The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 4, Part 2: On Parrhesia

For the first time in my adult life, I cut someone out of my life over politics.  He was one of several talking about how Trump voters deserved no compassion and neither the demographics that didn’t vote.  I pointed out privately that a lot of the demographics that didn’t vote were the people who he is fearing reprisals against.  The headlines say it all:  AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTER TURNOUT ‘LOW’ IN KEY STATES.  It’s not just that working class whites sat on their hands, but even large numbers of black women did, a demographic that the Democrats have assumed were loyal as butter.

He called called me privileged. I am privileged now, but he lives in a suburb of a rich city, his kids go to rich school district that is majority white and Asian, and he grew up in one as well.  He told me that I couldn’t understand what it meant to black, and I kindly informed him that as non-African American biracial male from upper middle class background neither could he. We both only knew things by analogy and vicariously.  That there was no magical awareness going to come out of threatening people who could barely get PALE Grants to go Community colleges and still couldn’t afford it about the privileges but that they probably could see what some of the African American were going through. Not that this would magically make racism go away, but people will work together if they believe it will help them eat.

Eventually, after he said I was probably a racist anyway, and I asked why he didn’t send his kids to the an inner-city school so he could live closer to his job. We denounced each other. I cut him out.  I don’t believe in cutting people out because bubbling yourself because you don’t want to hear things and you don’t want to see things that are uncomfortable is a large part of how these things happen.  Yet when you can’t talk to someone because both sides assume bad faith instantly, even among people who in general trust each other otherwise, you have a problem.

I cut a few more people out who said the same thing, but mostly I tried to imagine why people feel so threatened. What they think they could accomplish. So I started talking to liberals about articles about declining outcomes for rural America.

Then I hear a liberal shaming rural people for shopping at Wal-Mart and ruining their own economy, and thus they are partially to blame for the decimation of rural America.  Not that the Farm Bill created perverse incentives for mono-cropping and mega-farm agriculture, and that this largely concreted non-soy, non-corn crops into a few valleys in California that are basically desert where they have to import water from Colorado and Nevada.  Not that for off-shoring and then automation moved those factory jobs away and all that was left was call centers, Wal-Marts and the military.  Not that the small town stores weren’t even that good at providing jobs anyway which is what led to Wal-Mart being able to force city councils into really disadvantaged tax incentives where often sells tax paid into Wal-Mart is not given to the local tax base but effectively kept by Wal-Mart. If is there was a choice for a few communities in the 1980s, there was NO CHOICE for de-industrialized Rust Belt and de-agriculturalized Southern cities in the 1990s. The localities that did where in rich states, with niche production like Tech, where there are monopoly productions on products like software and the arts, and thus they faired well and could offer to pass laws to protect against Wal-Mart.

This actually did make headway, and the person actually got my point, but only after we went through the rounds of mockery, moral outrage, calling each other stupid, etc.  It’s hard work. No one wants to do it.  I don’t blame activists of any variety of getting tired of it.  I often feel like an old man yelling at clouds and alienating friends.

Another example. Same issues with rural poverty but I was saw somewhat say, “Why don’t they just join a Union” and recounted their parents in rural Pennsylvania being in a Union and remembering the struggles they face.  Perhaps I should just offer screenings of Matewon, but there are reasons  because the South and parts of the lower west have effectively always been “right to work” states, and many employers ban unions outright. Furthermore, public sector unions are often illegal, and trade unions function more like licensing guilts with insurance benefits. Meaning there aren’t many unions to join, and the ability to collective bargain, etc, is weaken due to the structure of the industry.

This is not something people want to hear because it makes an easy answer much harder.  Chambers of Commerce colluded with Wal-Mart?  No Unions to join, and the unions that do exist don’t bargain anyway?   No everyone who sat on their hands is an enemy even if there is real danger out there.

Yet this comes to one of the few interest concepts Foucault wrote about: Parrhesia. In classical texts, particularly Plato, rhetoric and parrhesia opposed.  This is why the normal translation in English, “free speech” is misleading.  The opposition between rhetoric and parrhesia is not its civic limitation, but that rhetoric is stylized speech whereas open speech. It’s value is in its danger and even though it was key to civic life in ancient Athens, it was also a good way to get exiled if one were not careful. Still deliberation was key to bot the ekklesia and the agora, but not to the courts of law. 

