Speaking Truth to Power – The Dangerous Meme

In Chapter 22 of Huckleberry Finn (I know it’s in that chapter because of SparkNotes—thank you SparkNotes!), a character called Sherburn stands in front of a mob of people about to lynch him and delivers the following speech:

Do I know you? I know you clear through was born and raised in the South, and I’ve lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man’s a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot. Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people—whereas you’re just AS brave, and no braver. Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark—and it’s just what they WOULD do.

Did I mention he’s armed? He’s got a shotgun in his hands as he’s saying all this stuff. He continues to berate the mob in front of him for another couple of paragraphs, until the crowd disperses, their tail between their legs.

This is one example of a meme* that has been alive and well in American culture of all stripes since before Twain’s time. It’s an example of the courageous, principled individual willing to stand up to a misguided crowd and speak the truth. The individual against society, who is willing to speak truth to power and shames us all into doing the right thing. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is another great example of this meme, but there are easily too many to name here.

Whenever any of us takes an honest stand on principle, I think we all imagine ourselves as something of a Sherburn character. We imagine ourselves committing an act of commendable courage when we yell at our elected representatives at town hall meetings and hold protest signs at our state capitals. And a lot of the time, we are.

The problem is, what if, when we’re doing this, we happen to be wrong?

I’m bringing this up now, obviously, because of the government shutdown. That’s all anyone can talk about these days, and all that anyone has been talking about on the news for weeks. To be honest, I’ve mostly had it with the whole situation—a big part of me wants to just shut down the government permanently and leave it shut down so I never have to hear another Tea Party Republican complain about it again. Then we can focus on defending our oil reserves against marauding gangs with machine guns. You know, the important things in life.

But when I hear Tea Partiers speak, I can’t help but hear them imagining themselves as a cadre of Sherburns. The only people around courageous enough to speak up when they see malfeasance in government. In their minds, they’re the ones making the principled stand against a corrupt and cowardly system, up on the rooftop with their guns calling us to be our better selves. When they shut the government down,** I’ll bet they imagine themselves as a bunch of lone wolves willing to stand on principle.

Never mind that many of their most deeply-held beliefs are based on incorrect information they’ve learned from Fox News and the Conservative Media Echo Chamber. They’re standing on principle!

Unfortunately, there’s a really blurry line between the principled unpopular stance—what we’ll call the “speaking truth to power” meme—and being an irrational yahoo. Most of the problems we’re having in politics right now can be traced back to too many people using this meme as the template for their first reaction to everything.

Think Obamacare involves death panels? Speak truth to power! Think global warming is a hoax? Speak truth to power! Think a non-profit you volunteer for is mismanaged? Speak truth to power! And so on.

One huge problem with people who are stuck in this mode is that it becomes increasingly difficult to get anything done when they’re around. Those of you who’ve lived in Austin more than a couple months might remember the KUT protests, when a bunch of folks decided that the management of our local public radio station was bad and started protesting their decisions at town hall-style meetings. Rather than causing real solutions to real problems, they raised a stink for a little while and made everyone miserable in the process.

Sound like congressional Republicans?

For those stuck in “speak truth to power” mode, there is no room for self-reflection. There is no room to seriously examine your beliefs and ask yourself if they might actually be wrong. You can’t make a principled stand if you are always willing to re-examine your principles.

Of course, this fact is the greatest tragedy of this meme. As a culture, if we ever had any respect for the willingness to reflect on our beliefs and admit we were wrong, that respect is all out the window now. We call people who do that “flip floppers” and question their integrity. What a bummer that is.

*For those of you who have only encountered this word in the context of internet cat videos, you should know that as far as I can tell it was a term coined in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which is a life-changing book if ever there was one. You should read that.

**Yes, Tea Party Republicans shut the government down.

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