Antiessentialism, Parrhesia, and Citizenship

Arthur J Sementelli. Administrative Theory & Praxis. Volume 31, Issue 3. September 2009.

Over the past several decades, a strong undercurrent against rationality, objectivity, and positivism has emerged in discussions of philosophy and administrative thought. In the abstract, each notion of modernity, postmodernity, relativism, and objectivism can bring certain arguments to bear that are both insightful and successful in certain situations and contexts. As is common with much thought on the subjects of governance and administration, each of these ideas/movements has certain conceptual elements that can hinder or limit its use (Ramos, 1981). Furthermore, as none of these ideas or movements truly die off (Jameson, 2005), we then find that certain ideas become problematic as they interact with emergent realities.

Specifically, with the confluence of ideas or movements, there are consequences for governance, citizenship, and the administrative state. One such consequence is a function of the emergence of antiessentialism in postmodern thought. As the author understands it, antiessentialism refers to a theoretical label expressing no inherent meaning and no commonality, leaving it open to multiple interpretations and perspectives (Leicester, 2000). This openness to multiple interpretations and a lack of inherent meaning creates opportunities for groups to actively manipulate meaning in a society. In essence, meaning can then be shaped as a tool for the exercise of power. One might further argue that because there is no conformity to some ideal, there is no cognitive claim of some sort of “truth.”

If we were to reconsider these phenomena within a certain discursive context where ideas and communication reflect lived experiences rather than idealized images of communication, we might discover some mechanisms with which to uncover situational, procedural, or relativistic notions of “truth.” To this end, a mechanism exists that can enable us to reconcile at least some of these issues. Parrhesia (Foucault, 1985) is an idea emerging from ancient Greek society that enables citizens to speak truth to power, and it is different in some ways from how we often view discourse and discursive practices. Specifically, parrhesia, as commonly understood, refers to the ability to speak boldly, openly, and truthfully. It is a notion of fearless speech (Stivers, 2004, p. 21). To qualify as parrhesia, the speaker must be less empowered than those being spoken to (e.g., a student speaking to an instructor, or citizen to king). Furthermore, institutionalized protections or processes are missing in this setting, such as those available in a political trial (Abel & Marsh, 1994).

It is also quite different from the concept of whistle blowing (Alford, 2001), because whistle blowing is legally protected, is not necessarily directed at someone in power, and is not narrowly related to organizational processes. Parrhesia instead is unprotected, directed at the powerful, and can relate to broader societal issues. In brief, though parrhesia shares certain elements in common with whistle blowing, it is both more abstract than whistle blowing and far more necessary to civic processes. Parrhesia in many instances can be more important to cultivate than whistle blowing given the scope of both societal and civic issues. In all cases, there is a clear relationship to both “truth” and the “duty” to improve the condition through some discourse. This piece explores parrhesia within discussions of public administration and citizenship.

Truth, Parrhesia, and Antiessentialism

Parrhesia loosely is understood as free speech or the ability to say anything. Its origins are in ancient Greece, and it was developed further by Foucault (1985, 2001). In practice, it refers to the ability to speak truthfully and openly without manipulation or rhetoric (Stivers, 2004). In essence, this act of discourse requires a few elements to be effective. First, there must be a “truth.” Second, there must be some power disparity among the speaker and person or persons being addressed. Third, there must be some critique and self-reflection. Antiessentialist approaches, regardless of whether they are lived experiences or conjecture, fundamentally alter the nature of parrhesia by affecting the three elements presented above, and how they function in discourses.

If we first examine the notion of truth, we must first understand what is meant by truth. As a starting point, Descartes provides several mechanisms to achieve this. To Descartes (Haldane & Ross, 1955), knowledge must advance the truth (defined as the achievement of certainty). Truth is an end unto itself. From the perspective of antiessentialism, which has strong subjective and relativist tendencies, there is often no assumption of Truth. On the surface, this would appear to make parrhesia fundamentally incompatible with antiessentialist discourses through the requirement for some objective truth or “certainty.” What is interesting, however, is that according to Descartes (Haldane & Ross, 1955, p. 171), people often cannot know things with certainty. Therefore, if there is no suspicion of fallacy, or if a fallacy is not observed, then we have no practical mechanism to say that the discourse in question is false, even if it might appear false to some higher being (God, angels, etc.). Therefore, though “T”ruth is desirable, in practice, Descartes realizes that knowing with certainty is impossible.

