Has anyone else noticed the rapidity with which this bit of rhetoric—”speak your truth”—has crept into the cultural firmament? I first took note of it last year, and now, like the proverbial buzzing of a light fixture, I can’t stop hearing it.
Apparently, it was Oprah who first popularized it, saying that speaking one’s truth was the “most powerful tool we all have.” By we, I am quite certain she didn’t mean me, as I don’t fit the demographic profile of those allowed to have their own version of the truth, i.e., I have a Y chromosome.
Allow me to explain. The phrase rose from the heady, shambolic early days of the #MeToo movement, when our culture moved decades in a matter of weeks. Women everywhere were telling their stories, and let’s face it, a lot of this was overdue. But like most cultural swings, this one also went too far, including its attendant rhetoric.
Oprah, at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, said the following:
“… it is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To tyrants and victims and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this; what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
In a nutshell, Oprah finds “your truth” more powerful than “absolute truth”? Does anyone else find this disturbing?
OK, this is where I’ll represent the counterpoint, which is that “tell your truth” simply means “tell your story.” Writing for the Huffington Post, Claire Fallon wrote:
“The words have been used to urge people to be true to themselves, to figure out what they really believe and feel, but also to give people the confidence to be honest about their experiences, even if their words aren’t received kindly.”
Translation: If you have been abused in some way (presumably by a male, likely white), or you have been generally oppressed (again, by white males and the patriarchy), “speaking your truth” is having the courage to give testimony to your experience.
I’m all for people telling their story, truth to power, and all that. I’m all for those who have long not had a voice to find (and use) theirs. But I’m a writer, and words matter. The language matters. Here’s what’s really happening here: Truth and feelings are being conflated.
In 2018, we heard Sen. Cory Booker use the “speak your truth” phrase to describe Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony. Her truth was that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her in the early 1980s.
I have two problems with all this. First, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Blasey Ford was telling the whole truth. That would mean it was the truth, would it not? Not her truth. Calling it her truth implies there could be other truths. Isn’t there only one truth? That’s what I was taught. Not only does the phrase undermine Blasey Ford’s position, it undermines our language. Again, words have meaning.
Aly Raisman, the gymnast, was in fact abused by the abominable former Olympic team physician Larry Nassar. It was the literal truth. Why undermine it by calling it “her” truth? Don’t let Nassar off the hook like that.
Let’s now say Blasey Ford was not telling the truth about what happened, or more to the point, was telling a story that speaks to her broader life experiences. Not truth, but truthiness. This is where I have an even bigger problem.
Perhaps Blasey Ford was abused by someone at some point, someone who wasn’t Kavanaugh. She certainly seemed troubled by something. Projecting onto Kavanaugh could have been an outlet for her anguish or maybe a bogus recovered memory—who knows? In that case, what she was doing was making Kavanaugh guilty by association. The left has gleefully accepted this approach, basically because Kavanaugh was a man and they didn’t like his politics. (His Catholicism didn’t help, either.)
Facts didn’t matter. What mattered was Blasey Ford’s anguish, whether real or manufactured. It hardly mattered which. Other women certainly had been abused, so Blasey Ford’s feelings validated their own.
I explore our rhetorical decline and the rise of feelings in my new novel “Campusland.” In this scene, Eph Russell, an English professor at the Ivy-like Devon University, complains about one of his students:
“Since when do feelings trump everything else? I had a student the other day tell me that something was wrong—something that was an historical fact—simply because he felt it was wrong. No supporting evidence. He had on a T-shirt that said always speak your truth. Isn’t there only one truth? Since when are we entitled to our own? This kid thought it was history’s obligation to validate his feelings. He then went on with all this Descartes drivel about how you can only know yourself, and therefore the only objective reality is what you perceive. It wasn’t the first time a student has served that up.”
Yes, you can blame the French philosophers. Descartes, Foucault, and the rest. They were big on feelings, which has caused a collective swoon on modern college campuses. The general idea is that you can’t really prove anything about the nature of existence. The only thing you can know that exists for sure is your feelings.
This, as it turns out, is a remarkably convenient philosophy for the modern left. No need to bother with facts, logic, or reason. No need to debate or argue, or give the slightest credence to those with differing views. Your feelings are your facts. They are your truth.
I have a character in “Campusland,” a student called Gaia, who begins every sentence with the words I feel like. Have you noticed how this phrase is everywhere? It’s almost a verbal tick. Most people can’t offer an opinion without leading with it. “I feel like it’s too hot in here.” I, myself, succumb now and then when I’m not careful.
It wasn’t always thus. Personally, I feel like … ugh!, I believe the phrase had little place in the rhetorical landscape even two decades ago.
Your feelings are not unimportant, but they don’t supplant facts. As George Orwell said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” So don’t feel like you need to tell us your truth. Stick to the facts. They are the foundation of reason.
Scott Johnston is the author of the best-selling novel “Campusland.” He is a graduate of Yale and a former finance and tech executive.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.