Speaking Your Mind, Minding Your Speech

I’m about a third of the way through Michel Foucault’s The Courage of Truth. It makes me sorry Foucault didn’t live a few more decades—he was getting interested in some quite interesting things. This book is about the Greek concept of “parrhesia,” roughly translated as “complete,” which is to say, bold, open, uncompromising speech. Parrhesia seemed to have its origins in the rough and tumble of democratic Greek politics, where any citizen could speak freely in the assembly, criticizing the rich, the generals, and the rulers, without restraint. Foucault examines the various forms parrhesia takes—“wisdom,” teaching, prophecy—while ultimately being most interested in the philosophical version exemplified by Socrates. Foucault associates philosophical parrhesia with the “care of the self,” Foucault’s own abiding concern in the last decade of his life, with “care of the self” involving esthetic self-creation out of moral and social, if not chaos, then decadence and disorder. Philosophical parrhesia involves critically examining and distancing yourself from the passions, interests and prejudices that make care for our “self,” or, for Socrates, our “soul,” or immortal part, impossible.

A revival of political parrhesia would not only be very welcome today, it is starting to emerge. Parrhesia is not just a question of speaking the truth as you see it—it is a matter of speaking the truth that needs to be spoken to those whom and in the way that it needs to be spoken. One could say that that is really what we mean by “truth”: truth must resist some pressing falsehood, which means, paradoxically, it must be widely accused of falsehood itself. There is what I consider a still chastening description of parrhesia by Jonathan Swift in the “Preface” to his Tale of a Tub:

But though the matter for panegyric were as fruitful as the topics of satire, yet would it not be hard to find out a sufficient reason why the latter will be always better received than the first; for this being bestowed only upon one or a few persons at a time, is sure to raise envy, and consequently ill words, from the rest who have no share in the blessing. But satire, being levelled at all, is never resented for an offence by any, since every individual person makes bold to understand it of others, and very wisely removes his particular part of the burden upon the shoulders of the World, which are broad enough and able to bear it. To this purpose I have sometimes reflected upon the difference between Athens and England with respect to the point before us. In the Attic commonwealth it was the privilege and birthright of every citizen and poet to rail aloud and in public, or to expose upon the stage by name any person they pleased, though of the greatest figure, whether a Creon, an Hyperbolus, an Alcibiades, or a Demosthenes. But, on the other side, the least reflecting word let fall against the people in general was immediately caught up and revenged upon the authors, however considerable for their quality or their merits; whereas in England it is just the reverse of all this. Here you may securely display your utmost rhetoric against mankind in the face of the world; tell them that all are gone astray; that there is none that doeth good, no, not one; that we live in the very dregs of time; that knavery and atheism are epidemic as the pox; that honesty is fled with Astræa; with any other common-places equally new and eloquent, which are furnished by the splendida bilis; and when you have done, the whole audience, far from being offended, shall return you thanks as a deliverer of precious and useful truths. Nay, further, it is but to venture your lungs, and you may preach in Covent Garden against foppery and fornication, and something else; against pride, and dissimulation, and bribery at Whitehall. You may expose rapine and injustice in the Inns-of-Court chapel, and in a City pulpit be as fierce as you please against avarice, hypocrisy, and extortion. It is but a ball bandied to and fro, and every man carries a racket about him to strike it from himself among the rest of the company. But, on the other side, whoever should mistake the nature of things so far as to drop but a single hint in public how such a one starved half the fleet, and half poisoned the rest; how such a one, from a true principle of love and honour, pays no debts but for wenches and play; how such a one runs out of his estate; how Paris, bribed by Juno and Venus, loath to offend either party, slept out the whole cause on the bench; or how such an orator makes long speeches in the Senate, with much thought, little sense, and to no purpose;—whoever, I say, should venture to be thus particular, must expect to be imprisoned for scandalum magnatum, to have challenges sent him, to be sued for defamation, and to be brought before the bar of the House.

