In 1955, the American Friends Service Committee published a pamphlet entitled "Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence". As far as I can tell, this is the first use of the phrase. In the introduction, the author defines power and truth:
We speak to power in three senses:
* To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.
* To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.
* To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.
Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history.
To "speak truth to power" then is to embrace pacifism wholly and to work to win the hearts and minds of not only the office-holders but those who put them there. Speaking the truth to your neighbor is more important than speaking the truth to your Congressperson. Power does not equate to high office or military might. The "values and expectations" we collectively share as Americans give us the power to influence those in authority. That's an important thing to keep in mind as we continue to press for torture investigations and prosecutions.
Although this pamphlet was written in response to the Cold War, it is just as relevant to the Global War on Terror and its curbs on freedom and to the promotion of torture.
Is it not clear that to resort to immoral means in order to resist what is immoral is not to preserve or vindicate moral values, but only to become collaborators in destroying all moral life among men? Especially if the issue is a moral one, we must renounce modern war. If we say that any means are justified, we adopt a completely amoral position, for there is then no ethical line that can be drawn anywhere. All morality has been discarded. Only if we ourselves completely reject the doctrine that the achievement of our ends justifies any means is there any hope that we may be able to bring healing to a world caught in the fearful dilemma of our time.
The conclusion seems to us to be clear that the real evils at the root of the tragic conflicts which threaten to destroy mankind are those that flow from man's idolatry: lust for power and the inability of power to set limits to itself; the violation of human personality and infringements on its freedom and dignity; the "practical atheism" of a pervading materialism and secularism; the spreading cult and practice of violence and the poisonous doctrine that our ends justify any means. These evils will not be rooted out, or so much as disturbed, even if we succeed in cutting off all their heads in one geographical area or another. On the contrary, the recent experience of two victorious world wars for democracy, with the subsequent decline of the democratic spirit in the world, is evidence which all who run may read that resistance to evil, when evil is attributed exclusively to the occupants of this or that geographical or ideological area, is futile.
Chapter 3: The Enemy Redefined
Speaking truth to power is not about moral superiority. In order to be effective, it has to be aimed at changing the target's fundamental attitudes towards violence.
What is this non-violent method that we suggest offers new hope? Its simplest and most obvious statement is found in the religious literature of many faiths, most familiarly to Christians in the Sermon on the Mount. At its heart, it is the effort to maintain unity among men. It seeks to knit the break in the sense of community whose fracture is both a cause and a result of human conflict. It relies upon love rather than hate, and though it involves a willingness to accept rather than inflict suffering, it is neither passive nor cowardly. It offers a way of meeting evil without relying on the ability to cause pain to the human being through whom evil is expressed. It seeks to change the attitude of the opponent rather than to force his submission through violence. It is, in short, the practical effort to overcome evil with good... It appears to us tragic that even though the present violent method of resolving conflict is widely acknowledged to be bankrupt, so many of the most creative people of our time still direct their total energies to the preparation of weapons for war and the development of policies of intimidation. The urgent need for a new response is all but ignored. Even the pacifist has too often been satisfied to paint the horrors of war without facing frankly the problem of resisting evil. He has tended to shy away from the difficult task of making his religious belief relevant and applicable to the immediate problem with which men must deal. As a result he has failed to investigate seriously the non-violent approach, even though he has known of the success that both pacifists and non-pacifists alike have had in applying the method to ever widening areas of life. Indeed, one of the striking developments of the current century is the growth in understanding and application of non-violent insights.
Chapter 4: Alternative to Violence
So, speaking truth to power is not about wise-cracks on Comedy Central or Special Comments or street theatre. It is a fundamental shift in the way we all think about violence and how to reject it. Speaking truth to power is a commitment to peace that must manifest itself in everything we do. Don't get me wrong, Jon and Keith and Medea all have their roles to play but "speaking truth to power" is not entertainment or somebody else's responsibility. It's what we all need to do in order to fight the evil that we all talk about.
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