This idea points toward a bit of common ground among antiessentialist thinkers and rationalist thinkers. In essence, if we define ideas such as truth or knowledge in terms of unshakable conviction, then one can be thoroughly convinced that his or her belief is true or certain even though he or she might in fact be in error. Such belief in truth as a part of conviction, though understood as certainty by some, might also be understood as an absolute fallacy by others. In short, truth can be relative and subject to the whims of prevailing interests. The identification of this issue further affects the practice of parrhesia, because someone might believe he or she is in fact speaking truth to power, even if he or she might instead be speaking rhetoric regarding a problem or issue that is a function of his or her held convictions. In fact, Descartes (Haldane & Ross, 1955, pp. 148-149) goes as far as to point toward the need for doubting truth, particularly when people believe something is a certainty, albeit with the goal of developing a clearer logic to understand “T”ruth. Using the language of mathematics and statistics to follow the logic of Descartes in practice is to try to minimize Type 1 error.

This leads us to a point of divergence among Descartes and antiessentialist thought. For Descartes, there is a potential for objective truths, though they are a function of logic and clarity (Haldane & Ross, 1955, pp. 179-185). Such a statement flies in the face of antiessentialist discourse as the clash of cultures, subjectivist tendencies, and underlying heterogeneity make it difficult if not impossible for any objective truths to emerge outside the realm of pure philosophy. Moreover, some antiessentialist discourses can bring to light the limits of accepting Descartes’s cogito by demonstrating how such processes can be used to establish and maintain power disparities, to oppress, and to marginalize. One might also envision situations where this can happen while maintaining the marks of truth (clarity, logic, and distinctiveness) (Haldane & Ross, 1955, 157-171) within existing social and organizational systems.

What antiessentialism then brings into discussions of parrhesia and parrhesiastic activities is twofold. First, it is a process by which people seek to uncover the “T”ruth as well as nonuniversal truths, including injustices, instances of oppression, and so forth. Second, it encompasses the process by which people discover the “truth” about themselves (askesis in Greek), which frames it as individualistic. It is thereby compatible with antiessentialism because individualistic perceptions can commonly be understood as relative. Furthermore, the introduction of antiessentialist doctrine to the external and internal parrhesiastic removes the taint of progress (Lasch, 1991; Pollard, 1972), better contextualizing it within contemporary discourses.

Both “T”ruth and truth, in this sense, can be understood through a process by which unrealized wrongs (Foucault, 1980, p. 7) can be brought to the surface in the context of any number of heterogeneous beliefs and belief systems. Parrhesia and parrhesiastic activities emerge as mechanisms to reconcile a number of issues being raised by antiessentialist discourses, including the recognition of the “other” (Dean, 1997) and the illustration of problematic situations, and even to contextualize formalized oppression.

Elements of Parrhesia and Public Administration

To understand how parrhesia works in theory and practice, one must first understand what it “is.” Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness. There is a certain relationship to his or her own life through danger. There is also a certain type of relation to himself or herself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty (Foucault, 1985, pp. 7-8). Each of these elements can relate to specific discourses and theoretical camps in public administration and might enable us to understand better how these seemingly divergent ideas “fit” together in some sort of cogent framework.


The discussion of duty within notions of parrhesia tends to follow the sort of discussions offered by King and Stivers (1998). To understand duty, we must also have a basic notion of society and social organizations. Society is easily understood as a system that provides certain rational mechanisms (Amable, 2000; Hollingsworth, 1998; Roth & Wittich, 1978), opportunities for civic engagement (Rohr, 1986; Ventriss, 1989; Waldo, 1984; Wamsley et al., 1990), and practices to ensure “order” (Hobbes, 1997; Lloyd, 1992). In addition, any system of order used to achieve a task requires certain operational prescriptions (Ramos, 1981), as well as the means and methods to implement such prescriptions (Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1989; Nakamura & Smallwood, 1980; Rohr, 1986; Terry, 1995).

