Practicing Parrhesia: Fearless Speech for Agreeable Overthinkers

Jessie Mannisto / December 4, 2019

Socrates and the Buddha have some suggestions for you highly agreeable types who can’t quite bring yourself to speak up about something important.

If you liked the first piece in this series, on how “cancel culture” poses a particular dilemma for those with intellectual intensity, you’ll be happy to hear that it got a lot more traffic & social media shares than I anticipated. It seems you are not alone.

I closed that piece by raising a question that I’ve heard others who have both intellectual and emotional intensity ask in some form: how are we to balance our pursuit of capital-T Truth with the furthering of capital-C Compassion? To that question, one reader, Katie, sent a thoughtful reply:

In my opinion, being compassionate is not the flip side to honesty. Funnily enough, I believe being honest is the height of compassion because you’re providing balance to someone’s thinking […]. These comments are done, usually, to assist another fellow human on their bumpy, life journey. Ergo, compassion!

Instead the counterbalance to Truth is, in my opinion, Self Preservation. Every time I open my mouth, I’ve weighed-up and reflected that being disliked or shunned is something I’ll make peace with in order for my perspective/truth to be heard. Conversely, every time I close my mouth, it’s from the need to not stick out this time; not be socially isolated; to be invited to the next meeting/dinner; and to have people smile the next time they see you.

Soon after that, this comment from Third Factor contributor Andrea Lynn showed up on my Twitter feed:

Between these two comments, it struck me that what many of us probably need to do first is deal with this sort of fear. It’s true that for some people (e.g., professional writers, celebrities and politicians, parents of children struggling with politically sensitive issues) there are certain risks that require careful responses. But even when the consequences are less grave, most of us with high intellectual excitability recognize that our tendency to question, to see the other side, and to analyze is not always welcome in conversation.

And then, if you also have high levels of emotional excitability, you can really get yourself tangled up in knots. In particular, if you’re highly sensitive to others’ feelings, you might have an inflated sense that you are not being compassionate when you point out truths that may touch on others’ sore spots.

But are you truly afraid of hurting them, or, on balance, are you mainly afraid they won’t like you?

And though you know you’re not a perfect vessel of capital-T truth, might the view from your perspective be useful in some way?

This is not a new struggle. People have sought to balance the need for truth and honesty, the genuine desire not to hurt people, and the fear of other people’s negative reactions since we first started having conversations. As a foundation for an ongoing conversation, in this post, I’ll share some wisdom from ages past that I think that people with both intellectual and emotional overexcitability might find useful as they seek to untangle this knot for themselves.

What Would Socrates Do?

In our culture, the archetypal speaker in pursuit of Truth is surely Socrates. He’s practically the patron secular saint of high intellectual excitability. He also knew a thing or two about cancel culture. Most of us aren’t prepared to go as far as he did, willingly taking the poison he was sentenced to drink as a penalty for offending the gods. But there’s no need for us to set the bar quite that high.  We’re just trying to make sure we’re not letting ourselves mistake fear for compassion or kindness.

Socrates had some buddies who struggled with this, so he came up with a code of sorts to guide them in this pursuit. Speech in pursuit of capital-T Truth requires three things: episteme, knowledge; eunoia, good will; and parrhesia, fearless speech (or frankness). Here he is explaining this, as recorded by Plato in Gorgias 487a-b:

For I conceive that whoever would sufficiently test a soul as to rectitude of life or the reverse should go to work with three things which are all in your possession—knowledge, good will, and frankness. I meet with many people who are unable to test me, because they are not wise as you are; while others, those wise, are unwilling to tell me the truth, because they do not care for me as you do; and our two visitors here, Gorgias and Polus, though wise and friendly to me, are more lacking in frankness and inclined to bashfulness than they should be. . .

Raise your hand if you can relate to Gorgias and Polus!

The author, raising her hand

Happily, in my experience, recognizing the first two necessities to the pursuit of Truth can help encourage us, in the most literal sense of instilling courage in our hearts.

Support Courage with Knowledge and Good Will

I doubt I have to convince any of you readers of the value of episteme. It’s a high bar to clear: we probably know how much we don’t know. Frankly, I think most of us agreeable self-doubters would do well to consider Laura Stavinoha’s advice to just trust that we know enough to speak, even as we continue to question ourselves as much or more than we question others.

But if you want to double-check yourself, then a great way to do it is to strive to know the other side’s arguments as well as you know your own. This is an ideal that John Stuart Mill voices perfectly in Chapter II of On Liberty (emphasis mine):

The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practiced as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. […] He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

John Stuart Mill

Engaging in the exercise suggested by Mill and Cicero is a good first step to having a challenging conversation.  By striving sincerely to understand the Other Side’s best arguments, you aren’t simply preparing yourself to counter them; you’re also coming to understand the perspective of those who hold them. After all, it tends to be our opponents’ worst arguments that stick in our minds and activate the emotions that are at the heart of our fear of engagement.  (This, of course, is precisely why social media algorithms make the stupidest, most enraging ideas go viral.)  In my experience, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by upsetting emotions (whether theirs or yours) if you are engaging with their most sympathetic arguments.

