Why is it that people who say they are speaking truth to power are often the ones with the power?
Why is it that people who claim they are being bullied are actually the bullies?
Why is it that people who are the safest often claim the highest levels of fear and terror?
All irony is apparent not real. It disappears under the microscope. You get a little frisson in your brain when it chafes at a juxtaposition, sensing that objects that should be distinct are too close to one another. But there they are. Pick at the ironic proposition a little and you find that it has its own logic and consistency.
The way to understand these apparent ironies is through a recognition of the dialectics in which they arise. People with less power, and who use the phrase “speaking truth to power” as a tool , sometimes end up with more power. Victims catch the bully cootie and given half a chance indulge in it themselves.
That little frisson is an emotional state, not a state of logic. The phrase “speaking truth to power” is just four words. Their literal meaning is clear enough but ah the mysteries of language! Meanings of words and phrases are inseparable from the cultural — and emotional — contexts in which they are uttered. Put another way the only true way to grasp the meaning of something is not from the outside-in (what is the literal meaning of the phrase and does it apply to what I want to express) but from the inside-out (begin with the inchoate impulse and grab for what is on hand).
Consider the work of neuroscientist Antonio D’Amasio, whose research suggests that the logic function of the brain loses its traction if the parts of the brain that support emotion are disabled. His
essential insight is that feelings are “mental experiences of body states,” which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli.
To quote D’Amasio on language:
Language — that is, words and sentences — is a translation of something else, a conversion from nonlinguistic images which stand for entities, events, relationships, and inferences.
We often regard language as a system of disembodied signs. But it is rather a system of the body, a system based on the body state differences. The body state differences are represented in images in the brain, and the images are sources of linguistic expressions.
“Speaking truth to power” as uttered by many nowadays is not a clinical description of a situation, to be taken off the shelf for use when conditions are suitable. Nor is it limited to operating as a complaint or a brave challenge. In the current moment it most often is evidence of a victory dance.
How else to explain the seeming paradoxes on abundant display nowadays? The rhetoric of victimization appears to be positively correlated with the fact of bullying. The former does not diminish the latter, and cause it to recede. It eggs it on, in a cycle. Victory dances are fun, and the blazing primal fire around which the dancers celebrate needs to be fed. The fire must get hotter and more fierce — throw on more crooked timber!
Thus also the strange phenomenon of students on elite college campuses–about the safest places invented since the dawn of time–apparently terrified for their safety. Moreover, the objects of their fear are not those, like actual criminals, who might in theory cause harm if they were to make their way to the verdant vale. Very often the terror is claimed to be prompted by individuals and groups, like political conservatives, with no track record of violence to speak of (unless you consider a speech on campus by Charlie Kirk to be violence).
Which brings me round to the topic at hand: goings on at my alma mater, Syracuse University.
I first heard of the wildfire at Syracuse a couple of days ago on the CBS Nightly News. The story was a familiar one. A white nationalist manifesto was being circulated on campus. White fraternity members harassed a black female student with the “n-word.” These two events were the main focus of the CBS story, though they appeared to follow a string of racially-tinged events on campus, including offensive graffiti in bathrooms and a swastika drawn in the snow.
Did the story at the moment it went national have the bones to do so? I was suspicious. The national press is good at saying it will not run with stories–like Jeffrey Epstein–that they say are not well enough documented. They are good not covering things–like Biden-in-Ukraine–and then announcing any such stories are “discredited”.
But a possible rape by a Supreme Court nominee nominated by Trump? Or racial strife on college campuses? Bring it on! Thus my suspicion that the story was not really ready for the national news.
When you dig down into the actual news coming from Syracuse a different and more complex picture emerges.
On the one hand the predictable rush to judgment is in evidence. The Syracuse Police Department is leading an investigation into the white manifesto–this without any description of what crime may have been committed.
The university has suspended all fraternity and sorority activities for the rest of the semester.
The Chancellor faces pressure from Governor Cuomo, who took the unusual step of intervening in a controversy at a private university, saying the Chancellor’s steps were inadequate and did not instill confidence.
All this of course before any actual findings of what happened with the manifesto, nor any evidence concerning the “n-word” event, nor any actual adjudication of anything, whether violations of law, policy or simply goodthink.
And some things seemed not quite right to this reader. There is of course the backdrop of fake college hate crimes, something I wrote about before most people were aware the phenomenon existed. Might there be a hoax in here somewhere?
For one, while the Chancellor says “substantial evidence” exists that the fraternity members acted inappropriately we don’t know what that consists of, who has been charged, what their response is or what the context might have been.
We are told that an investigation is underway. But in the meantime let’s shut down the entire Greek system, transmit a presumption of guilt by the gist of our actions, and then have the investigation proceed, as most do, without transparency, without due process and without a full accounting of the particulars when it is concluded.
More troubling to me was the manifesto issue. By the time it reached CBS the headline read
Then as things got clearer we saw that things were not so clear. It was the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto–illegal to own and read in New Zealand but legal in the United States. That manifesto was allegedly air dropped to several cell phones at the library. But even that was not certain. The Department of Public Safety’s carefully worded (though ambiguous) account of the event read as follows:
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has received multiple reports of a document purported to be a white supremacist manifesto being posted in an online forum and allegedly “air dropped” to several cell phones of individuals sitting at Bird Library. No individual has reported directly receiving the air dropped document at this time. If you personally received the document through an AirDrop, please contact the Department of Public Safety immediately at 315.443.2224.
So an objectionable though legal document which had been posted in an online forum was then air dropped by person or persons unknown to “several cell phones” — although “no individual has reported directly receiving the air dropped document at this time.”
My conclusions as I sat down to write this post first thing in the morning of November 21:
-that the University and the Governor have done another rush to judgment of the type all too common nowadays.
-that the national media ran with a story way before it was ripe to run.
-that students are doing the whole “speak truth to power” victim-bully victory dance.
Ah but was there an actual hoax in there? I had my suspicions but figured let’s let things develop. Then when I was in the middle of writing I thought to do another scan of the web and sure enough . . .
Here’s the new headline from (wait for it!) CBS News, posted 5:01 AM today, less then five hours ago as I write this:
Breaking news! But so far just a CBS online post.
Full story tonight on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell?
Hmmmm . . . . we’ll see if any inconvenient new angles are covered, or covered up.