Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be an overuse of the phrase 'speaking truth to power' just lately. I've caught campaigners, journalists, Guardian readers (of whom I am one), bishops, archbishops and insufficiently intersectional feminists using it in what might be considered defensible but sloppy ways.
It's often used to mean communicating uncomfortable opinions or facts to people who are perceived as having some authority or responsibility in a situation. Very often the speaker is, themselves, in what might be perceived as a position of moderate power or authority or is speaking on behalf of others. This is the case when religious leaders confront politicians, white feminists speak for all women or investigative journalists represent the views of others.
The origin of the phrase casts it in a rather different light. In modern times, it was first recorded in 1942 by Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, who wrote that 'the primary social function of a religious society is to speak the truth to power'. He was making use of a Quaker way-of-being that reaches back at least to an eighteenth century Charge entitled 'Speaking Truth to Power'.
The most often quoted use of the phrase is possibly in the title of a 1955 document. The American Friends Service Committee commissioned a study of international conflict. They were searching for alternatives to violence and militarism by which the American government might be advised to address 'anti American' behaviour of various kinds during the Cold War.
'Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history. Because of this we could not end this study without discussing the relationship between the politics of time with which men are daily concerned and the politics of eternity which they too easily ignore.'
If the idea of speaking truth to power comes from a specifically pacifist attitude, then it also grows, more generally, out of Quaker approaches to what can be known of God. Quakers seldom make pronouncements about 'truth' without much careful inner searching, a great deal of thought and an arrival at a place where their lived experience of God-speaking-to-them is such that they can do no other than speak. It is only by a disciplined and difficult process that common truths can be spoken and acknowledged. It would be rare to find Quakers speaking 'truths' they did not first try to immerse themselves in or speaking dogmatically or purely on behalf of others in a way that did not arise from their own experience.
By all means, let public figures challenge people who hold power, let leaders campaign on behalf of disadvantaged groups. But don't devalue the notion of 'speaking truth to power' which is a rare, precious and profoundly effective thing. Foucault likens it to the ancient Greek concept of 'bold speech' and describes it this way,
'...parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.' (The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia)
This is the approach of someone like the Bible's Queen Esther, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, living the truth they speak. There's an Indian word for it - Satyagraha - 'truth-force'. Chomsky had an interesting take on the notion when he turned it on its head and said that there was no need to speak truth to power as 'power knows the truth already and is busy concealing it'. According to Chomsky, it is the oppressed, not the oppressor that need to hear the truth because this will empower them to help themselves. As Martin Luther King famously observed, freedom is seldom, if ever, given voluntarily by the oppressor, it has to be demanded by the oppressed.
I'm not knocking leaders who have a go at pointing out the defects of political or social systems but I would prefer to call that campaigning. It would also be fair to note that all campaigns have their limits and this may be connected with the limits of embodiment and lived experience we all bring to our campaigning and speaking. Humility is called for!
'Speaking the truth to power' in its proper sense is a rare occurrence. It is something that only the deeply committed can achieve and it is something that even they will likely only be able to do two or three times in their life. When this happens, the heavens will part and something more powerful than politics or human wisdom will gather a momentum that shapes history.