Let me acknowledge some hurdles here.  First, though intellectually excitable types generally love this exercise, not everyone likes doing this. Not everyone aspires to come face the cold, hard facts; comforting illusions and motivating rhetoric are often preferable (including to all of us reading this article who think we’re pursuing Truth). Furthermore, humanizing the Other Side and treating their ideas as worth engagement (even if only to argue that they’re wrong) is sometimes the very act that gets a person “cancelled.” If you’ve witnessed this online by strangers or offline in circles where people gather around a shared belief, however, I’d like to suggest that your perception may be distorted.  Personally, this sort of anxiety only became an issue for me after I found myself in activist circles that were highly influenced by Twitter discourse.  But when I tried to speak to small groups of people who knew me, both on- and offline, I found that my opinions weren’t so “problematic” when I got out of those distorted environments.

So send up an intellectual flare.  There’s a reasonable chance someone who shares your value of episteme will see it.  Then you’ll gain friends even as you lose acquaintances who weren’t truly simpatico anyway.

Of course, you’ll only have success with this if you truly do care about others’ feelings—which brings us to eunoia. Eunoia, or good will, is all about credibly demonstrating that you have your listener’s interest at heart. You may have heaps of knowledge, but if you haven’t demonstrated that you care about your listener’s concerns, then you probably won’t be embraced as a seeker of capital-T Truth. Witness this response to the controversial freelance journalist Andy Ngo, who has been banned from Twitter for a comment on transgender murder statistics:

When we sense negative feelings in our listener, it’s possible that we haven’t established eunoia. It’s true that some people aren’t skilled in building good will, in which case, it’s a good thing to practice. Many highly agreeable people, however, have sufficient skill here; they merely set too high a bar, in which irking even one person, even as a temporary blip in an ongoing conversation, sets off a screeching alarm.

As I researched and conversed with others to put together this piece, it became clear to me that managing emotional intensity—your own and your listeners’—is fundamental to solving the problem of self-censorship.  It’s so important, in fact, that I’ll devote a whole future article to it.  In the meantime, Laura Stavinoha has already shared some excellent tips for managing emotions in our speech.

Is Fearless Speech Right Speech?

After I discovered Socrates’ three requirements for speech in pursuit of Truth, I realized that they were a great foundation for the kind of constructive conversations that I seek to have as a born questioner who strives to pursue good in the world. When I and my conversation partner had episteme and eunoia, it was easier to bring in the third—parrhesia, or fearless speech.  Importantly, it led me to discover that my true friends wouldn’t disown me for saying something they disagreed with, and gave me practice managing my own emotions and those of others when I did touch on issues I or they considered sensitive.  I now have more interesting conversations that remind me that I am secure in my relationships and meet my need to engage with difficult ideas.  This is nothing to sneeze at: it’s an important part of speaking courageously, and you may need to stop here for now to build some confidence.

But in the long term, parrhesia isn’t just about having supportive friends and belonging. Sometimes you have to have these conversations with people who aren’t members of the local Socrates Cafe. These people may have wounds.  They may well have something to lose, even if it’s just a comforting view of the world as they want it to be.

Does parrhesia apply in those cases?

As you set about (over)thinking this, consider another code of speech: the Buddhist concept of Right Speech. While people practicing the Socratic Method are primarily interested in finding Truth, Buddhists are striving to reach Enlightenment. They do this by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which places a lot more emphasis on harmony than Socrates seems to. The Buddha’s teachings reject things like harsh speech, idle chatter, and other talk that may create enmity and disunity. One can imagine a follower of Socrates arguing with a follower of the Buddha over whether all this questioning is really so good. (I speak only of their followers because I don’t know how Socrates and the Buddha would themselves work this out if they sat down to chat over tea.)

Right Speech directs us to only speak what is true and beneficial, when the circumstances are right, whether it is welcome or not.

And yet, when it comes to parrhesia, it seems pretty clear that they would agree. Because Right Speech directs us to only speak what is true and beneficial, when the circumstances are right, whether it is welcome or not.

So it seems Socrates and the Buddha both have your back, if you want to say something you sincerely believe is necessary in pursuit of Truth. I hope that encourages you. I hope that, if you’re one of those agreeable people plagued by doubt, that you’ll consider that maybe it is actually okay—that it’s even beneficial—if you speak.

There are intellectually intense types who could use the opposite lesson—that maybe it’s good to keep your mouth closed occasionally—but this isn’t the lesson that highly agreeable types need.  Some of us may let our sensitivity to others’ emotions keep us from speaking, thereby allowing others to assume we agree with them.  And if the subject has meaningful implications, then we’re being both dishonest to them and it’s dishonest to ourselves. It’s certainly not compassionate.

There are times when you should keep silent. Sometimes, as Right Speech acknowledges, the circumstances aren’t right. Figuring out precisely when to speak is an art that takes practice.  It’s path that may well lead you to what Krystyna Laycraft describes as a bifurcation point, through which you meaningfully transform some aspect of your life.

But eventually, you will be called upon to take a stand. When that time comes, if you can draw on the wells of episteme and eunoia you have established to speak with parrhesia, you will be dealing your own small blow to the cancel culture that you abhor.

Do you have experiences of speaking fearlessly?  How did it work out?  What was the role of emotion in your conversation?  I’d love to hear from you, so please do reach out.

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