Saturday, July 7, 2007

Speaking Truth to Power

I know that Americans often get labeled as being loud mouthed and rude--uncouth--but if you think about it, how often are people guided by politeness? How often do we choose to avoid confrontation or speaking out, even when we know it's the right thing to do? How often do we let protocol and decorum shape our responses?

I've been thinking about this lately because, as my last post indicated, I often feel pushed to speak my mind, perhaps even when I shouldn't, because I believe in the phrase "Speak truth to power." For those unfamiliar, it means telling your truth to others in authority, even if you think you may be at the receiving end of a smackdown. I believe it either came from the Civil Rights movement or from a black vernacular tradition (please correct me if I'm wrong!) and I want to give a shout out to Mari Oye, a rising Freshman at Yale University and a Presidential Scholar, who galvanized 50 of her Presidential Scholar peers to sign a letter protesting the war in Iraq and the use of torture and handed it to George W. Bush at a reception at the White House. For more on this story, go to
or find the link through Angry Asian Man's blog [June 30, 2007].

Mari, who is a granddaughter of two Niseis interned during WWII, is a shining example of speaking truth to power--of using her opportunity with Bush to tell him what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong. There were over 130 Presidential Scholars, so not all her peers agreed with her stand, and in fact, many found her activism undecorous, impolite, and improper. In other words, they felt that she should have gone to the reception in which they were being honored, made nice, and not spoke her mind.

And I suppose there is some merit to this point-of-view; to think about the time and the place for whether your message is appropriate--for when you will be heard.

But I think that Mari displayed both courage and integrity in her stance--in taking an opportunity to take her grievances and concerns to one of the most powerful people in the world right now. I mean, if you had 10 seconds to shake the hand of someone as powerful as Bush, what would you do? What would you say? How would you try to make a difference and take a stand (this is all, of course, assuming you are like me, someone with extremely lefty-liberal-progressive-antiBush/anti-Republcan/anti-war feelings)?

I often think we let politeness and propriety silence us when we should be speaking truth to power--when we should spend less time worried if we are hurting someone's feelings and more time protecting people who are truly being harmed.

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