During her powerhouse acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at Sunday’s Golden Globes, Oprah did what Oprah does: She stirred us.
First, she praised the #MeToo movement and women who spoke up about their abuse even before this moment, like Recy Taylor, a black woman who publicly fought for justice in the 1940s after she was violently attacked and raped by a group of white men in Jim Crow Alabama. Then, Oprah urged us all to act ourselves; to create positive change by being honest, by making the truth known. In fact, Oprah repeatedly endorsed voicing truth ― “speaking your truth,” speaking “the truth to power,” “uncovering the absolute truth” ― as a vital means to political and social change.
This ― the motivational oration, the inspired masses ― we expected. She’s Oprah, after all. The pushback to her truth bombs, though? That was unexpected.
Take, for example, when Byron Tau, a political reporter at The Wall Street Journal, tweeted:
Or when Mediaite published an op-ed declaring, “Oprah’s Crucial Error: Speaking ‘Your’ Truth Isn’t a Powerful Tool, It’s a Poison.” “When we rely on ‘our truths,’” Joseph A. Wulfsohn wrote, “we get to choose what to believe.”
Surely no one could be surprised to hear Oprah urging us to “speak your truth.” The phrase appears 10 times on Oprah.com, including in a 2013 interview with the parents of a Sandy Hook victim. Not only is she a well-known proponent of self-affirmation and empowerment practices, Oprah is a perfect realization of their power, as Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic on Monday: a self-made billionaire, a media mogul and a household name who was driven by her own relentless will and belief in herself.
The more surprising thing is that, through no fault of Oprah’s, a bunch of people started wildly tweeting things like “Oprah 2020!” and “She’s running, right?” in response to her stirring remarks. This retrospectively placed her words in a political context ― a presidential campaign context. And in the Trump era, any political reference to truth falls under particular scrutiny.
Oprah’s mistake, pundits rushed to explain, lay in saying “your truth,” not “the truth,” suggesting that truth is not a singular, universal thing but a choose-your-own-adventure story ― “alternative facts,” rebooted. But this is a bad-faith interpretation of Oprah’s words, which aren’t propaganda for the powerful. Rather, they’re an affirmation with a long history of encouraging the less powerful to find their own voices. 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.
Self-help books, motivational speakers, and New Age practices aimed at women often push this kind of mindset. (Perhaps one reason Tau has heard it more and more from celebrities is that recently, we’ve been hearing a lot more truth from female celebrities.) Men might find it corny, but that’s because it’s self-evident to men, especially white men, that they should speak what they believe to be true, and that it will be received as true. “Speak your truth” is a version of hedging, a conversational tactic which can indeed be infuriatingly evasive but is most often used by the less powerful in order to make a bid for discourse with those who have power over them. Women hedge; we say “I feel like” and “maybe” and “I don’t know, that’s just what I thought.”
And yes, some women dislike hedging. Women often instruct each other to power-pose, stop apologizing and prefacing assertions with “I feel like,” strip our professional emails of smiley faces and exclamation points. We might critique other women, and ourselves, for not having the guts to be as bold and unapologetic as men, for the ways we might be perpetuating our own oppression. Time reporter Charlotte Alter tweeted, in the midst of the Oprah debate, that exhortations to women to “speak their truth” are “another way to say that their experiences are particular, not universal.” In other words, it’s belittling for women to view their own experiences this way.
But those tics didn’t arise from the ether; they arose in response to the reality we navigate. Hedging can unfairly detract from our certainty or our expertise, but we’ve internalized, with good reason, that it’s the price we pay to be part of the conversation. By minimizing and particularizing our statements, we lower the mental hurdles to speaking up. It’s a way to cling to our belief in our own experiences and knowledge even when we are discounted by authority figures, conventional wisdom, or just obnoxious men.
Based on the baffled response of male pundits to Oprah’s “speak your truth” talk, it’s obvious that these strategies are not just irritating, but suspect, to them. To men accustomed to offering their opinions with proud confidence, hedging sounds like not caring whether you’re right. In actuality, it’s an expression of how unused we are to being taken at our word. It’s an expression of our intent to offer it anyway.
Perhaps the problem lies in this phrase, with its New Age mushiness and hand-wavy attitude toward the scientific process, metastasizing out of the self-help realm and into the political discussion. “Speak your truth,” as Friedersdorf argues, can be bent, like any powerful slogan, to evil purposes. (Though the idea of one ultimate truth can also be bent toward evil; consider oppressive theocracies.) With a celebrity president who displays a paradigm-shifting disregard for the facts, shouldn’t we be extra suspicious of any other contenders’ views on what’s true?
Sure. But the exhortation to “speak your truth” isn’t some new corruption in the discourse. And it’s certainly not a euphemism for “spread fake news.” It’s a profoundly American slogan, deeply interwoven with our political ideals as well as, yes, our bougie empowerment seminars and self-help books. It’s a democratic framing of humanity’s endless quest for truth, a mantra for a society founded not upon God-given revelations or sovereign-imposed codes, but upon truths our founders held to be self-evident.