I’ll leave aside the opening counter-intuitive but very illuminating assertion that “panegyrics” might be more “marginal” and “critical” than satire, other than to note that it might help explain why supporters of “charismatic” politicians may refuse to brook even the most seemingly harmless criticisms of their candidate, allowing for nothing other than panegyrics that implicitly insult all the other contenders. More important for my purposes is the contrast between Athens and England, between parrhesia directed at the people as a whole and parrhesia as directed at individuals. Or, rather, the question here is what counts as parrhesia. Swift explains very well the paradox whereby the furthest reaching and most inclusive criticisms of a country, a civilization, an “age,” a “generation,” etc., can be applauded by all of its putative targets. Insofar as you applaud the criticism you have “plausible deniability” regarding the accusations. Apparent self-hatred is really self-love, even while it takes its toll. It is inspiring to imagine what public discourse might look like if anyone who dared venture such unaccountable criticism of some “”us” were to be “immediately caught up and revenged upon.” No doubt the author of this blog post, like so many of us (did I just do it?), would have been far more than a few times the victim of such “revenge.” Swift provides us social and political critics, as well as generative anthropologists and mimetic theorists, a useful constraint.

While virulent criticism of particular individuals that everyone else also criticizes requires no great courage, that is obviously not what Swift has in mind in his “Athenian” example. He is defining true parrhesia, pointing to malefactors whose misdeeds spread their effects across the commonwealth, and supplying a complete itemization of those verifiable misdeeds. We might identify this with the kind of work associated with investigative reporters, but I think the point here is less discovering what is hidden than speaking of what everyone already knows, or at least senses, but is afraid to say. It has a lot in common with the “emperor has no clothes” phenomenon, but in that tale the emperor is himself hoodwinked. What defines true parrhesia, then, is the thin line between itself and scapegoating: the ostensive gesture present in both cases, meaning that scapegoating can easily, and no doubt often does, mask itself as parrhesia. Even more, the practitioner of parrhesia risks the fingers being turned back on himself and becoming the victim of scapegoating. The line between the two is maintained only by the truth of the putative exposure.

Still this is somewhat unsatisfactory. Think of the fierce debates over some of Donald Trump’s recent statements, which, while no exactly truthful, were not exactly lies either. The Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto has been developing an interesting analysis of these statements, most famously Trump’s claim that he saw “many thousands” of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey. Taranto has pointed out that, strictly speaking, there are no reports, much less video evidence, of the “many thousands,” so taken literally Trump’s account must be deemed false—a mistaken memory, if not a lie. Yet, in their haste to tag Trump as a liar, many media outlets covered up, or were revealed to have earlier concealed, evidence of some celebrating of 9/11 by Muslims in NJ and elsewhere in the US. Indeed, the more trouble one went through to determine the falsity of Trump’s statement, the more likely you were to stumble on a much more disturbing picture of Muslim responses to 9/11 than we had been provided previously. If you see the media outlets as the more persistent, systematic and dangerous liars, then Trump’s sin is venial, or even no sin at all, because there would have been no other way to expose the dishonesty of those media outlets other than by baiting them as Trump did. In that case, Trump’s false statements are true parrhesia, making it possible for him, his supporters, and others in their wake to (as the current phrase goes) “call out” those media outlets for what really would be virtually treasonous acts on behalf of America’s enemies.

Even more, if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt, and assume a faulty memory rather than deliberate deceit, we can make yet a stronger case for his speech as true parrhesia. His memory would be a kind of “screen memory”: a re-composition of an actual memory out of material provided by an ex posteriori revelation of that memory’s meaning. It has been pointed out that there were some contemporary reports of police in NJ looking into some Muslim celebrations of 9/11; and there were videos from the Middle East, most infamously, I believe, from the Palestinian territories, showing mass celebrations. We can imagine Trump conflated the two in his mind, prompted by the widespread denial in the post-9/11 West that there is any connection between Islam or the vast majority of Muslim people, and the atrocities so regularly carried out in the name of Islam. Trump responded in the unstudied way of someone whose first response to fabricated claims that violate one’s own experience is to say “no way! I remember it!” What is true in Trump’s statement (is this sounding like a panegyric? If so, should I be concerned, or take comfort in Swift’s implicit defense?), then, is his spontaneous defense of an intuition that is true and under assault and could not, in that moment, be defended any other way. The proof of this mode of truthfulness would be that cutting down Trump’s statement to the size and shape of the actual event would yield up that intuition and restore it to our public memories.