Within the U.S. framework, there is both an explicit and implicit belief that citizens are somehow in charge, either through the voting processes, the provision of labor for public agencies, or the provision of political candidates for elections. Each of these reflects some basic understanding of a civic duty. In addition, this belief feeds into a developed body of literature extending this notion of duty into discussions of citizen participation and engagement (Box, 1998, 2001; King & Stivers, 1998). This is not to say that all participation is by its nature always good, as others point toward the need for a trained professional class of administrators to maintain the functions of government (Cohen, 1998). Furthermore, recent cultural and historic events point toward systemwide problems that emerge from a number of perspectives on the American state.

Lines of argument such as managerialism in general and the “Barzelay- Osborne-Gaebler” approach (Lynn, 2001, p. 146) in particular have attempted to move arguments about the why of government back to the how of government, undermining the need for citizens while simultaneously conflating duty in the civic sense with notions of administrators as functionaries. Though often well intentioned, rather than fostering notions of democratic governance, such an approach instead restricts spaces that enable both citizens and administrators to speak truth to power. It in essence undermines parrhesia, by undermining notions of what it means to be an involved administrator (Cooper, 1990; Terry, 1995).

These “new” paradigms of governance, including managerialism, marketization, and reinvention, often use the language of modernity as a tool for advantage within arguably postmodern contexts. In many ways, their discourse, actions, and processes have at least in practice taken a postmodern turn as they adapt to the symbolic politics to address the political “reality” of the moment (Fox, 1996). This in turn enables privatization and other nongovernmental solutions to curry favor in the media as well as in both the public and private sectors (Dixon & Kouzmin, 2001; Johnston & Kouzmin, 1998).

Simultaneously, we also discover a rise in therapeutic approaches to governance that can be used to limit civic participation (Sementelli, 2006). With the increased use of discourses, processes, and methods of psychology and social work, we find it increasingly simple to establish an “other” (Dean, 1997) or otherwise marginalized person simply by identifying certain members of the public as being injured, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to care for themselves. Even though therapeutic approaches were conceived as a method to break out of the Weberian “iron cage,” out of the alienating existence of life in the machine (Nolan, 1998, p. 6), therapeutic language in some situations has the potential to alienate and oppress to a far greater extent than any Weberian conception.

We are left with a contemporary situation that constantly appears to impede the parrhesiastic requirement for dutiful citizenship. Nonetheless, strategies to reduce if not eliminate the potential for the emergence of an oppressive, leviathan-style of administration tend to emerge from our understanding of how we in both praxis and theory relate to the public, the people, and their interests. Box (1998) as well as King and Stivers (1998) proffer models of citizen participation, which if properly implemented could help bridge or limit these impediments. However, if we believe in the value of civic participation and normative theories of governance (Rohr, 1986; Terry, 1995), there is a consistent need to understand the relationship among public administration, truth, and citizenship.


If one chooses next to focus on the issue of “frankness,” a logical place to start would be the discourse theory offered by Fox and Miller (1996). They have illustrated the importance of frankness through discussions of how “glib, insincere, attention-grabbing symbolic imagery” (p. 6) is often used to obscure, undermine, or unbalance discursive communication networks. Their solution, in short, was to develop a set of warrants for discourse to help identify how to get at “authentic” speech, which then might be applied as a sort of lens to determine the sorts of language games at work in these processes (Wittgenstein, 1953).

This frankness extends to include the sort of candor and honesty that parallels the warrants for discourse offered by Fox and Miller. However, parrhesia as speech is rather different from the discourse proposed by Fox and Miller (1996), because it by definition involves unequal communication, without necessarily sharing the oxymoronic tendencies attributed to the differing power relationships (p. 116). In this sense, parrhesia and parrhesiastic communication tend to fall within an understanding of lived experiences and discourses rather than the idealized ones offered by Habermas (1981, 1987) and others.

