Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Frankly, my dear...

Last year, in my section of our College's great books program (which is called "The Search for Values"), I taught Michel Foucault's Fearless Speech for the first time. The book is an edited volume comprised of six lectures that Foucault delivered at the University of California-Berkeley in the fall of 1983, all centered around the Greek rhetorical device of parrhesia, which Foucault loosely translates as "fearless speech." The person who employs this kind of speech is a parrhesiastes, and I paired Foucault's text with Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech and Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech, challenging my students to choose which of the speakers was a proper parrhesiastes. (You can read one exchange in this debate by my students on their course blog here.) As pedagogical experiments go, I think this one was a particular success, so I've decided to include it again this year and I thought I'd share it with those of you who might be struggling with whether or how to teach Foucault to undergraduates.

The first advantage of Fearless Speech, I think, is that it is both short and accessible, making it easy to pair with the speeches of King and X as a kind of exercise in "applied" philosophy. Also, my experience was that students felt really engaged by and invested in the idea of parrhesia, especially last Fall when we were in the midst of a Presidential campaign. Although it's hard to anticipate whether or not they will have the same investments outside of an election year, my guess is that they will, since many students believe themselves to have a complicated and very roughly-defined commitment to "truth-telling," though it is often hard for them to put a finger on exactly what they mean by that. To that end, Foucault's definition helps, especially the following passage, on which we focused a good amount of our time:

[Parrhesia] is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, 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.

That definition is, of course, the very picture of what we mean when we talk about "speaking truth to power," and it is what I think many students admire and imagine their best selves to be engaging in. The challenge for them, as for us, is to get clear on exactly what the "truth" is and the nature of the "power" to which that truth is being fearlessly and frankly spoken. The contrast provided by King's and X's speeches are an excellent test-case. I highly recommend giving it a try in your courses.

1 comment:

anotherpanacea said...

Your students were particularly impressive in that exchange. Good on you for showcasing their skills.