There is a certain archetype that is as old as literature and history themselves. One of the first times we see it in the West is with Cassandra in the Greek tragedies. She has the power to see into the future (she prophesied the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon) but no one listens to her. Then we have Demosthenes, whose warnings against the rise of Phillip (Alexander the Great’s father) are so incessant that everyone hates him for it. Later on in Rome, Cato the Elder—Cato’s grandfather—was such a frequent (and ultimately prescient) critic and hawk when it came to Carthage, that he would play the same role. In fact, he would end every speech he gave, no matter the topic, no matter the occasion, with Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”).
His grandson, Cato—the towering Stoic—would develop a similar reputation as a kind of obstinate truth-teller, even when it was inconvenient, even when it disturbed the peace, even when it made enemies, even when he was exhausted or knew he would be ignored.
In all these cases, people just wanted them to let.it.go. Why do you have to be so annoying? Why can’t you be more strategic? Don’t you see you’re just pissing people off?
All of which was legitimate criticism. Perhaps with a bit more tact and better awareness, these important messages could have been heard earlier or more receptively. Cato the Elder and Cato and Demosthenes seemed to almost be trying to alienate people with the way they spoke and hammered their message.
But it’s important to understand the distinction between how you say something and how often you say it. Tone is one thing (to always be considered), timing is something else. “Waiting for the right moment.” “Trying to figure out the best way to say it.” “Not wanting to turn people off.” Those are timing issues that, more often than not, we lean on as excuses for avoiding one of the hardest things to do in the world: speaking an unpopular truth. Warning people about a reality they’d rather not deal with.
Cicero, a contemporary of Cato (and an admirer of his grandfather), would quote this line of poetry:
“Indulgence gets us friends
But truth gets us hatred.”
If we tell ourselves that our main job is to be a good messenger, we risk compromising our message. We end up leaving out important or unpleasant parts of the message, rounding off its sharp edges in the pursuit of fitting in instead of standing out so our message may be heard. We can end up going along to get along…even if the conclusions that come out of that are wrong.
But if our job is to tell the truth—no matter what, no matter who it upsets or how unpopular it makes us—and we are committed to doing this as long as we have an ounce of blood in our bodies? Then no pesky considerations or compromises can stop us. And, hopefully, we can wake people up—as Winston Churchill did about Nazism—before it’s too late.
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