On September 23, 2019, sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg began her now-famous admonishment of world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, telling them that she and other young people were watching them as they failed to act on climate change and that “this is all wrong.” Thunberg’s blunt, direct speech led to a flurry of responses ranging from ridicule, dismissal, hatred, and misogyny from some and enthusiastic, inspired support from others. Thunberg, speaking as a child among powerful adults with a direct, unapologetic message, disrupts common assumptions about excluding children from the sphere of public deliberation and rhetorical citizenship. By doing this she also acts within a long-standing tradition of risky, parrhesiastic speech, as she speaks for a traditionally silenced population of young people on a global level.
This article examines Thunberg’s speech within the context of democratic deliberation, citizenship, and the practice of parrhesia, the rhetorical tradition of speaking truth to power within the public sphere, especially when doing so is risky. Thunberg’s status as a child, especially one with disabilities, makes her outspokenness transgressive within the context of a meeting of adult world leaders and scientific experts. In this high-stakes, formal situation, she behaves in a manner that goes against decorum in surprising ways, such as speaking about political matters with authority to adults, speaking without politeness to adults in a formal setting, and expecting to be taken seriously within the realm of science and politics by adults.1 Thunberg’s refusal to maintain the expected behavioral boundaries between the domains of adult/child, citizen/non-citizen, and expert/novice speaker demonstrates the importance of viewing Thunberg’s actions through the lens of parrhesia, where the parrhesiastes challenges “fellow citizens to wake up, to refuse what they previously accepted, or to accept what they previously refused” (Foucault, Fearless 106). Thunberg, seizing the rights of citizenship in order to speak parrhesiastically, insists that her audience make significant changes to avoid climate catastrophe. Her demand for rhetorical citizenship and forthright call to action are explained via the framework of rhetorical parrhesia, which situates her delivery and the global response to it as part of a long-standing democratic tradition where those hindered from speaking overcome constraints to boldly speak. While parrhesia has been historically imaged as the duty of adult (and in the Classical context, male) citizens, in this analysis, children are legitimized as potential citizens and parrhesiastes, especially when the constraining aspect of age intersects with other marginalizing factors, such as gender and disability. Thunberg’s performance demonstrates how parrhesia can be reimagined as not only the duty of the citizen as it is Classically perceived, but also as a demand for citizenship from those traditionally excluded from that role.
When Children Speak the Truth
A glance at the popular headlines reporting on Thunberg’s UN Climate Action Summit speech return descriptors of her rhetorical approach as “scathing” (NBC News), “powerful” (Buzzfeed), “rages and potent” (Vox), “condemnatory” while calling her a “warrior” (The Guardian), “furious” (Vogue), and “harsh” (USA Today Twitter). Thunberg composed her speech prior to delivery2 and clearly had no desire to make it “pleasing” to her audience, who were at times audibly uncomfortable in their halting, nervous laughter through her admonishments. Thunberg criticizes the superficial approach her audience has taken to climate change, reminding them that “for more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear,” and yet they “continue to look away and come here saying that [they’re] doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.” Her facial expression does not alter as the audience chuckles—she is not joking and this is clear in her delivery.
Despite its unapologetic tone, her message was heard and recirculated by millions around the globe, and paradoxically, the lack of status that would typically exclude children from speaking on such a high-status world stage is the very aspect of Thunberg’s positionality that allows her to “stand out” enough to be invited to that forum. Because a child speaking with bluntness, authority, and censure to powerful adults deviates so far from expected norms, Thunberg’s transgressive speech and actions focused on climate change have garnered attention, potentially more so than if she were an adult with the same views. This paradoxical inclusion based upon conditions that would conventionally guarantee exclusion are also aligned with her demands for citizenship for the children, like her, who are denied the rights of citizenship in decision-making but who will have to bear the brunt of climate change hardships. By exemplifying the parrhesiastic duties of the citizen, Thunberg demands the rights of citizenship for herself and the community she represents.