Though it’s not a pro-alternative-facts slogan, “speak your truth” is mixed up with fake news. According to ubiquitous mythology, the phrase dates back to 1692, when Baltimore churchgoers supposedly discovered an unsigned poem on the wall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It offered ageless words of comfort and guidance, expressions of universal wisdom that still resonate centuries later: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”
In actuality, that poem, “Desiderata,” was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, an American writer, attorney and businessman from Terre Haute, Indiana. He circulated it on notecards and prints prior to his death in 1945. In the years following, his widow, Bertha, went to great lengths to solidify his literary legacy, publishing several books of his work ― including a poetry collection containing “Desiderata.”
The fake Baltimore origin story arose through a game of figurative Telephone that would put the Internet to shame: About 10 years after Ehrmann’s death, an Episcopalian pastor in Baltimore made a pamphlet of devotional texts for Lent and included “Desiderata.” Whether in the initial pamphlet or through subsequent mimeographs, Ehrmann’s name was dropped, but the pamphlet’s letterhead, reading “Old St. Paul’s Church. A.D. 1692,” stuck around. As you may have guessed, this refers not to the date of the poem’s composition, but the date of the church’s founding.
The poem quickly became, and remains, a favorite devotional, inspirational and motivational poster text. It was popular on hippie communes, where it was subsumed into the grab-bag spiritualism of the day. It got an extra boost when an annotated copy was found on the bedside table of Adlai Stevenson, once a Democratic presidential contender and the ambassador to the United Nations at the time of his death. Snippets like “speak your truth” and “be gentle with yourself,” while they may not have been expressed for the first time in Ehrmann’s poem, certainly were launched into memehood with the popularity of “Desiderata.”
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”
“Speak your truth,” from “Desiderata” to Oprah, both expresses and, inadvertently, symbolizes something profound yet divisive: the impossibility of the truth. We endlessly pursue it, and often we think we’ve found it, but the truth is elusive and unknowable. The truth demands to be made known, but it also resists knowing. Speaking the truth is a moral good, but it’s also an epistemic nightmare. How do we deal with this unsolvable dilemma?
French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that different epochs and societies have different definitions of truth and accepted means of discovering and proving truth, imperfect systems ― rational and otherwise ― we agree to use to form some consensus as to what truth might be. The scientific process, the judicial system: These are methods we’ve agreed to trust to bring us to the truth, even if we know they will sometimes miss the mark.
In his Mediaite take, Wulfsohn vaunts the American judicial system’s cherished rules of evidence and idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” But this system is not without its flaws and its grievous failures. The nation’s history is riddled with legislation and high court decisions barring people of color from testifying in court against white people; meanwhile, extrajudicial killings of black men for crimes they did not commit were widely condoned. Women, especially women of color like Recy Taylor, might speak up about crimes committed against them, but courts have always been eager to discount their words, or the harmfulness of what they’ve experienced, especially if their abuser is a white man. The idea that white men can speak the truth, while others’ words are suspect, was built into one of our most vital means of finding objective truth.
A large part of the reason that women have kept their stories of rape and abuse to themselves is because we’ve been taught that truth, as defined by our society and our judicial system, is not on our side. The truth might be that we drank too much, that we provoked him, that he was having a bad day and it’s not fair to punish him for that. The truth might be that he thought you wanted it, that he didn’t squeeze that hard. Even if you tell the truth, you will likely be told that the truth is actually something else.
By bringing the phrase “speak your truth” to the political sphere, however inadvertently, Oprah was also reminding us that testifying to the truth is an easier task for some of us than for others. It’s a reminder that the American system has failed over and over again, despite its many successes and its high ideals, and it’s an unsettling one for people who are deeply invested in the inherent goodness of that American system.
Then again, the American system was itself built on a willingness to unsettle accepted paradigms of truth and justice. Implicit in the critiques of Oprah’s phrasing is that she’s introduced something to American culture at large that was once safely confined to yoga classes and daytime-TV interviews ― a dangerous new way of looking at the world and our politics. But she hasn’t.
Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”
The United States, with its powerful ideals of individualism and religious liberty, arose from a series of clashes between a society’s foundational truth ― the teachings of the Church of England, the proper role and duties of British colonial citizens ― and a small group of people who believed fervently in another truth. So it’s fitting that our most influential leaders, for good and for ill, are preaching various versions of the exhortation to “speak your truth.”
America has always been a country that aimed for a more egalitarian idea of truth, where the truth was not necessarily vested in one person, one God, one institution. At first, this was an egalitarian idea conceived of only for white men, who all wanted to be equal with each other and superior to everyone else; it’s taken time and relentless struggle for women, for all people of color, for LGBTQ people to gain access to it. But the words we need for that struggle can be found in American history and letters ― even before “Desiderata.”
“To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, ― that is genius,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.” “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.”
It’s “speak your truth,” a century earlier and a little more florid. It’s the idea, not that fact doesn’t matter, but that your thoughts and experiences do matter. One hopes that, as with the common white male citizen, all Americans will one day take it for granted that their thoughts deserve to be voiced, just as one hopes that women one day won’t feel the need to apologize compulsively or pepper work emails with exclamation points. First, we need to believe that our words have real power.
Believe it or not, for some people, that’s still difficult to believe. But as we’ve seen again and again in the #MeToo moment, the more individuals are encouraged to speak honestly about their own truths, the more we’re able to piece together of the truth. For all its risks and pitfalls, it’s the American way ― and it’s just one way, as effective as any we know of, to seek truth.
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