On speaking truth to power

A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.

Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?

Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.

If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:

Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.

With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.

The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.

I think it’s time.

[1]: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal