Speaking and Listening: The Power of Truth

Winston Churchill quote

By Angela Noel

April 6, 2017

“You know,” my dad said from his living room in California, “for that You are Awesome thingy you do . . . maybe you could ask people about speaking truth to power.”

“Tell me more.” I held my phone to my ear, enjoying a peek of springtime sun three-thousand miles away.

“Well, in my career (he’s retired) I never really gave much thought to whether I should say something, I just said it. And it got me in trouble, even fired. But, it’s really important. Especially now. So, I want to know how people do it, and do it well.”

Separated both by geography and sometimes ideology, my dad and I do agree on many things. We both, for example, believe societies big and small–families, workplaces, neighborhoods, countries–need healthy, well-informed debate by people that care. We believe respectful discourse among equals brings clarity, if not agreement.

But, there’s that whole power thing that mucks things up.

Many, many social constructs imbue power to one individual over another. Parent to child. Boss to employee. Dominant culture over minority culture. Rich over poor. Masculine over feminine. The types of power an individual can possess are equally numerous and complex: physical, economic, psychological, and legal; just to name a few.

We hold these powers at different times, at different strengths, and among different people. Some examples: a mother has power over her child, but no power over her work schedule; a father has power at work, but can only see his kids on the weekends; an entrepreneur owns her own business, but can’t stop a stranger from grabbing her crotch as she walks down the street; a college professor minding the law gets pulled over three times a year, every year. There’s a similar thread among these experiences, though it may not be easy to spot at first.

A 1995 Versace Ad
This Versace ad was the subject of my 1995 paper. The woman looks like she’s in power, but is she?

I wrote a paper in college, the only one I saved for more than twenty years, titled, “The Other Product of Advertisements.” In it, I argued that though the post-modern era attempted to redefine the power differential, the basic structures that create and maintain that differential remained the same. Writing one paper on the dynamics of power and reading a few books on social justice do not make me an expert on, well, anything. But I do have eyeballs and am living in the world today. What was true in 1995 is still true. We haven’t moved the needle much when it comes to redefining core power structures. We’re changing the way things look, without changing the way they feel.

And that’s not good enough.

We’ve changed the names for things without changing the dominant context around them. We say LGBTQIA to offer a more inclusive moniker for non-heterosexuals. But we still use the term straight. If I’m straight, does that make someone else crooked? Isn’t crooked the term we use for criminals and fraudsters? And that’s just one example.

The words we use matter, they’re the buckets we cart meaning around in. But, the words we choose follow patterns we’ve learned, reflecting the world we’ve grown up in.

Communication isn’t just about saying what we want to say, how we want to say it, it’s about saying it in a way that helps others to hear. The words that jump up from the archives of my mind aren’t always the best words to use for this purpose. If what I say causes someone else to feel “less than” will they hear me? Or will I just be another petty tyrant reinforcing the story they’ve heard all their lives of their otherness and vulnerability?

And all this comes back to power. When we have it, people don’t mess with us. When we don’t, they do. If we see each other as equals, we have open dialogue and respectful conversations. If we aren’t equals we have exhausted mothers, heartsick fathers, crotch-grabbers, and frustrated professors. This is not news. I am one more voice, saying what many have said before me. No law or mission statement can make equality real. Individual people must feel it, and act upon it in everyday ways; at the grocery store, choosing a movie, taking kids to school . . . you get the idea.

But making equality a part of every day isn’t easy. We’ve been fed a steady diet of images, words, and experiences that reinforce inequalities from our earliest memories. The messages we thought were innocent, are not.

Disney’s Princess Problem

An excellent blog post by Hayley Beasley Dye on her daughter’s broken Disney Princess cup got me thinking.

Princess Tiana
Princess Tiana of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. (Image for non-profit use only.)

Hayley points out that her daughter’s favorite princess, Princess Tiana, had gone missing. Tiana, unlike Belle or Ariel, didn’t (presumably) sell enough merch.