This notion of “frankness” includes some elements of idealized speech offered by a number of contemporary discourse theorists, especially in public administration. It diverges, however, as we begin to uncover how ideas such as frankness play out when cast in contradistinction with the basic validity claims for discourse (understandability, truth of propositional content, sincerity of the speaker, appropriateness of speech performance, and autonomy) (Fox & Miller, 1996, p. 117). Though parrhesia generally includes some understanding of truth, sincerity, and appropriateness, it lacks certain other elements. Specifically, there is an explicit danger associated with parrhesiastic speech, which is discussed in the next section.


Parrhesia differs from the sort of discourses favored by Fox and Miller (1996), as well as by Habermas (1981, 1987) in the sense that there is often a real element of danger in the process. There is no unencumbered self (Sandel, 1984), no free expression of ideas (Schwarzlose, 1989), and no safe lifeworld (Habermas, 1981). Instead, when one chooses to speak truth to power, we find ourselves immersed deeply in the dangerous realm of hegemony, where oppression often drives scholarship. Parrhesia, therefore, is quite compatible with the literature of critical theory and related literatures. In many cases, it may be understood through the processes and experiences that spawned any number of theorists.

Consider, for example, that the scholarship of theorists such as Gramsci (1971), Freire (2003), and others was typically the product of discourse in response to some oppressive ruling class or social order. Moreover, such scholarship could have emerged from the development or emergence of some power relationships (Foucault 1977, 1980). Regardless of the source, the practice of speaking truth often leads to oppression, not necessarily to unproblematic communication. Critical theorists, in essence, want to remove this element of danger from discursive processes by emancipating people from these systems or by developing coping mechanisms (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992) within existing systems. However, if the element of danger is lost, then the activity is no longer parrhesia, it instead becomes similar to a Habermasian (1981, 1987) idyllic discourse.

Parrhesia recognizes how these systems of oppression often emerge naturally from social systems. In effect, whenever there is a substantive shift in power, we find there is an opportunity for parrhesia to occur, possibly even acting as a mechanism for social transformation (Sementelli & Abel, 2000, p. 460), though not necessarily through the sort of calm and rational processes desired by Habermas (1981, 1987) and others. Parrhesiastic activities then bring light to hegemonic efforts, often at substantial risk to the actor creating spaces for the sort of social change desired by critical theorists and others.

Thus, parrhesia and parrhesiastic communication typically involve risk to oneself. It does not function as idealized speech, for those undertaking parrhesiastic communications can be subjected to any number of consequences. They can be cast as “the other” (Dean, 1997) quite easily, as their speech might be labeled as the claims of a “sick” or ill person (Foucault, 1994; Sementelli, 2006). They can also be labeled as irresponsible, in the sense that they are not trying to help things “work better” (Gulick & Urwick, 1937; Lynn, 2001), or as not acting “American” (Nussbaum & Cohen, 1996), or as good citizens developing a space to control such people and their speech (Fox, 2003).


Criticism of self and others brings another layer, another nuance to parrhesia and parrhesiastic activity. Parrhesia is by its nature critical, but it also is a right of citizenship. If citizens “cannot use parrhesia, they cannot oppose a ruler’s power” (Foucault, 1985, p. 13). To Foucault, then, the right of criticism is an essential check on the power of government. What makes this critical element of parrhesia most interesting is that within the context of its Athenian origins, the right of criticism can be forfeited; in essence, there are regular processes for stripping someone of his or her citizenship. As stated earlier, this makes parrhesia and parrhesiastic communication a dangerous game.

Therefore, within a parrhesiastic framework, one must speak boldly, but one must also understand what one is saying as well as how one is saying it. For example, there is no room for silence (Foucault, 1985, p. 22) and no room for “seduction” (p. 21) or deception (p. 20). This requires a great deal from the human element in these processes, possibly holding oneself and the discourse in question to an even higher standard than Habermas (1981, 1987) and possibly Fox and Miller (1996) through their abandonment of rhetorical means of obfuscation.