While Thunberg’s blunt words and delivery (which included ignoring mirrored social cues such as smiling when others laugh) may be part of her neuroatypicality, it is also reminiscent of the unflinching, chastising parrhesiastic addresses of figures such as Pericles and Demosthenes. In Ancient Athens, direct and potentially displeasing rhetorical action was considered a necessary part of a functioning democracy where citizens had a responsibility to speak out when the good of the polis was at stake. Parrhesia is a duty of citizenship, where the speaker has the ability to stay silent but does not and instead chooses frankness rather than persuasion when speaking out (Foucault, Fearless 17–19). While parrhesia in the Classical sense came from speakers like Pericles or Demosthenes who were in positions of political power but who had to confront a large audience of citizens who could become violent, other forms of parrhesia were spoken from the margins, by exiles and controversial Cynic philosophers; thus this tradition of speaking truth regardless of positionality is applicable to a range of political, public, and social contexts. Parrhesia is a “rhetoric of confrontation” that is very different from Aristotelian notions of pleasing an audience. Rather, it is “impolite and disruptive,” and “stages kairotic moments when dissensus, rather than consensus, becomes the goal of the speaker in imploring an audience of self-scrutiny or action” (Kennedy 26). Thunberg’s epideictic speech scolding those in power follows this tradition, transgressing norms of who is allowed to speak, to whom, and in what tone, especially when that message is difficult for the audience to hear and when that audience holds significantly more power than the speaker. Additionally, by taking on the parrhesiastic role traditionally viewed as a duty of citizenship, Thunberg positions herself as a citizen within a sphere where children are typically denied that status, especially when they refuse to comply with expectations of decorum.
Parrhesia requires the speaker to challenge power, and it is Thunberg’s age, gender, disabilities, and status as a child that put her in a position of less power than her audience, which is comprised of (adult) world leaders. In historically-focused rhetorical studies, scholars have examined the role of children in relation to women’s literacy and rhetorical acquisition (Robbins, Ruggles-Gere, Hobbs, Gold) as well as how children in the nineteenth century gained rhetorical skills themselves (Schultz), but rarely do we turn our attention to rhetorics created specifically by children. As noted by Jordynn Jack in a 2015 issue of Peitho, “like women and the mentally disabled, children have also been largely excluded from rhetorical study on the basis of their supposed cognitive (and hence rhetorical) deficiencies.” While there are some exceptions3 to this, the arguments put forth by children are generally ignored and excluded from larger deliberative conversations that contribute to political decision-making. Like women, children are often relegated to the realm of the private so that they are unable to make rhetorical contributions in the public sphere, and if they do, their words are easily dismissed or ignored.
Historically, ideas or arguments constructed by children were composed primarily in private spaces, and while some of these texts later had significant cultural impact, these sources were typically shaped within the private sphere rather than intentionally constructed for audience consumption. For instance, the work on Anne Frank’s diary conducted by Jean Niekamp, which examines its “intense internal rhetoric out of which the rhetorical self is shaped,” focuses primarily on how narrative constructs selfhood, rather than the larger rhetorical effects of Frank’s text on readers and perceptions of Nazi occupation (25). Just as women were once excluded from public debate—and then ridiculed when they transgressed expected cultural boundaries to speak out—so, too, are children viewed as incapable of offering useful contributions to cultural deliberation, even though many issues of marginalization directly affect them. If “rhetoric…is at the core of being a citizen” (Villadsen and Kock 2), then how do we theorize the rhetorics produced by children in the public sphere when their status as citizens is questionable, especially when they refuse to maintain the rhetorical bounds of decorum for appropriate speech? Or, conversely, how might we imagine their inclusion as citizens with rhetorical agency?