Disney sells stuff to people, that’s their business. Magic and all that loveliness aside, their purpose is to make money. They have no vested interest in upending their Princess machine to change the world for the better.

Or do they?

My son vociferously protested against seeing Moana. He thought it was another one of those “pretty dress movies,” a topic he’s not interested in at all. But, when he learned Moana was an adventurer appointed by the ocean itself for an important mission, he said, “Oh! THAT Moana. Yeah, I want to see that.”

By offering characters representative of more than the damsel in distress, pretty pink dresses, trim waists, and pale white skin, Disney can capture the imaginations of boys and girls of all races, classes, body-types, and orientations. Teaching every child they can be who they want to be with the help of loyal friends and a boatload of hard work, but without needing anyone’s permission, creates a positive tension in the world. They do great things because they know they can and want to try.

A Brave New World

Plenty of evidence suggests children aren’t predisposed to prefer one type of toy or hero over another. Girls don’t naturally gravitate to dolls, and boys to cars. We teach them these things.

A recent experience by a little girl, rewarded for her potty training success, demonstrates both sides of our culture today. The two-year-old white girl who sees herself reflected in the African American doll in a lab coat (inspired by a Disney show, Doc McStuffins); and the cashier who can’t understand why, perfectly illustrates where we’ve been and offers a glimmer of hope on where we could be going.

That is, if we speak up. And if we do a whole lot of listening.

Disney’s business follows customer demand. A whole lot of customers want to buy the damsel-in-distress-style Princess gear for their girls. And as long as people still see this merchandise filling the shelves, the dominant themes persist. Until the demand ceases, the supply will remain. Individual customers might seem to have little power to influence Disney. Much like individual employees have little power to influence CEOs. So how does change occur?

One mind, one choice, at a time.

It’s slow, but important. One voice speaking truth to power when it counts, is added to another voice that does the same.

Listening looks Easy
One Mind at a Time. Speaking and Listening takes courage.

Getting fired isn’t the goal. Being a jerk is not the goal. But, speaking up with whatever power we possess–economic, positional, social–and speaking out in defense of respect and equality to those who can influence large scale change, is the goal.

And when we’re the ones in those positions of power, listening is our most courageous act. 

So I’m using my You are Awesome thingy, to ask you my dad’s questions:

  • What issues matter to you?
  • How have you used your voice to speak truth to power?  
  • What was the result?
  • How have you used your power to listen to others?

I’d love to know your thoughts (and my dad would, too.)

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

16 thoughts on “Speaking and Listening: The Power of Truth”

  1. This is wonderful Angela. You write wonderfully. I love “We’re changing the way things look, without changing the way they feel.” This is sadly so true. Sexism, Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, all still exists despite numerous advances. It reminds me of the time a male friend turned to me and said “yeah but Hayley sexism doesn’t exist anymore. You can own a home, you can vote, you can do any job you want. It’s doesn’t exist”. His male privilege showed itself. It also illustrated that whilst on paper sexism doesn’t exist, it still very much prevails in society. I also agree that it is so important to communicate in ways that will make people want to hear. Otherwise, what’s the point in speaking truth, if you’re just barking at people or indeed whispering? People won’t want to listen. We do indeed have to treat each other as equals. I have to remind myself that my voice is as important as the next person’s. And the operative word there is “as”. It’s never more important and it certainly isn’t ever less important. I haven’t really answered your questions there, but I just loved this post. Also, thank you very much for linking up to my post xx

    1. Thank YOU, for the inspiration and such a thoughtful comment. The “as” speaks volumes. When we are “as” we share power, when we are more or less than suddenly a whole other THING enters the room. It’s like the uninvited guest showing up at a party who gets drunk and spills red wine on the carpet.
      You are awesome. I’m so glad you read the post and shared your important thoughts.

  2. I enjoyed this too Angela, you have captured many salient points but I’m not sure I can answer your questions with any clarity. I would like to be able to add something but you said it all so well. Awesome!

    1. Thanks, Debbie! I’m glad you found the post interesting, and you see where I’m coming from. There’s so much to discuss around this topic, sometimes I find it hard to know where to begin. If anything strikes you in the coming days that you want to share, I’d always be glad to hear it.

  3. This was great Angela!! I think as I get older I’m more likely to assert my ‘power’ and say what I feel rather than what is expected. My son is developing an interest in cooking. Who am I to put that typical male stereotype on him? If the boy wants to bake, he can! Equally my daughter is a tomboy princess… she loves girlie things but not pink and and plays football!
    My Father in law is a bit old skool and makes silly comments. My power as a mum means I stop him in his tracks sometimes. He us not plastering stereotypes on my kids thank you!

    1. I think it’s super hard to stand up to family-even more so than to strangers sometimes. It’s fantastic that you say what you need to say, and encourage your kids to be their own, wonderful selves. Last night my kid said, “Mom, that was some great cuddling last night, wasn’t it?” And I have to say, I hope that boy always wants to cuddle, and always sees sharing emotion as a good, strong, thing to do. Little things can mean so much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and how you’re speaking up!

      1. It’s taken years, but you develop a thick skin, don’t you, and where your family is concerned, you can take anything, well… this momma bear can!!!

    1. I agree. I suspect there isn’t a right way. Nor is there a way that will be without consequences. Finding the sweet spot between making sure others know I’m as open to listening as I am to talking has helped me. But, I still feel like I’ve a ways to go.

  4. So much truth to this! It’s so hard to find the balance between speaking your truth and upsetting the apple cart (and granted, some times the cart needs to be overturned, but other times all you get for your trouble are bruised apples). Over the years, I know I’ve had a few moments of declaring myself as such-and-such (homeschooler, unschooler, witch, bisexual) at times that it would’ve been easier to not bring it up, but the timing/situation seemed appropriate. However, there have been just as many (and probably more) opportunities that I let slip by. I find the older I get, the more I’m able to stand in my truth and do it in such a way that I don’t appear confrontational or defensive, which helps other people hear it. Great message from you and your dad, Angela – thanks!

    1. Labels are so helpful and yet so misleading. We need them to convey meaning in some sense, but when it comes to people the definitions are so limiting. I even struggled with saying I had a “boyfriend.” I wanted a better word to describe a mature non-married committed relationship that didn’t have all kinds of other meanings attached. But there wasn’t one. This is why my 92 year-old grandma used to call her boyfriend, “My gentleman caller.” Maybe if I didn’t feel judged by the baggage of other people’s meanings I wouldn’t object to the label being used. But that’s not the world we live in. And I’m not absolving myself here-I’m a judgment machine, too. I love what you said “to stand in my truth” but not force others to accept it in any particular way is a skill indeed. I’m still practicing, and I’m so glad we’re in it together.

  5. I think it’s simple. Everyone should demand respect. If I don’t get it or if I see someone else not being respected, I speak up. I’m more like your dad. Ha!

  6. As usual, so much to say, so little time! I’ve written several blog posts about Allison, the “rebel” – the one who speaks out and stands up for Truth. It is a characteristic that I’ve finally come to appreciate in myself, because people who speak up tend to be viewed as troublemakers. As you mentioned, one key to communication is listening – truly listening. And to listen, you must allow others to speak. Right now, we’d rather shut people up – ban them from college campuses, bring in the PC police, create “safe” spaces. Shutting down discourse simply makes “offenders” go underground. We need to learn how to share (and listen) respectfully. I was really impressed with the new Chancellor of UC Berkeley, who said this very thing (but way more elegantly than I). My favorite phrase is “agree to disagree.” We don’t all have to agree – we just have to find a way to peacefully coexist.

    1. I agree with you– a shouting match brings nothing but more shouting and hard feelings. Listening is truly beautiful when we listen not for our next chance to speak, but to hear something new and allow it to change us. I’m so glad you are a “troublemaker” for the purpose of standing up for others and injustice. Thank you for reading and sharing your insight!

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.