Slang dictionary

speak truth to power

[ speek trooth tuh pou-er ]

What does speak truth to power mean?

Stand up for what’s right and tell people in charge what’s what. That’s the idea behind the phrase speak truth to power, an expression for courageously confronting an authority, calling out injustices on their watch, and demanding change.

Related words

SJW, truth be told, woke, I Have a Dream speech

Where does speak truth to power come from?

We can find similar formulations for speak truth to power in the early 1900s. In a 1919 eulogy for Senator William Joel Stone, one of his colleagues stated, for instance: “I honored him because he was among the few men who dare to speak truth to the people in the presence of the king, and dare to speak truth to the king in the presence of the people.”

The specific phrase speak truth to power is credited to Bayard Rustin in 1942. Rustin was a Black Quaker and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating nonviolent methods in his fight for social justice. In a letter written that year, Rustin stated that “the primary social function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power.’ The truth is that war is wrong.”

The phrase was picked up in a 1955 text about pacifist strategies to achieve justice, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, published by a Quaker organization in conjunction with Rustin. The work became a guide for many people organizing against violence during the Cold War.

Malala Yousafzai is a powerful contemporary example of speaking truth to power. She was shot in the head in 2012 for her activism on behalf of women’s education in Pakistan. She survived, spoke truth to power by standing up to the oppressive Taliban in her country, and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at just 17 years of age.

In 2016, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation launched a human rights education program called Speak Truth to Power based on Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World, a book one of Kennedy’s daughters, Kerry Kennedy, published in 2000.

Examples of speak truth to power

Critics who speak truth to power and suffer the consequences recur often in Chinese history.
Rana Mitter, South China Morning Post, August 26, 2018
It is not smart to be quiet and hold your silence in the face of injustice and oppression. It is not smart to hurl insults and throw stones at those who are bent on oppressing you. It is however smart and intelligent to speak truth to power with no regret. TRUTH OVERPOWERS EVIL.
@ennpams1977, August 13, 2020
*DARE YOU* to watch @GretaThunberg speak truth to power here (= to a room full of human inertia, & inertia that doesn't even *pretend-practice* the art of self-defense—how can it?) & not cry with her. *She's nearly inconsolable, but too smart for that.*
@ohsensibleshoes, September 23, 2019

Who uses speak truth to power?

The expression speak truth to power implies a moral imperative to stand up for what is right,  especially to national leaders, even when it’s not the easiest thing to do.

People can use speak truth to power, though, in any context when speaking out on a problem, whatever the scale.

Sometimes, the phrase speaking truth to power can take a mocking tone, riffing on the perceived over-the-top, SJW nature of the expression.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of speak truth to power like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of speak truth to power that will help our users expand their word mastery.