldom the route we want to take.

We live in times that desperately call for the truth, for speaking the truth as we each honestly and sincerely see it. We need the voices that will break the spell of the solidifying narrative and open our minds again to freshly consider all perspectives and think critically through the morass. Throughout history, there have been times in which brave people could not be silent. Today the need for earnest people genuinely speaking the truth feels especially urgent. In such intensely polarized times, there is nothing so unique about more Jeremiahs stepping forward to yell at everyone within ear range. We are almost immune now to the haranguing diatribes we hear from politicians and extremists every day on the internet, on mainstream media, and even just across the dinner table. George Carlin broke new ground when he stood up and let out all of his truth. Though not so many years later, these are different times. And they call for newly effective approaches to speaking the truth. We need something so “other” to cut through the extremism and even the dogmatic ideologies of all sides because the need for the truth to be spoken is every bit as crucial.

The ancient Greeks had a word describing a concept that combines truth-telling and engagement. In its most positive sense, parrhēssia means to tell the whole truth of what one really believes, to not withhold or conceal anything, to tell all without obfuscating ornamentation. On one hand, the word indicates a very straightforward concept. On the other, some crucial nuances and requirements set parrhēssia apart from the many ways we think of the concept of telling the truth today.

Parrhēssia is not the kind of truth-telling that Carlin exemplified. First of all, it entails engagement with someone with whom one has a relationship. Part of what is so critical about this aspect of parrhēssia is that it requires a particular kind of courage, the courage to risk angering or offending the other person, even endangering the relationship, by sincerely and frankly telling one’s most truthful opinion to the other person or persons. Another crucial differentiating aspect of parrhēssia is that it is devoid of the techniques of rhetoric. Nothing external is drafted in. Rather, this kind of truth-telling is most notable in its clear authenticity for it is the truth embodied by the speaker. It is her or his truth, expressed without guile, without drama, without allusion, but rather is spoken respectfully from the heart to the person(s) with whom she or he is in relationship. In these ways, it is a personal truth, recognizable as that because the person speaking it also lives it.

Because they live it and we have experienced them doing so, we can recognize what they are telling us as their authentic truth. Our own critical thinking has assessed this truth as worth listening to because of this authenticity. And so we listen to each other out of respect for the depth in which each of us has immersed ourselves in the issue at hand and resurfaced with a well-thought-out truth from which we each might learn something, even if ultimately we still disagree.

Here’s the thing about truth-telling. Nothing else works. We may hope that through equivocation, dissembling, silence, or even direct lies, people will like us better, they’ll be more likely to hear our soft-pedaled alternative, or they will just look right past us and move on to someone else. But it doesn’t go that way in the long run. They notice our silence, or they take issue with our soft-pedaling, or they disrespect us because of our equivocation and despise us for our lies. When the truth is communicated with authentic conviction, everyone recognizes it. But the opposite is also the case. 

Speaking the truth comes with no guarantee of success relative to changing the minds of others. But neither can that be the goal of parrhēssia. We may wish to persuade others to change their standpoint, but it isn’t the purpose of speaking the truth. The French philosopher Michel Foucault explains that the ultimate reason for doing so is “self-care.” Here self-care is the maintenance of our internal integrity, our consistent clarity within ourselves regarding what we believe to be true. This doesn’t mean that our own opinions and standpoints are beyond question or change. It means that continued critical thinking and self-examination (often spurred by the ideas and questions from others) will be part of our maintenance program and will strengthen the internal integrity that gives ongoing authenticity to our truth-telling.**

For Foucault, self-care is also a social practice. When we care well for ourselves, maintain our integrity and stay close to the authentic truth as we see it, we are also caring for others. When we direct attention toward ourselves to examine our thoughts and conduct, we are attending to our own governance in the world. Then, in the best sense, we can become an animating force for others as well. This is how parrhēssia and its objective of self-care contribute to and ultimately strengthen democracy. For Foucault, the truth can be recognized by its ability to make a difference in the world, in our perceptions, and ultimately in how we live our lives. And to that end, we each bear an obligation to speak the truth. He maintains that the truth-telling of parrhēssia has at its core a political value for democracy and it is here that self-care becomes care for others. And there is an ethical dimension added when the recipients of this truth act with a reciprocal obligation to sincerely listen and engage. Free speech is a primary tenet of democracy but parrhēssia puts forth a sincere, frank, and respectful way to enact that tenet. Sometimes the validity of social convention will be disturbed through the act of parrhēssia. This is why courage is required but it is also a demonstration of its service to the advancement of democracy.

Of the higher echelons of power and decision-making, George Carlin cautioned us to remember, “It’s a club and you ain’t in it.” Those words are as true as any ever spoken. But they aren’t the whole truth. Those in the club need those of us not in the club (and that is almost all of us). We have numbers on our side. We can dissent in a myriad of ways. Democracy was made for constructive dissent. And it was made for truth-telling in both words and actions. First and foremost, we can start by speaking the truth, authentically and to each other. That first act leads to all the next. We are in this together and though we don’t often seem to realize it, we are the other club.

Democracy is an ongoing experiment. It is a human enterprise and it needs our continuous collective attention and effort to make it work. Every democracy has faced trials and tribulations. Not all democracies have succeeded in overcoming them. History has shown us that there is an aspect of human nature that, when given a chance, will defeat democracy time and again. It begins with the ambition to power on the part of a few and the willingness to fall in line with them by so many others. History has also shown us that critical independent thinking and the courage of those thinkers to speak their authentic truth were required when anti-democratic efforts have been defeated. Half-truths and minced words never made a meaningful difference to anybody or anything.

When the fallibility of government, including a democratic one, clearly shows itself and its grievous errors are more than should be borne by a democratic society, truth-telling must take many forms. Preachers, prophets, scientists, teachers, artists, oratorial comedians, and others will each have their way of calling us to see and hear their truth. We need them all. But in the interest of self-care, we can hone our broader crafts in this realm by refining our thinking and deepening our engagement through parrhēssia with those in the communities in which we live our daily lives. We can better learn to speak the truth we’ve come to understand to our family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, recognizing that despite our disagreements, we are not enemies.

* In philosophy, but also in our day-to-day interactions, there are two different sets of questions regarding truth. The first set deals with the issues regarding an absolute truth that must meet criteria like correct reasoning. I discuss the issues related to questions of this kind in Parts 1 through 4 of the First Principle. Here I’m concerned with issues related to the second set of questions which considers issues regarding who is capable of telling the truth and what are the consequences for that truth-teller.

** For more on Michel Foucault’s philosophy of ‘care of the self ‘and his study of parrhēssia as it was applied in ancient periods as well as its application today, see:

Foucault, Michel (Fruchaud, H. & Lorenzini, D., Eds). 2019. Discourse and Truth & Parrhēssia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel (Gros, Frederic, Ed.) 2008. The Courage of Truth. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

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One thought on “Speaking the Truth

  1. This is mandatory and inspiring powerful thinking for anyone seeking to adopt a more balanced view on leadership and communication.

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