Often, in the US, we take our right to free speech for granted. But, this right is one that is often an issue of conflict and agitation. It’s a right for which people frequently must fight. French philosopher and scholar, Michel Foucault, utilizes the Greek idea of parrhesia to talk about “fearless speech.” Fearless speech happens when an individual engages in honest discourse about an issue, in opposition to a person/group/agency with more power. As discussed by Foucault, such fearless speech is not an easy chore:
[T]he parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the “game” of life or death.
Thus, parrhesia or fearless speech represents the act of taking a personal risk due to a belief that the words must be heard. As you see in this quote, Foucault tells us that fearless speech occurs in private settings (e.g. a child arguing with a parent) and public settings (e.g. an individual speaking against organizational, religious, political institutions of power).
We all engage in fearless speech from time to time, but the current situation in Iran is an impressive (and depressing) example of how far some individuals must go and how many risks they must take to speak the truth, as they understand it. From the perspective of communication scholarship, it is important that we read about and discuss such events, as they speak to the power of communication (in oppression and in activism). From the perspective of world citizenship, it is important that we read about and discuss these events so that we can consider our own roles in the larger world community.
If you haven’t been considering the communication aspect in the situation in Iran, I suggest the following media reports as a place to begin thinking about the role of communication, censorship, and parrhesia in the ongoing conflicts that are overwhelming the country:
It’s sobering, powerful, and sometimes inspiring reading.