You Keep Using that Word

“You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-Inigo Montoya

When I posted this essay earlier this year three or four different people said this — or some form of this — to me: “Thank you for speaking your truth.”

I appreciated the kind words but I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the phrase. Speak your truth. It’s not my favorite but it’s everywhere. There are memes and self-help how-to’s, admonitions on the interwebs and pinnable quotes. Being an ardent Oprah fan, I know where the phrase comes from. Well, that is to say I know who made the phrase popular. Whether or not she actually coined the term, it’s Oprah who helped make it so ubiquitous.

I also understand and appreciate the sentiment behind it. When Oprah says “speak your truth,” what I think she means is this: “Speak up! Let your voice be heard. It’s important that you tell your story.” And I agree. Wholeheartedly. When Oprah says “Speak your truth,” she’s giving a voice to the voiceless and encouraging those who have historically been under the boot of the oppressor to rise up and show us who they are. I’m all for that.

And in the case of the aforementioned essay, I took the comments for what I think the commenters meant. I think they meant “thank you for telling us how it is for you. Thank you for showing us how you see the world. We know that’s scary.” But that takes longer. It’s much easier to just say “thanks for speaking your truth” and leave it at that. I get it.

Recently I heard the phrase again while watching the documentary about the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal — At the Heart of Gold. And then again when I read more about the judge who presided over Larry Nassar’s case. She is quoted several times as saying something along these lines to the victims during their impact statements: 1 “You’re never wrong to speak your truth.”

Related image

Some of the former gymnasts also shared a similar sentiment.

People didn’t believe me. They believed him. They called me a liar, a whore … Instead of backing down, I continued to speak my truth.”

Jamie Dantzscher

When I heard those words from Jamie Dantzscher — one of my all-time favorite gymnasts, btw — I realized why the phrase unsettles me so much. I realized that while I applaud the sentiment, I think that we can find a better way to say what we mean. Because in this case calling it “her” truth or “your” truth is belittling. It implies that it isn’t fact and might even be fiction.

It implies, whether intended or not, that the testimonies of Rachel Denhollander and Kyle Stephens and Simone Biles and more than 200 other women might merely be the workings of their own overactive imaginations. No. It’s not “their truth” that Larry Nassar sexually abused them. It’s THE truth.

Another potential problem with the concept, on the other end of the spectrum perhaps, is that it renders us untouchable. You can’t argue with someone else’s truth. You can’t question it. It’s theirs. It doesn’t allow space for challenge and debate. Suppose someone’s “truth,” say, is their belief that in order to make America great we need to close our borders to Mexicans and Muslims. Or that erasing all college debt is the answer to our fiscal problems.

We need places and spaces where we can question one another, challenge and disagree with each other, and throw out new ideas with civility and kindness. Tossing the disclaimer “I’m just speaking my truth” cuts the legs out from under us in the pursuit.

I haven’t come up with a catch-all phrase that we can use to replace “speak your truth” but I’m not sure it would catch on anyway. I’m not Oprah (sigh). But I’m not sure that’s what we need, anyway. We need, I think, to take time and care with our words. To say more precisely what we mean.

Pádraig Ó Tuama, in an interview with Krista Tippet, says that we should “be attentive to the implications of language for those in the room who may have suffered,” and that seems as good a guide post as any. Because our words have a heft and a burden to them and they need, always, a generosity and attentiveness to guide them.

What does everyone else think? Like the phrase? Hate it? Am I overthinking it? Talk to me!

  1. (she listened to 204 women give statements — it took nine days):