The conventional stance of excluding children from citizenship has been challenged by Ruth Lister and others who explore what it means to be a citizen and which criteria of citizenship children can—or should—be included within. Lister compares the automatic exclusion of children from citizenship to the corollary practice of excluding women, so that “just as feminists have exposed the male template underpinning traditional meanings of citizenship…so can we argue that it is an adult template, which measures children against an adult norm and which ignores the particularities of children’s relationship to citizenship” (13–14). Theorized in terms of membership, rights, responsibilities, equality of respect, status and recognition, capacity, and (in)dependence, citizenship is often denied to those who are economically dependent, such as women and children. However, from a perspective of citizenship as a concept of universal membership in a community, children are—or should be—included within that paradigm, both because of their membership within a community of citizens, and due to “a fundamental sameness and equal worth as human beings” (16). Perhaps what gives Thunberg the authority to speak, then, is her membership within a global community as a representative of children, the young people of today who will bear the consequences of climate change, the “we” for whom she speaks. This membership as part of a marginalized community is exactly the position from which a parrhesiastes speaks—from the margins but for a larger cause that affects that community, even though doing so is risky or transgressive. When Thunberg speaks as a parrhesiastes, she is likewise demanding the rights of the citizen by taking on the duty to speak out boldly in a situation where she would typically be denied a platform.
Thunberg: Contemporary Parrhesiastes
Thunberg speaks from the perspective of an under-represented population (children) who nevertheless comprise approximately 27% of the world’s current population (United Nations World Population Prospects 2019). Traditionally silenced and certainly rhetorically undertheorized, children are often at the mercy of adults and policy decisions, and cannot speak out in any meaningful way, given the cultural constraints against taking children’s voices seriously. In order to speak, children must transgress social norms, pushing against obstacles and assumptions about their mental capacity. As a child with multiple disabilities, including Asperger’s Syndrome and selective mutism (Thunberg and Ernman), Thunberg, especially, has much to overcome in order to speak. However, she uses her neuro-diverse positionality as a “superpower” that allows her to think more critically about large-scale problems and perceives selective mutism as a condition where she only speaks when it is absolutely necessary to do so, such as when the world is in great peril from climate change (Thunberg, “School Strike”). By surmounting these obstacles to speak out—and in fact utilizing them to speak directly and critically despite decorum—Thunberg’s actions continue a long tradition of parrhesiastic speech, where the speaker goes against audience expectations to speak bluntly and honestly about a deeply held truth that, if silenced, threatens the entire community.
The community for which Thunberg speaks is apparent in her first line: “My message is that we’ll be watching you.” This is met with halting laughter followed by applause from the audience. A parrhesiastic rhetor speaks regardless of audience approval, often using admonishment of the audience as part of the message, and Thunberg’s refusal to smile in response to the audience or otherwise soften her language is in alignment with classical parrhesia. Her delivery is blunt and indignant, reflecting genuine emotion when she says, “This is all wrong…How dare you!” She chastises the audience for their misappropriated use of rhetoric—their “empty words”—much as the classical parrhesiastic orators of the past.4 She also highlights the threat of climate change to the larger community, saying, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” showing how the consequences for not speaking outweigh the risks for speaking transgressively, without deference or appropriate decorum, as she does. Her opening states the purpose, sets the tone, and contextualizes the population for whom she speaks—young people—who are denied a public platform.
For the parrhesiastes, ethos is of the highest importance, and Thunberg constructs hers from the perspective of a young person (the population most likely to deal with the consequences of climate change) as well as her arête as a person of courage. As noted by Foucault, “It is not the subject’s social, institutional status that we find at the heart of parresia; it is his [or in this case her] courage” (Government 66). Thunberg’s marginalized status as a child with disabilities puts her in a position where she is not recognized as a full citizen, and it is speaking from this position of relative powerlessness that requires the courage highlighted by Foucault. The recognition of her courage to overcome these constraints makes her words all the more compelling and difficult to ignore, reinforcing her ethos as a parrhesiastes. In Gerald Hauser’s work on parrhesia displayed by political prisoners who dare to speak out against injustice, he notes the relationship between courage and ethos where an outspoken “display of conscience” invokes the ethos of the speaker as well as “the ethos of the people and the ideals they represent” (120). In Thunberg’s case, “the people” she represents is the global population of youth who will have to suffer the consequences of powerful others who ignore climate change today.
