Speaking Truth To Power

Steve Chenoweth

My department once had an idea that we should be able to see the transcripts of all our students, so as to understand how those in our classes, and those who came to ask our help, could be best counseled.

We foresaw this request going smoothly — it would extend our role as advisors in a useful way to more students.  And, as faculty, we were entrusted to give grades, so why were we not also able to see grades?  Other schools allowed this — the notion wasn’t a crazy one-off. The suggestion was so obviously a good thing, we didn’t waste time building a consensus for it before approaching management.

Our request ended, instead, with an impromptu meeting of the entire faculty at which a dean shot down the proposal, while students, administrators, and faculty testified to all sorts of abuses which could be inflicted by it.  Emotions ran high.  Faculty would prejudge students based on past grades, it was claimed.  Who knew what else instructors might do with such unchecked powers?  The word “willy-nilly” was used.  That was that.

The role of the change agent shouldn’t be so crazy hard.  If you know that  something that could be different, and you can say how to improve it, people, especially academic people, ought to listen and consider it using the analytic skills we teach to our students.    This is especially true in STEM educational environments where data and logic prevail.  If this rational approach works in your specific context, then great!  You are all set, and you are almost surely going to offer a change that will benefit students, staff, faculty, and many other stakeholders.

But as my own story illustrates, the change that seems logical and reasonable to you may not appear so to others.  Why doesn’t a good idea always go as planned?  Why doesn’t rationality prevail?  Even as you learn more roundabout ways to appeal to your management, peers, and students, you should understand some of the underlying mechanisms why your objective truth doesn’t “sell” as well as it probably should, or as well as we’ve been taught it should.

In Discipline and Punish, 20th Century philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued the following more cynical view of knowledge and truth:

Foucault5Perhaps, too, we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where the power relations are suspended and that knowledge can develop only outside its injunctions, its demands and its interests. Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad[1] and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge. We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.[2]

Foucault applied this argument to explain the shifting dogmas about what was illegal and how it was punished.  In his analysis, over a long period of time the seats of power in Europe moved from capricious monarchs to stable governments and commerce, and these new authorities needed predictability and consistency in dealing with crime. They needed more protection from acts with economic impact like theft.  The knowledge and “truth” of what had to be dealt with by law adjusted to fit those new interests.  The “pact with society” that the criminal broke became much different.  Associated definitions of “circumstances” and “intention” varied based on new needs.  Parties who could affect laws imagined what went through the heads of those who tampered with their interests, and they dreamed up responses which they felt would hold them at bay in close alignment with prevailing social sentiments:  “For this, everyone must see punishment not only as natural, but in his own interest; everyone must be able to read in it his own advantage.”[3]

To Foucault, society was this self-balancing system with stimuli set up to shape behavior, by those who could create the rules, and who based these rules on their own picture of what the world was like, weighted to benefit their own good.

And so, how is this relevant to a discussion of change?  As it turns out, we are taught the opposite of this point of view in secondary and higher education in the US:  truth does have an existence all on its own, regardless of who says it is so.  Doesn’t 2 + 2 always equal 4?  It is correct with or without the social context in which it is uttered.

When we seek organizational change, in our discussions we may count on this objective formula to pave the way for us.  Thus, we can “speak truth to power” and that power might change its mind.  Others listening may be convinced by us and help bend the mind of those who can say “yes.”  Or perhaps we can even depose the one who is holding that power if it was abused.  Our belief in this system is a part of living in a free society, and a part of believing that some absolute measure of justice prevails.

Yet it’s also possible we want the world to operate this way so badly because we know that it doesn’t necessarily do so.  Why doesn’t it always?  Foucault provides an answer.  Truth, he claims, does not at all stand alone; it must have some kind of power in sync with it, whether we like to admit it or not.

Does this mean, when we express a fact or view convincingly, say, to our students, that we are expressing power?  Maybe so.  Watch other professors do this, and see if their “truth” doesn’t actually look like a privileged challenge to the student, a positioning, an expression of the professor’s title and position.  If your colleagues acted less assertively, might the student not get a confused look from the exchange?  Indeed, if they seemed like peers to students, we might take them aside and advise them!

Watch the same faculty then address your department head and note how deferential they are, at least when there is no competing audience, not like when they are talking to you, and certainly not like when they were talking to the student, even if the content is the same.

To Foucault, the expression, “Speaking truth to power” would be a contradiction, but these are always connected.  He would doubt that we can cause change successfully, just by pointing out better ideas to people or even pronouncing them prominently or acting in protest.  Everyone else looks around to see who is pushing these buttons.  We are all a part of the social machinery, and we participate in the power expressions of that machinery.  A shift in the underlying forces, on which our knowledge is balanced, is more likely to cause change.

I don’t mean to discourage you from pursuing the change you believe is right.  New ideas which coincide with deep social interests can generate change. Our use of free speech and non-violent demonstration does work, sometimes, in a free society and in organizations allied to free expression like a university.  We have seen that happen.  These acts to destabilize can resonate with underlying things people want.  Not just ripple their fears, like our proposal to see everyone’s grades.

Yet it is a risk, too.  The natural alliance of truth with power is not shut off.  I’m currently attending a workshop at an elite university, and we got to talking about stirring things up in general.  One of the people who is from this university said, “Whenever we know there will be a controversy, we make sure everyone in the room has tenure, so no one vulnerable can be blamed.”  I thought this sounded rather clever… What do you think?

[1] I.e., irrational.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975 (English translation), p 27.

[3] Ibid., p 109.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s