In practice, administrators must simultaneously relate to the listener and to clients. They must bring some understanding of certain elements of differential treatment (Thompson, 1975) and advocacy (Cupps, 1977; Kirlin, 2001). This criticism in many ways speaks to the heart of critical theory, while simultaneously acting as a sort of mechanism for the antiadministration proposed by Farmer (1995), McSwite (2001), and others. It is the element of criticism, therefore, combined with the potential for danger, that are the two aspects of parrhesia that truly differentiate it from much of the discourse theory in public administration. At the same time, parrhesia still might fit within public administration discourse theories as part of some agonic approach to communication (Fox & Miller, 1996, p. 119).

Public Administration, Truth, and Citizenship

We can see, then, that this concept of parrhesia cuts across a number of theoretical streams in public administration. In essence, understanding the notion of parrhesia and its role in governance provides a much-needed mechanism to frame the variety of discourses, ideas, beliefs, and approaches to the profession. One also finds that despite many of the obstacles to employing parrhesia, there are significant instances and procedural mechanisms that provide space for parrhesiastic exercises to occur if they are necessary.

Within the framework of parrhesia, the citizen is most often the actor in question. This includes administrators as well, because people who work in governmental professions are still citizens (King & Stivers, 1998). Furthermore, though we have different standards for citizenship in the United States compared to the Athenian democracies, we share a number of informal, formal, and quasiformal mechanisms that can be used to limit, exclude, or even invalidate a number of civic rights. So even though we do not have a monarch, there is a real possibility for citizens to become alienated (Marcuse, 1970), to become the “other” through political or other efforts (Foucault, 1994; Wolff, Moore, & Marcuse, 1969), to become prosecuted (Fox, 2003), or to become something less than a citizen (Foucault, 1985).

Public administration, therefore, is both beneficiary and benefactor for parrhesia and parrhesiastic activities. As argued by Rohr (1986), it can check the power of the electorate. Additionally, one might argue that a powerful mechanism to check power might emerge from parrhesiastic activities. Briefly, it requires something akin to the guardian-class roles proposed by Fox and Cochran (1990) or something similar to it as a mechanism to enable this function, while simultaneously requiring some sort of fail-safe beyond education and professionalism (p. 105). What we are left with is a need to examine how parrhesia and discretion relate to one another.

Truth and Discretion

Regardless of how the concept of administrative discretion is cast (e.g., managerially, socially, constitutionally), there often is a need or demand for some sort of parrhesiastic action as a corrective for a faltering process, for some breach of public trust, or for some attack on the common good. There are a number of cases that we expose our introductory students to, including the Centralia mine disaster and “How Kristin Died” (Stillman, 2005). These either illustrate the process of or demonstrate the need for parrhesia in practice.

In this sense, parrhesia is a practical companion to administrative discretion, given what we know about authority and responsibility. By authority, I am referring to the sort of relationship between the ruler and those ruled (Peabody, 1964), which tends to fit within the sort of classical approaches to authority and discretion presented by Friedrich (1958). Parrhesia, then, represents an implementation of responsible action by subordinates as a mechanism to maintain the proper functions of governance. Briefly, administrative discretion requires parrhesia.

If we add the layers of amateur governance (Cohen, 1998) and postmodern symbolic politics (Fox, 1996), then one might argue that parrhesia becomes even more important given the rise of postmodern conditions and their discourses. Specifically, with the rise of political language games (Wittgenstein, 1953), power shifts, and movements toward conformity (Foucault, 1977, 1980, 1994), the need to speak truth to power becomes rather important, particularly when the “truth” in this sense is a function of culture, position, and other factors. Without parrhesiastic action, citizens and the public generally become susceptible to some group-level politics of interest. The rhetoric emerging from this politics of interest then becomes worsened by a rhetorical shift that allows for “vast and menacing powers” (Berlin, 2002, p. 95) to alienate, oppress, or otherwise remove citizens from governing processes and their discourses.

