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.