Frankness has definite limits in a society that flatters itself on its frankness.
In Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, a central term of pride in the democratic self-understanding was parrhesia, which meant “frank speech.” It is sometimes translated as “free speech,” but this rendering isn’t quite apt in our contemporary American setting because it triggers for us the notion of a right, as in the First Amendment, whereas frank speech is a virtue. The role of frank speech in democratic culture is something worth considering, especially in light of the renewed ferment over political correctness.
The Greeks, justly famous for their ethnocentrism, took frank speech to be a distinctly Hellenic virtue, in contrast to the flattery of those (in the East) who were content to live under despotism. The Athenians drew the circle of their ethnocentrism even smaller, and claimed frank speech as that which distinguished their own radically democratic city from others in the Hellenic world that never rose up to throw off their local tyrants, or that had to abide rule by a council of old men, as in Sparta. These distinctions were often parsed in gendered terms: Flattery was effeminate or effeminizing, while speaking frankly was the distinctly democratic form of manliness.
Of course, these self-understandings came in for critique and ridicule from contemporary philosophers and comedians. What the democratic soul experiences as his own frankness might appear to others as a self-aggrandizing form of moral aggression based on resentment. A common trope was that the demagogue (literally, “leader of the people”), central to democratic politics, is a flatterer of the demos. Frankness has definite limits in a society that flatters itself on its frankness. With his usual crudeness, the playwright Aristophanes suggests that the authority of a democratic politician’s voice—the sheer volume of hot air he can expel—must be understood by analogy with a fart, and is simply a function of how stretched-out the hole that emits it is. (One has to take a lot of abuse, i.e., engage in a lot of flattery, to succeed in democratic politics.)
Still, frank speech was an ideal not only of politics in the narrow sense but also of democratic social relations; it was a way Athenians had of addressing one another that enacted their freedom, based on the political equality of citizens. It resonated with another Hellenic ideal: exercising naked in public. Proverbially, the Persian with his finery and other emblems of rank was unwilling to shed these merely conventional markers of distinction and present himself nude, simply as a man, to contend with others on the wrestling ground. In the gymnasium, as in the assembly, equality was the condition that allowed a proper Greek to show himself to others, in speech and in deed, and thereby enter the competition for honor. In that competition, he would discover his true worth.
Tocqueville must have had something like this in mind when he wrote that political freedom, the kind that is enacted in speaking freely, “creates the light that allows us to see and judge the vices and virtues of men.” Interestingly, with this statement Tocqueville asserted the epistemic significance of political freedom: It allows us to see and judge.
Through frank speech we enter into what political philosopher Pierre Manent, commenting on Tocqueville, called “a humanum commune where the interchange of public words and actions puts individuals in contact, nature against nature, with their own virtues and vices, without their conventional inequality or equality to veil from their eyes or the eyes of others what they value and what they are capable of.”
Political freedom has a revelatory effect. Conversely, when taboos inhibiting speech arise, something is covered over. Abstractions come to stand in for social reality, and as the latter is banished to a samizdat of emails between intimates, public discourse becomes merely formal, a Kabuki dance of approved gestures, safe postures, and reflexive verbal formulas.
But these forms do not prevail equally across society. “Politically fastidious speech,” as my friend Matt Frost calls it, has become the signal by which one indicates a certain refined sensibility and, thereby, membership in the upper ranks. Education clearly plays an important role here. It has been a long time since universities embraced any substantive idea of what it means to be an educated person; they now frankly pitch themselves simply as gatekeepers to the upper-middle class. But this has become a hard sell lately. In an e-mail, Frost writes that “as a four-year college degree becomes a more and more dubious ‘investment’ in future earnings, this is one way for the higher-ed industry to survive: as a modern day finishing school” where people acquire the graces they need to move up in the world.
The innovation of Donald Trump has been to acknowledge the sorting function played by fastidious speech and build a new class war around it. He successfully portrays the sensitivity and inclusiveness that make up the self-image of those who prevail in the global economy as pretentious cant when he insists on the primacy of interests over gestures. However wittingly, Trump has achieved a quasi-Marxist consciousness-raising of the proletariat, exposing culture war as a front for class war. Both parties have long engaged in this feint. For the Republicans, the winning formula for several decades has been to offer culture war as red meat to the electorate, then turn around and serve the donor class. This is simple cynicism. For the Democrats, the driving force is, rather, moral vanity—a tendency to let the easy pleasures of righteousness stand in for the kind of public-spiritedness that would make real demands on us. Right and left need each other to keep the standard culture wars going, but Trump is short-circuiting the whole arrangement. No wonder both sides are in a panic.
History is littered with the shattered reputations of intellectuals who became infatuated with strongmen and demagogues; I have no wish to join them. But let’s not pass too quickly through this extraordinary moment, when the corruption of our parties has finally become visible for inspection and therefore, one can hope, for eventual repair. The more fundamental repair to be hoped for is that frank speech might someday regain its place at the heart of democratic social relations.