Protection (Fox & Cochran, 1990) or at least critique (Foucault, 1985) then falls on the shoulders of administrative bodies. These bodies remain limited by the legal and constitutional traditions that bind them to the larger political context. Despite these limitations, there are certain legal bases for administrative actions (Spicer & Terry, 1996) as well as justifications for the role of public administration within the context of an administrative state (Stillman, 1997; Ventriss, 1989; Waldo, 1984). In short, we discover that one of the best spaces for parrhesia and parrhesiastic activity can emerge from within current administrative structures, even though such actions might appear to be going against the mores, beliefs, and structures of the organizations people inhabit (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992).

The Need for Parrhesia in Practice: The Case of Berlusconi

An interesting example of the need for parrhesia within the context of the postmodern condition (Lyotard, 1999) comes from the example of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, a wealthy Italian media mogul, made a bid to become prime minister of Italy and won. This by itself is not terribly interesting. But when one considers the process by which it happened, the events and processes embody a “textbook” example of the need for contemporary parrhesia.

The Berlusconi case has all the essential elements discussed earlier. He was an international media mogul and billionaire similar to Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Michael Bloomberg, and Jon Corzine (Stille, 2006, p. 11). Berlusconi also spoke boldly, weaving a mythology into his discourse that enhanced his popularity at the expense of truth and “reality.” By taking advantage of the Italian adoration of soccer (he owned the most popular team at the time) and the relative lack of interest in more regular conceptions of politics, he fashioned media imagery and slogans into what in the United States would best be understood as a new third party, and won by building a diverse coalition of supporters (Stille, 2006).

What makes this interesting is that most of Berlusconi’s supporters had a fierce loyalty, not to politics, not to the government, but instead to his television networks (Stille, 2006, p. 181). This loyalty to imagery, something that is completely socially constructed, represents one of the most overt needs for parrhesia within postmodern conditions. As discourses are constructed, fluid, and changing, so becomes truth and reality. This in turn enables any number of possibilities for alienation, “othering” (Dean, 1997), and mar ginalization (Marcuse, 1972). The fluid imagery and language then enable an almost formless illusory notion of politics that requires no consistency or logical congruence of thought and action (Stille, 2006). The case of Berlusconi is a triumph of style over substance and of image over content. It clearly cuts to the heart of debate regarding essentialist and antiessentialist discourses in practice.

Parrhesia in Practice: Two Thought Experiments

Because some readers might not find the Berlusconi example provocative enough to make the case for the importance of parrhesia in public administration, it is desirable to include a few practical examples of how this might or might not function in practice. To this end, I offer two thought experiments as mechanisms to help readers better understand parrhesia. Contextually, both are local government examples. One will demonstrate parrhesia, and the other will demonstrate the opportunity for parrhesia not taken.

Experiment 1-Parrhesia: The City Manager and the Contractors

A municipal government issues a request for proposals (RFP) for a major infrastructure upgrade. The RFP was written in such a way as to enable the broadest participation by local, regional, and state organizations. Proposals were to be evaluated based on the quality and scope of deliverables as well as the cost of each proposal. Proposals would be screened by two members of the city council, the planning director, the public works director, and the city manager to create a short list that would be approved by the full council and mayor.

At one point in the evaluation process, the mayor was offered a proposal from a contractor (contractor X). Politically, this contractor could provide beneficial campaign funding and broad regional support during the coming elections. Seeing this opportunity, the mayor chose to circumvent the process, meeting with individual members of council to secure approval for the project.

During the vote at a public hearing, the council and mayor approved contractor X with a vote of 5 to 2. The two dissenting votes were from the members who participated in the screening process. The city manager then initiated parrhesiastic communication during the public hearing, illustrating how the final choice was not consistent with the established process, taking a real risk considering that managers are at-will employees. A majority of council members sided with the mayor and chose to release the city manager.

The consequence of speaking truth to power in this situation is that the manager then can become what the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) calls a “member in transition”-in short, unemployed. Depending on the nature of the manager’s contract, there may or may not be a severance package that enables the manager to pursue other opportunities, making this choice a risky, yet arguably ethical decision. However, if one were to follow the tenets of the ICMA code of ethics, parrhesia in this case is nearly a compulsory option. (It is also important to understand that the ICMA notion of ethical often assumes a sort of essentialist discourse that may only function as a symbol in an antiessentialist context, raising further questions regarding parrhesia.)

