On power and truth

I came across this meme just recently and felt drawn to the sentiment it expressed. However, insofar as it appears as an axiom that explicitly references the notion of truth, I scouted out its provenance.

Three things seemed to come to light: first, despite citations in various texts, oftentimes suggesting that it originally appears in Orwell’s 1984, the quotation does not appear in that book.

Second, it is actually difficult to find evidence that this is something even said by Orwell himself. So, while the juxtaposition of text and author’s name seems to create a truth about its origin, this is, in fact, an illusion. If speaking truth is a revolutionary act, this leads me to wonder whether the articulation of untruths is an implicitly reactionary act.

Lastly, this meme was being used in a range of settings: leftists were drawn to it…yet it was also the case that the broad outline could be found out on the web bearing the hashtag to free Tommy Robinson, a rabble-rousing Fascist in the UK. So, its veracity changes orientation depending on the ideological context of its deployment.

Which leads to a consideration of the very idea of “truth”, particularly in respect to the important notion in political and organisational of “speaking truth to power”. The superb book on this topic, written by Megan Reitz and John Higgins, helpfully encapsulates this as a practice where people “speak up”, thereby helpfully sidestepping the tricky notion of truth.

This is not to head down a post-structuralist rabbit hole of epistemological relativism, which often seems the destination when this contention is raised: the debates can end up reductio ad absurdam, which is when ideas such as critical realism can be seen to offer a useful anchorage point. But it is to nod towards the idea of truth being either socially constructed (vide Kurosawa’s film Rashomon [1950]) – or, more significantly to my mind, discursively formed through the action of power/knowledge.

All of which leads to an opening assertion that the idea of speaking truth to power is an unhelpful precept. Power ends up in this formulation as a possessed resource: those who have it deny others the chance to contest their view unless they brace themselves to undertake the heroic act of giving voice to their notional idea of “truth”.

This is problematic on two counts: first, it assumes a separation between power and the idea of truth, whereas power should be seen as both an assertion and a reinforcement of a discursively constituted truth.

Second, it supposes that power can be contested – using something akin to a battle analogy – by calling upon a truth that is seen within the terms of this discussion as universal. This essentialism is unhelpful, as it allows for people from the widest range of perspectives to take a fundamentalist position in regard to their perceived relation to an absolute truth.

With the ideas of both power and truth problematised within this seemingly commonsensical assertion, we need to go back to first principles to determine how subaltern epistemologies might assert themselves in the broad field of social relations. For that, it seems to me, is what we need to lock onto when considering how to work in and through power.

Hence, we cannot speak of truth as a terrain to be seized by one or other side in a binary antagonism. Instead, we need to understand that the dominant discourse can only be contested by the open articulation of those other discourses that, through its dominance, it renders as “Other” and hence not acceptable.

Hence, it may not help to think about speaking up, which has a clear directional dimension that suggests an overlord and an underling. Instead, it is essential that voice is given to these subaltern discourses, that they find space and time in which to be discussed. And, in the same vein, it would seem important not to indulge the liberal democratic notion that it is a lone sovereign individual who embraces the act of giving voice.

Instead, we need to resuscitate the fundamental notion of collective action that capitalism has partially erased through the ideology of the individual and the development of the ideas and practices of neo-liberalism. And organisation development, as a radical practice, needs to assume responsibility for making the connections and opening up the space and time for this to take place.

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