Truth to Power as a Habit

«What’s your integrity worth to you?»
Michael Knowles

About six years ago, I wrote a posting about telling truth to power, in the sense should you state your beliefs even to powerful people who think differently and cannot deal with different views, or should you keep these views to yourself?

At that time I agreed with Ben Shapiro’s view that you should not sacrifice good grades. Get the good grades first — which also show that you understand the opponents points of view — then argue from a better position. This behavior doesn’t mean accepting the positions you argue for — on the contrary. Treat it as opposition research and avoid the cognitive dissonance of freely arguing for something you do not believe in. If you remember that this is an assignment and not your position, like having a random position in a debate, it might work. Also, there is a difference in writing about a certain position and engaging in the position, e.g., writing a pro-affirmative action piece in an exam vs. publicly campaigning for a pro-affirmative action position. I would draw the line at coerced action.

Watching the following video of Michael Knowles, I was reminded of a problem that comes with this position (at around 10 minutes in, links/video should jump to that position). You’ll never reach that safe position and over time not speaking your mind will likely become a habit.

After all, after you leave school, you might have to wait until you leave university, and then you might have to wait until … when exactly? When you are the boss of the organization you work for? Even if this were the case, you’d like still be dependent on the good will and support of the board, or feel responsible for your employees (a point Dave Rubin made recently). After all, if you say something that goes against the current mainstream — even if it was uncontroversial five years ago — you might not only incur the wrath of some tiny but loud mob, but also hurt your employees. Same with working in academia. Speak up against the prevailing political opinion and you can watch research money passing you by. And no research money means no money for PhD students or scientific assistants/employees.

And yeah, like Knowles said, virtue is a habit (I think Aristotle would agree as well). And the same way, not being virtuous can also become a habit. You might no longer want or be able to speak truth to power. Looking at how many people spoke up publicly against the Covid regulations, compared with the private comments I got, yeah, he likely has a point.

So, what to do?

I don’t have a solution, just the basis for some ideas. I think the book «How to Have Impossible Conversations» by Boghossian and Lindsay (2019) might show some ways to understand the opposition and connect with them by leading the conversation to the underlying moral foundations. I think there are some cases in which any conversation is doomed to fail. For example, I wouldn’t try to convince my brother who has vaccinated his daughter against Covid might have exposed her to more danger than not doing it. He loves his daughter, and who would consider having potentially hurt his daughter? I’m not sure I would be able to do it, so how can I expect it from someone else? I would also not waste my time on people who do not want to debate, just want to be right, esp. if they don’t have much else than the impression of being right. One of the reasons I left Twitter long ago (just continue lurking for the memes).

I think in school and university student settings as a student, I would do opposition research pieces while maintaining my views, which might mean writing another piece rebutting my writing, if I had the misfortune of having a teacher who does not accept differing points of view. But I would also make sure to state my views, say that I do not agree to this position. Because Knowles is right — virtue is a habit.

And even worse, you get through life by reactions to the things you do. If you are successful by hiding your views, you will continue getting in situations in which you have to hide your views. It’s not only the habit, it’s that you end up in the wrong environment. The — for your own well-being — wrong behavior is getting rewarded. Being honest about your views might not make you popular, but you might get into the right environment. And that’s something that — again — is echoed in Dave Rubin’s «Rubin Report», by himself and many of his guests. Leaving the left (in his and his guests cases) means losing friends, or «friends». But it also means you create the conditions of finding the right friends.

This being said, I am critical of leaving environments even if you have a minority view. I think it’s bad for the environment if it gets homogenized. Especially if that environment is a scientific discipline. Just look at disciplines like Sociology (Horowitz, Haynor, & Kickham, 2018). Same goes for leaving in anger. As someone once said «Every community has its downsides. Don’t leave it out of an emotional response.». You also learn more if you talk with people who have different point of views. But then again, make sure you can work effectively and have a community where you are accepted not despite but irrespective of your views. And yeah, not «for your views» — otherwise you end up like some former lefties who changed their views, but cannot speak up without leaving their whole social circle. Find people who do have more in their lives than just some political, religious, ideological, social or whatever views.



Boghossian, P., & Lindsay, J. (2019). How to Have Impossible Conversations. A Very Practical Guide. Lifelong Books.

Horowitz, M., Haynor, A., & Kickham, K. (2018). Sociology’s Sacred Victims and the Politics of Knowledge: Moral Foundations Theory and Disciplinary Controversies. The American Sociologist, 49(4), 459–495.