Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say

Parrhesiastes, what are your thoughts? I’m for ‘em, and here’s why. Their belief in the truth wrests in their opinion that their beliefs are true; alas, parrhesiastes reconcile belief with truth and are hence completely committed to the messages that they profess. And the truth that they profess is no filler; indeed their messages are devoid of rhetoric, fraught with truth for truth’s sake. The truth they tell is frank and forthright—effective and unyielding in their message without appeal to rhetoric as a faculty upon which they promote the truth. Their truth is legitimate in that they cite fact based on what they know to be true and share these findings because they believe it to be incumbent upon themselves. And let us not forget that a parrhesiastes always must always be in a position of inferiority relative to that which s/he is critiquing. It is this risk that commands qualifies a true parrhesiastes, one who would rather risk his/her personal wellbeing for the sake of delivering a message than be comfortable with the truth being unspoken.

Based on these qualifications, I think it is fair to assume that Malcolm X is indeed a parrhesiastes. Early in his speech, Malcolm X speaks to the general state of moral, spiritual, and institutional degradation of Black America in 1964 at the hands of white suppression. He states:

“Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploration, we’re anti-degradation, and we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.”

And this sets the tone for the rest of what proves to be a true to form dissertation on what it is that has kept the black community subordinate to that of white America. He talks about Black Americans were systematically coaxed and manipulated into supporting, if not contributing towards, the economic and authoritative system that exploits them. He then goes on to state that the government doesn’t recognize them as a citizenry despite having guaranteed all citizens unalienable rights, and states that Black America needs a ballot to enact change before it gives a bullet. Before concluding, Malcolm X comes to appeals to the international community in recognizing the disenfranchisement of Black American’s human rights in the face of blatant hypocrisy (i.e. America’s involvement with the U.N.)

Although it’s fairly obvious that Malcolm X spits hot fire, I don’t think the same can be said of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream,” for a few simple reasons. Firstly, the language is much too inflated. Indeed the verbiage and phrasing speaks consists wholly of biblical allusions and extended metaphors that cloud would should be a frank and direct address (quite literally most of what is stated before Dr. King reveals his prophetic dream). What’s more, the speech isn’t an address to the oppressive superior. Rather, it is directed to those with concordant dispositions. There is no critique.

This isn’t to say that Dr. King is not a parrhesiastes. Alas, my thirst for knowledge and faith in Dr. King is unyielding, and I sought out a more telling work of Dr. King’s truth-telling exploits. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a solid example of what it is to be a parrhesiastes—committed, bold, frank, and instigating. The letter is a response to a formal statement delivered by eight Alabama clergymen who urge Dr. King to forego initiatives of direct action in favor of eliciting concessions by way of the courts as opposed to the collective conscience of White America. These clergymen offer the virtue of patience instead of their support in action, a point that Dr. King isn’t loathe to harp on and argue against.

Briefly, Dr. King explains the theory of direct action before revealing what it is that they mean to get at by it’s execution, eliciting a tension in the mind of the community so that the issues of the oppressed must be addressed. He states: “We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure,” the equates the Clergymen’s advice to “wait” with “never.” He even hints at the notion of the master/slave dialect being in full-effect. So yeah, he’s pretty much saying to the established authority, look, here’s what you’ve got wrong and this is how I suggest you go about changing. To close, he writes:

“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”

I’ve provided a link to the letter; go ahead, take a peek. I think you’ll find that the incredibly direct and forceful nature of the work cannot otherwise be misconstrued.


Emily Sellers said...

So, if we establish that both Malcom X and Martin Luther King are truth-tellers, then my question is about how one can reconcile the differences in their messages. They both agreed that now was the time to act, but they disagreed with the method of that action. They tell the same truth in that way, but have different truths about what should be done to fix it. Obviously they both believed in the truth of their solutions, but how can they both be true if they are contradictory. What this says to me is that trust in truth-tellers might be limited to what the truth-teller says is wrong and not necessarily their proposed solution.

Jesse said...

Is parrhesia an ability you can turn on and off, or is it a stable quality that is constant across all situations?

When comparing Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream”, I found that Malcolm X serves as a better example of the parrhesiates for most the same reasons you found. After reading “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, I sensed a more frank and direct, and less embellished use of truth-telling.

According to Foucault, however, the ability to be a parrhesiatstes consists of a distinct set of characteristics that the truth-teller must possess or display though speech. These qualities include frankness (saying everything that’s on your mind to an audience in the most direct manner), truth (meaning that your beliefs always match the truth), danger (one who takes risks to tell the truth), criticism (potentially hurting/angering the interlocutor by telling the truth), and duty (improving or helping yourself and others).

As Foucault analyzes the evolution of the definition of parrhesia in Fearless Speech, it seems like, particularly in the earlier definitions of the word, that parrhesia is an stable ability---either something you have all the time or you don’t have at all. And because parrhesia presupposes morality, I presumed that parrhesiastes are incapable of the pejorative meaning of parrhesia (described by Foucault as chattering) and do not believe in using embellished speech to persuade an audience (because this is against the “frankness” part of the definition).

Octo-hobo said...

I must concur with Jesse's findings on parrhesia, though I do not necessarily agree with Foucault or his idea of a constant ability. No one can really speak in one mode consistently, so the idea of a stable ability is just ludicrous to me. Unless of course we allow for exceptions to the rule, in which case the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" would not be so much a qualification as opposed to an anomaly.

Omair Khattak said...

And this is the same dilemma that i've been wrestling with, this absolutely absolute form of morality in which a truthteller must always tell nothing but the truth lest he/she lose his/her claim to parrhesia.

I don't think Foucault tkaes into consideration the scale of the audience as an effective measure of the truth that one extends. Both Malcolm X's speech and Dr. King's letter address small, personable audiences. But in Dr. King's "I have a Dream" Speech, he addresses countless numbers of peoples. His most effective means upon which to connect with these people is through the faculty of rhetoric.

C'est tres bizarre, mes amis, tres, tres bizarre.

Colin said...

I agree with this post. I feel that, though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr both spoke the same truth, they definitely spoke it in such radically different ways that it is very hard, if not impossible to reconcile them in their early careers. As we all know, Malcolm X later in his life took a much less violent stance on equality that was closer to Martin Luther King's, and was soon after assassinated. I think it may be hard use their earlier speeches in order to analyze the truth of their statements. I believe that both of these men have the qualities of parrhessiastes, though it seems to me that Malcolm X consistently speaks with the frankness that is necessary, while Martin Luther King drifts in and out of rhetoric and heavy metaphors depending on his audience (He definitely PC's it up a bit alot of the time).