This unapologetic and artless defense of an embattled and genuine intuition is what, I think, we mean by “speaking your mind.” In opposition I would place the minding of our speech that is so central to victimary thinking. Nothing terrifies the speech minders more than the possibility of people speaking their minds, a fear which, in the US, goes back to Nixon’s “silent majority” and which took caricatural form in the malapropisms of Archie Bunker (to whom Trump has, inevitably, been compared). Of course, what made “All in the Family” entertainment and not (just) propaganda was that Mike Stivic, Archie’s son-in-law and liberal nemesis, also spoke his mind and, to the credit of the show’s creator and writers, was regularly shown to be wrong, stubborn, egotistical and self-defeating. Indeed, there was a brief moment, in the late sixties and early seventies, when there was public space for both left and right to speak their mind without fear of consequences, and the search for specifically American modes of parrhesia would do well to start there. We might find that much of what was said on both sides looks to us like BS now, but, like Trump’s BS, allowed for the surfacing of fundamental intuitions in conflict.

One very good explanation for the Trump phenomenon is that in speaking his mind he reminds us of how much we are all minding our speech. The contrast between his way of speaking and normal, “mainstream” political BS is striking. It has become a cliché to say that no politician lets loose a single word that hasn’t been focus group tested and lawyer vetted a dozen different ways, and yet it still seems to be taken for granted that any other mode of politics is simply unimaginable. The reason no other candidate, even the more right wing ones who are “tough on terrorism” and conscious of salient distinctions between Christianity and Islam (like, say, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee), would have ever proposed a suspension of Muslim travel to the US as Trump has is simply that the received political discourse has no grammar or vocabulary for it. There is no way of putting “Muslim” and “come to this country” in the same sentence (much less with a negation in there): the very thought would have to be processed through references to State Department procedures, Supreme Court precedents, gestures to the glory of previous generations of immigrants, etc. The idea would be chopped up into timid proposals for modifications in this or that vetting process. Speech minding goes way beyond the victimary; or, perhaps, the victimary reaches far deeper into our culture than we realize—either way, to return to that passage from Swift, it seems as if everyone (there I go again!) is constrained by a mode of discourse modeled on the universal denunciation with private exemptions for everyone who signs on built in. We are destroying the planet, we are insufficiently welcoming of others, we are materialist and consumerist, we have become weak, we are belligerent, we are not democratic enough etc., and by “we” I mean everyone but me and couple of my friends who have this great idea to turn things around as soon as we can get everyone on board. The fright Republicans and conservatives have taken at Trump’s proposal demonstrates their own enslavement to this model: only proposals that single out no one in particular, but point to a general deficiency in our collective institutional consciousness, are intelligible.

New forms of speaking one’s mind are proliferating, in particular (here and abroad) on the nationalist right, in ways that I have pointed out in many recent posts and so won’t return to here (except to mention that Vox Day, the author of SJWs Always Lie, has now come out the equally “mind speaking” Cuckservative). Instead, I’ll take up a theoretical point, one I have made previously but not applied to my recent discussions of nationalism and the war with SJWs. The reason we fear speaking your mind is, as I suggested before, its indeterminate proximity to scapegoating. Scapegoating is particularly alarming today, with the weapons of mass destruction at our disposal and the ways instantaneous media facilitate mob-like reactions to events. The assumption seems to be that, unlike Archie and Meathead, we will not scream our guts out at each other and then sit down to dinner; rather, the Archies will overwhelm the Meatheads or vice versa, and simply wipe them out, that we will “battle to the end.” Such fears are deeply rooted in our political unconscious, and reflect the kind of anthropological intuition that inhibits speaking your mind. The frankness of the alternative right (and the ever evolving Breitbart website deserves special mention here for very deliberately pushing the boundaries of what kinds of confrontation can be openly engaged) is currently testing this assumption, and I’d like to provide a theoretical endorsement.