There have been tons of rants about “PC” culture.  Ironically, this too is the realm of rhetoric, not parrhesia, as PC culture rants have a style and a certain blockage to truth. In Platonic dialectics, which have a very different meaning that the German Idealist or Marxist one, is based on two tellings of the truth. Freely.  Now, Plato does not really allow for Socrates debaters to have truly free speech that would undo Socrates except for one: Parmenides and . The one time one feels like Plato is willing to let Socrates truly lose.

Regardless, there is a regulation, perhaps coming from the contemporary ideas in identity political discourse that because derailing someone’s subjectivity is a way to silence them, then actually disagreeing on facts is derailing subjectivity. IN such a political climate, Parrhesia is impossible because the speech can never be unguarded. It doesn’t take a psychologist or a Plato to see how this would lead to confirmation bias and empty rhetoric rather quickly .

The moralizing impulse comes from places of concern, but the ignorance does not want to be discovered. No one wants to have someone else explain things to them because often it is done to silence, but take this just one step out:  how much are limiting by assuming that one’s subjectivity actually entails you to knowledge because of your individual qualia. Can you learn?  Can you be challenged? When political wins shift because you can’t see it, do see it?   Do you go through several stages of grief: pleading, threatening, then accepting.  Will you let acceptance be capitulation?  Will it matter?

So what is the relationship of Parrhesia to truth, Foucault puts it thusly:

There are two types of parrhesia which we must distinguish. First,there is a pejorative sense of the word not very far from “chattering” and which consists in saying any or everything one has in mind without qualification. This pejorative sense occurs in Plato, for example, as a characterization of the bad democratic constitution where everyone has the right to address himself to his fellow citizens and to tell them anything — even the most stupid or dangerous things for the city. This pejorative meaning is also found more frequently in Christian literature where such “bad” parrhesia is opposed to silence as a discipline or as the requisite condition for the contemplation of God. As a verbal activity which reflects every movement of the heart and mind, parrhesia in this negative sense is obviously an obstacle to the contemplation of God.

Most of the time, however, parrhesia does not have this pejorative meaning in the classical texts, but rather a positive one. “parrhesiazesthai” means “to tell the truth.” But does the parrhesiastes say what he thinks is true, or does he say what is really true? To my mind, the parrhesiastes says what is true because he knows that it is true; and he knows that it is true because it is really true. The parrhesiastes is not only sincere and says what is his opinion, but his opinion is also the truth. He says what he knows to be true. The second characteristic of parrhesia, then, is that there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth.

It would be interesting to compare Greek parrhesia with the modern (Cartesian) conception of evidence. For since Descartes, the coincidence between belief and truth is obtained in a certain (mental) evidential experience. For the Greeks, however, the coincidence between belief and truth does not take place in a (mental) experience, but in a verbal activity, namely, parrhesia. It appears that parrhesia, in his Greek sense, can no longer occur in our modern epistemological framework.

I should note that I never found any texts in ancient Greek culture where the parrhesiastes seems to have any doubts about his own possession of the truth. And indeed, that is the difference between the Cartesian problem and the Parrhesiastic attitude. For before Descartes obtains indubitable clear and distinct evidence, he is not certain that what he believes is, in fact, true. In the Greek conception of parrhesia, however, there does not seem to be a problem about the acquisition of the truth since such truth-having is guaranteed by the possession of certain moral qualities:when someone has certain moral qualities, then that is the proof that he has access to truth—and vice-versa. The “parrhesiastic game” presupposes that the parrhesiastes is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and secondly, to convey such truth to others.

If there is a kind of “proof” of the sincerity of the parrhesiastes, it is his courage. The fact that a speaker says something dangerous — different from what the majority believes— is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes. If we raise the question of how we can know whether someone is a truth-teller, we raise two questions. First, how is it that we can know whether some particular individual is a truth-teller; and secondly, how is it that the alleged parrhesiastes can be certain that what he believes is, in fact, truth. The first question — recognizing someone as a parrhesiastes — was a very important one in Greco-Roman society, and, as we shall see, was explicitly raised and discussed by Plutarch, Galen, and others. The second skeptical question, however, is a particularly modern one which, I believe, is foreign to the Greeks.

The truth is in the danger in telling.  Even honest dialogue can be dangerous.  Maybe most especially dangerous, exactly when it is when you need it because that is the time you will least want it.

This kind of free speech is deeper than just the legal right to say whatever: it is the courage to say the truth at a cost. It is not just to offend to do so. It is not be shocking for its own sake. It is for words to matter because the history and the weight, and the possible cost, of doing so.

Sancho Panza must ride with us.


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