Experiment 2-No Parrhesia: The Planner and the Director

There is a position opening in a municipality for a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist. Like most positions of this kind, it is highly technical and consequently offers an attractive salary, especially for people just beginning their careers. The nature of the position is to develop a series of GIS products that will enable the municipality to become GASB 34 compliant (an accounting standard), while streamlining their maintenance, amortization, and capital improvement schedules. A position announcement is generated, and the personnel director begins receiving applications that are simultaneously being screened by their newly hired planner.

The personnel director sees this position as an opportunity for a family friend to enter into municipal government. The person in question, though trained in geography, has a focus on cultural geography, not GIS, and has little if any exposure to either GIS applications or public finance. Eventually the position closes and the family friend is offered the position despite having a pool of more qualified people that included both women and minorities, raising the possibility for legal action as the result of this decision.

Rather than engaging in parrhesia, the newly hired planner who is still working within his probationary period chooses instead to say nothing and allow the process to unfold. The planner retains his position in the municipality, unlike the city manager in the previous example. However, the planner has also become an accomplice to an unethical act. Furthermore, because the person hired was not capable of performing the tasks of the position at the time of hire, it is likely to cause a variety of repercussions. The repercussions of the planner’s inaction can include the termination of the planner, the personnel director, or both. There could be legal action, termination of the newly hired employee, or the need to start a new search. Each of these repercussions can be costly to the organization, either in the short or long term. Most if not all of these could have been avoided by engaging in parrhesia. However, the choice of parrhesiastic action could likely result in termination as well, given the danger associated with it.

Speaking Truth to Power—A Cautionary Tale

Throughout this essay, I have attempted to present Foucault’s (1985) discussion of parrhesia in the context of contemporary public administration and citizenship generally. I have demonstrated how parrhesia and parrhesiastic processes have informed, at least implicitly, a number of theories and practices in public administration. Moreover, I have pointed toward certain situations, processes, and discursive events that illustrate how parrhesia remains intertwined with our contemporary understanding of citizenship. Finally, I linked these discussions of parrhesia, as well as its elements, to demonstrate how parrhesiastic actions are a fundamental part of public administration theory and practices.

Concerning antiessentialism, parrhesia, and public administration, we find that things become a bit more complex. The development of relativistic discourses, comments about the clash of civilizations, and the systematic deconstruction of “essentialism” makes conducting parrhesiastic action more difficult. Perception, interaction, process, and reflection become far more important. Each mode of interaction between the person invoking parrhesia and the person being spoken to takes on a sort of ritualistic tone (Goffman, 1967) where speaking “truth” could quite possibly become more dangerous as the legitimacy of the speech becomes challenged by the listener (a powerful person). This can happen, as stated earlier, through processes of marginalization, alienation, or any of the “othering” processes discussed by critical theorists.

What is left is a sort of procedural reality where people, including citizens, administrators, and politicians, can move into situations where parrhesia becomes a viable option. Though quite different in some respects from the discourse theories presented by Fox and Miller (1996), these parrhesiastic processes share a number of the same criticisms and prerequisites for success. Parrhesiastic processes in many cases mirror contemporary discussions of discourse theory, but without the Habermasian (1981, 1987) precedents and with the addition of a power differential, danger, and the requirement for critique, either as part of self-reflection (Schon, 1983) or of others.

In closing, it is apparent that people have been speaking truth to power for a long time. Some trace it to 1955; others track it to seventeenth-century Quakers. In Quaker practices, this is most likely reflected in the pastoral, formalized discourses of their traditional meetings (Schmitt, 1997), which emerge from their shared understanding of community. In this piece, I reinforced its link to Athenian democracy, as uncovered by Stivers (2004) and others. Many of us until now might have only understood this in reference to Wildavsky’s classic text on policy analysis. In practice, we find that speaking truth to power, an expression of parrhesia, and employing it in contemporary governance might simultaneously be hazardous to your professional health and one of the most important things a professional administrator can do.