Speaking truth to power

Academics are often fond of the idea of ‘speaking truth to power’, a phrase that I usually  associate with Aaron Wildavsky’s book on giving policy advice to powerful policymakers. In that context, it suggests that we have a duty to challenge the powerful to make sure that they don’t make decisions based on faulty evidence or faulty logic. Backed by our professional status (and, in some cases, tenured positions), we should have the courage to stand up for the truth.

This attitude often permeates our behaviour: to be loudly or publicly critical is to be righteous. It also reinforces a behaviour associated with ‘falsification’ in science: the best studies or theories are the ones that survive brutal criticism. Be clear enough to be proven wrong, invite harsh attacks and, if you are right, make sure that people know about it in no uncertain terms.

The problem, of course, is that it can also provide good cover for arseholeish behaviour: we give our colleagues a kicking while they present research, and we castigate policymakers while they engage in anything but evidence-based policymaking – all in the name of science and truth, but in a way that can give academics a bad name.

I say this partly as a way to account for some of the ways in which some scholars engage in public, such as on social media, when they are no longer speaking to the powerful, but to a range of people, including some who are vulnerable and without the resources to argue back in the same way. It seems difficult for some scholars to adjust to the need to speak differently with people in less powerful positions: we shout and we condescend in one venue because we have found it to be effective in another. We get away with it in one venue, particularly if we are high-research-status men, and we get away with it in another. We are the powerful but we still get away with ‘speaking truth to power’ even when engaging with the powerless.

I also say this partly as a way to wonder aloud if I’m any worse off by doing the opposite, which I take to mean saying nothing. I lose what is, from my perspective, the opportunity to speak truth to power, but which may be, as far as I know, the opportunity to be heard at the expense of other, perhaps worthier, voices. To say nothing may be a worthier political statement than saying something. To turn down a few panels may be worthier than contributing to the oversupply of men on panels. To listen to someone else’s story, and be a quiet source of support, may be better than telling my own.

Of course, it now looks like I’m leading up to the ‘third way’ or Goldilocks solution with just the right amount of engagement, but I’m honestly not sure what it looks like. My current solution, to say many critical things quietly, semi-apologetically, and with a smile on my face, is bound to get old.



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