How and When to Call Someone Out

What parrhesia tells us about speaking up for yourself.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

A walk in the woods used to guarantee you a little peace and quiet. Not so much anymore. Sometime last year, I encountered a new level of entitlement — some bros and their sound system, in the middle of my hiking trail. Bass pulsed outward in a mile radius.

At first, I thought there must be some event, like a race. Then I saw them. The bros didn’t belong to any organization or group. Just a couple dudes and a cooler of Bud Light. Sharing a pack of cigarettes. When they saw my eye roll, they smirked and offered me a beer.

How thoughtful of them.

The worst part? These two were exactly the kind of people we try to escape from when we venture into the woods.

They could’ve played music and drank beer almost anywhere, especially in a world built for them — one that caters to noise and revelry. And yet they didn’t want to hang out almost anywhere in the world. They wanted to invade the last place where people like me can find any hint of sanctuary. In other words, I was a little pissed off.

My urge to call them out was powerful. So I said something brief. “You know, you’re ruining this place for everyone else.”

It had zero impact. But at least I’d made myself heard.

Normally, I don’t risk attracting attention from ogres. But I could outrun them. The only other option was to ignore their intrusion. Find the park services number, and then report them. Which I did, too.

Philosophy says we should call people out.

In 1983, just a year before his death, Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures at Berkeley on a figure of speech called parrhesia. Think of it as a kind of fearless speech. You’re not trying to persuade anyone of something. But you need to speak a truth. Usually an unpopular one.

Often to someone in a position of authority, or power.

This idea dates back to the cynics, and most ancient cultures have their own version. Invoking parrhesia cleared the bullshit from a space, and set the stage for straight talk.

Every single day, we find ourselves in situations where we need to speak up. But we don’t. Unless we’re on Twitter. Then we go wild. In real life, we’re worried about making someone angry, causing trouble, or ruining our own day. Most of us just want the path of least resistance.

There’s some truth here. We can’t go around calling out every single person who violates the laws of common decency. That would make us hard to hang out with. Everyone knows that one person who can’t stop complaining, who finds a flaw in everything.

On the other hand, silence equals complicity.

A little more rides on calling people out than our own egos. Personally, I enjoy living in a world where most of us know better than to play videos at full volume in Starbucks. I’d like to live in a world where people don’t throw trash on the ground, or dump couches in the forest. These small disregards pave the way to bigger problems. Someone who plays their boombox in a state park probably doesn’t care about universal healthcare.

True parrhesia comes with a cost.

We’ve forgotten the wide middle ground between pushovers and bullies. Parrhesia can help with this problem.

All too often, we abuse the right to free speech — especially online. Trolls cite their first amendment as a reason to spew nasty insults at anyone who disagrees with them.

Toxicity thrives at every level of the political spectrum now. We just can’t wait to zing some MAGA zealot.

But free speech isn’t fearless speech.

Neither are the witty insults whizzing around on social media. You might say we’ve become addicted to a shallow form of parrhesia. We all want to speak our minds now, but only to gain followers.

Fearless speech involves risk. You know you’re going to say something unpopular. It might piss off your friends. Or even your boss. You’re speaking a truth because people need to hear it.

They may hate you for pulling the curtain back. But you see a real need to point out a problem. You’re not doing it for external validation. You’re not trying to impress anyone.

Someone who speaks the truth through parrhesia also prepares to accept the consequences. Think about Thoreau or King, happy to spend a night in jail as the price for speaking their mind.

The most radical truths don’t come loaded with insults, like we see so often today. They don’t simply shame individuals. They call out wider habits and assumptions. You can address truth to a single person, while talking about something even bigger.

Sometimes you shouldn’t be nice.

There’s never a reason to insult someone. It usually just distracts them from the point you want to make. That said, not everybody deserves that little dusting of sugar on your words. Simply withholding politeness delivers its own strong message.

Done right, it adds a level of gravity. Everyone expects us to be deferential and polite. Usually, we are. Foregoing that in subtle ways can make a difference. Consider these three sentences:

Excuse me, could you take your phone outside?
Take your phone outside.
Hey, this is a library.

The first one might work depending on context. The second one would probably start some shit, since people don’t respond well to commands from strangers. The third one strikes a balance. It’s not a request, or a command. Just a statement of fact.

A few months ago, one of my students learned parrhesia the hard way. She showed up to class late almost every day. Then she spent ten minutes surfing the web and texting friends. Finally, when she was ready, she’d raise her hand and ask, “What are we supposed to be doing?”

Her voice had this tone, like it was my fault she was confused.

This happened three times. Then one day, she burst out laughing in the middle of a class discussion. Everyone looked at her. There she was, still giggling at her phone.

So I called her out. “You know, there’s a reason why you alone never understand what’s going on in class. Keep your phone in your bag. Every time I see it, I’m going to count you absent.” No, she didn’t like my fearless speech. She got up and left.

She didn’t come back.

After class, I started to feel bad. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys turf battles with teens. Then one of my other students came up and thanked me. She said, “I’ve had to sit next to her all semester. She was driving me nuts.” My other student hadn’t said anything, out of fear. She didn’t want anyone to think she was a bitch.

Don’t waste your fearless speech on trivia.

It’s popular now to go around speaking your mind. A third of the country thinks of political correctness as a strait jacket. But calling your opponents idiots and shouting racial slurs doesn’t count as parrhesia.

Fearless speech comes with a moral component. You’re not doing it for yourself, or your image.

A moral person doesn’t get off on pointing out other people’s flaws, or flouting norms for attention.

Fearless speech always needs a purpose. You can speak up at a political rally. You can protest. But you can also just speak up to rude people at the library, or voice your reservations at a meeting.

Or tell a friend they’ve done something hurtful.

Fearless speech means you go about speaking your mind with intention and planning. It never means just rattling off the first thoughts that come into your head. That’s nothing but careless.

We should all practice uncomfortable honesty in our lives, but not all the time, with everyone. There’s still something to be said for tact and strategy. Your coworker might appreciate a little straight talk, but not about his suit. You don’t have to criticize his leadership while also insulting his intelligence and fashion sense. At some point, you just have to choose what’s most important and endure the ugly tie.