While Thunberg displays courage as the basis of her ethos, adults may assume an absence of knowledge and experience in children, which allows them to discount young speakers as lacking phronesis, or the “practical wisdom” with which to speak. Thunberg disrupts this assumption by referencing known statistics about the threat of climate change, including the likelihood of staying below a crisis level in global warming. She notes that “a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us—we who have to live with the consequences,” especially when avoiding global catastrophe relies upon the young people Thunberg represents “sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist,” a burden she expresses angrily. Pointing toward her own education on the issue, as well as her ability to see around the common arguments given for how this situation might be remedied later demonstrates her understanding of climate change and presents her as a knowledgeable, as well as courageous, speaker.
As a parrhesiastes, Thunberg is under no obligation to demonstrate goodwill toward her audience—in fact, she expresses the exact opposite. In most rhetorical situations, the speaker will attempt to establish eunoia with her audience, where listeners assume the speaker will act in their best interest, thus creating trust between the rhetor and audience. However, Thunberg foregoes this aspect of ethos, sacrificing it (in a sense) for the greater good of representing her citizenship community of young people across the globe. Her only concession to the audience is that she chooses to believe they are ignorant rather than evil for failing to act.
Despite Thunberg’s unwillingness to flatter her audience, she does generate trust based upon her eunoia within her community, a group of 1.9 billion young people most affected by climate change but who are barred from public deliberation and dismissed as unqualified to speak. Her willingness to travel across the world to represent this group establishes her ethos based in courage, persistence, practical knowledge, and goodwill toward the group she represents, rather than the assembled audience. This, too, is indicative of Thunberg’s status as a parrhesiastes, as she uses her ethos as a courageous and knowledgeable speaker to disrupt audience expectations for a child rhetor, foregoing any desire to “please” her audience in order to speak the truth of her own silenced community.
Admonishing the audience is often part of parrhesiastic action, and Thunberg accomplishes this repeatedly within her short delivery. In a five-hundred-word speech, she says the line “How dare you” four separate times and addresses the audience directly (you/yours) twenty-seven times, so it is clear to whom she speaks these reprimands. The audience’s unwillingness to act to correct climate change is her primary concern and she scolds her listeners, critiquing both their intelligence and apathy by saying, “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.” She even challenges their status as full adults, a biting criticism coming from a child, when she predicts that no real solutions will be forthcoming from the Summit despite concrete evidence “because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” Thunberg, however, is mature enough to do that, a state evident in her delivery.
Her final words to the audience5 contain a direct threat for future actions that may be taken against them if they do not act. Speaking for young people, she warns that “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” This final pledge to hold the audience—and ostensibly all world leaders—accountable is notable in its courage, where instead of feeling fear, meekness, or uncertainty at her position speaking to powerful adults, Thunberg takes courage from the ethos of the truth, which she believes is clearly on her side.
Theorizing Children, Citizenship, and Parrhesia
Thunberg’s address to the United Nations Climate Summit was a call to action heard around the world. It is precisely in this circulation of parrhesia where its true power lies, as different audiences confront, respond to, consider, remix, and take inspiration from Thunberg’s words. While there were predictable dismissals and criticisms, this is expected when a parrhesiastes disrupts the status quo to speak up to power unapologetically and without fear. At the same time, world leaders, climate scientists, and members of the public have taken notice. While the overwhelming evidence for the realities of climate change has not substantially persuaded public action, Thunberg’s use of rhetorical agency to speak her courageous, genuine message in the face of overwhelming odds galvanized many environmental activists and angered climate deniers, an inevitable outcome for an effective parrhesiastic rhetor speaking about this issue.