I would like to return, in this context, to the notion of the “violent imaginary” I advanced some time ago, and have used intermittently since. The basic claim here is that originary scene, and the sign in which it issues, results from an imaginary extrapolation to an “apocalyptic” denouement to the emergence of rivalries on the scene which is, in fact, extremely unlikely. If we devote to Girard’s or Gans’s analysis of the structure of the originary scene the same scrutiny many have given to Trump’s memory of celebrating New Jerseyean Muslims, we would have to say that while it would appear completely reasonable from the standpoint of each participant in the mounting mimetic crisis that “this is the end,” almost certainly the melee would break up on its own accord with many if not most of the group’s members still standing (even if just barely, due to exhaustion). At the very least, one person would have to be left, in which case “total destruction” is unimaginable. The fortunate mistake of the originary scene is that such total destruction seemed imminent, as each sees his fear and aggression mirrored in all the others, making the sign the only apparent salvation.

Speaking your mind becomes possible insofar as you realize that after the apocalypse will come—tomorrow. There will always be some form of social association impermeable to the latest mimetic break out. Such an insight is itself a mode of resistance to mimetic contagion. The sign is both the invention and the memory of that insight, an insight which must have been available on the scene to someone positioned so as to witness a simultaneous escalation and de-escalation in different “sectors” of the scene. At a certain point, those de-escalating would be able to direct their shared attention to those still escalating, making that escalation a more mundane, treatable, matter. All this would be forgotten with the closure of the scene and the initiation of the sparagmos, in which process the unity of the sign and unanimity of the group would be paramount and hence the most extreme form of motivation (the violent imaginary) necessary, but any event takes on the same structure, and we could always find those who “keep their heads” in even the most frantic situations.

Keeping your head is part of speaking your mind. You do not obey the imperative to mind what you say because anything could happen. Rather, you let yourself be guided by resentment towards everyone’s refusal to say whatever it is they are refusing to say because anything can happen. We can criticize and even insult without lynching; we can argue fiercely without going to war. Or, if it turns out that we can’t, then we were really already at war, so let’s get on with it and find out where we stand. Yes, anything can happen, but in the end it will be something. There can always be a “worse,” but you make it more likely by making preventing it your highest priority. There are margins of better and less bad right now and that is all we ever have access to and, paradoxically, it is the more open, insistent, unvarnished and exact naming of the violent imaginary making things worse, and its bearers, that make attention to those margins or increments more likely. Someone had to say we have no need for more Muslims in the United States. And someone else has to call that someone a fascist. And that first someone need not back down, meaning that someone else needs to come up with a somewhat different approach. And he will, and will be rebuffed again, and we will all see the world not end. In the end, perhaps our intuitions will be more sharply formulated, and brought more precisely to bear on the more pressing threats of violent contagion. Let those who would nominate Islam, and those who would nominate Islamophobia, make their respective cases. Speak your mind so as to provoke others to do the same.

We do need to think about what is entailed in speaking your mind, in more careful, Foucauldian ways. It’s not just a question of saying whatever pops into your head. Trump, as Eric Gans pointed out in a recent Chronicle, can say what he is saying because he doesn’t need anyone else (unlike every other candidate he need not worry about the donor spigot being turned off once he becomes “unviable”)—that’s one formula for liberating yourself to conduct war against the SJWs, but a limited one. If you spew forth what will be perceived as an outburst at a faculty gathering, or in a letter to the student newspaper, and get fired so that everyone will forget it ever happened, then the restoration of a repressed intuition to public memory will not take place. Well, maybe the possibilities of such outbursts shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, but it is better to be cognizant of the space one occupies, because you speak your mind in defense of some space. It is faith in the durability of that space that makes speaking your mind possible. In Trump’s case, it’s the national space; in communications with one’s fellow faculty members, it’s a space of free inquiry into the truth that needs to be defended, and such inquiry cannot be defended with Trumpian insults. A subtle, suggestive neutralization of some politically correct commonplace that interferes with reasonable lines of inquiry might be more to the point, and far more unwelcome—but also harder to do anything about. You speak your mind in order, to refer to the Eastern European dissidents like Vaclev Havel, to “live in truth,” and, as I said before, the truth is on the borderline where scapegoating is as difficult to resist as it is to carry out, with the emphasis on “live” suggesting that it’s better to make the scapegoating ever so slightly the more difficult . And that borderline is always shifting. A good place to identify it in any particular circumstance, though, is to notice when you start to feel like you should be minding your speech—there is little doubt that therein lies some matter on which you should speak your mind.

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