Theorizing Thunberg as a parrhesistic citizen who deliberates on issues of public importance challenges assumptions about the exclusion of non-adults as legitimate members of policy discourse and debate. If “rhetorical citizenship is concerned with citizens’ output as well as their critical engagement with public deliberation” (Villadsen and Kock 5), then perhaps it is time to seriously consider the concerns of young people in relation to their rhetorical output and participation, rather than thinking of them as incapable of contributing to public deliberation. As a member of multiple citizenship groups, including the global population of young people for whom she speaks, Thunberg’s insistence upon joining deliberation about climate change constructs her identity as a parrhesiastic citizen, “whether [we] like it or not” (Thunberg). Rhetorical action and agency have long been viewed as components of citizenship, and like many marginalized groups, seizing that agency to interrupt conventional hierarchies is both the sign of a parrhesiastes and one’s status as a citizen. By taking the opportunity to speak out, Thunberg furthered the cause of climate change remediation and the argument for young people as citizens affected by global policy and demonstrates that perhaps the main criteria for citizenship is not age, but rather the willingness to take on the parrhesiastic duties of the citizen, regardless of risk or the possibility of overstepping traditional norms of authority and decorum.
- While other children have gained notoriety through their political activism by stating their views to high-status adults, they have largely done so through polite, thoughtful words crafted to be rhetorically pleasing to their intended audience. An example of this is Samantha Smith, who gained notoriety in 1982 when, at the age of ten, she wrote to Yuri Andropov about her fears of war with Russia and a desire for peace. Unlike Thunberg’s approach, Smith’s rhetoric was child-like, polite, and non-authoritative, which made her role as a “Goodwill Ambassador” palatable to adults in the political sphere. (See Matthias Neumann’s “Children Diplomacy During the Late Cold War: Samantha Smith’s Visit of the ‘Evil Empire’” and Margaret Peacock’s “Samantha Smith in the Land of the Bolsheviks: Peace and the Politics of Childhood in the Late Cold War.”).return
- It should be noted that the notion of “speaking candidly” or without rhetorical ornamentation common in parrhesiastic speech does not mean that the speech itself is unrehearsed or “spontaneous.” Rather, it means speaking in a frank, open, honest, and sincere manner (OED Online). return
- See Jessica Enoch’s conversation with Cheryl Glenn that included discussion of Malala Yousafzai in a 2014 interview for Composition Forum or Risa Appelgarth’s work on public writing by children for the Children’s Peace Statue Project. return
- See the introduction of Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” (Thucydides) or several of the Philippics by Demosthenes, which often begin with an admonition of previous speakers or a warning against speakers who only say what the audience wants to hear. return
- Interestingly, the final lines of Thunberg’s speech are not included in the official United Nations video, but are included in printed transcripts. return
Applegarth, Risa. “Durable Effects: Public Writing and the Children’s Peace Statue Project.”Composition Forum, vol. 36, Summer 2017, www.compositionforum.com/issue/36/durable-effects.php. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
Demosthenes. The Public Orations of Demosthenes: Volume 1. Translated by Arthur Wallace Pickard, Pinnacle Press, 2017.
Enoch, Jessica. “Feminist Rhetorical Studies—Past, Present Future: An Interview with CherylGlenn.” Composition Forum 29, Spring 2014, www.compositionforum.com/issue/29/cheryl-glenn-interview.php. Accessed 6 Oct. 2019.
Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Edited by Joseph Pearson, Semiotext(e), 2001.
——. The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège De France 1982-83. Translated by Graham Burchell, edited by Frédéric Gros, Palgrave McMillan, 2012.
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Lister, Ruth. “Unpacking Children’s Citizenship.” Children and Citizenship, edited by Antonella Invernizzi and Jane Williams, Sage Publications Ltd., 2007, pp. 9–19.
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“candid, adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/26968. Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.
Peacock, Margaret. “Samantha Smith in the Land of the Bolsheviks: Peace and the Politics of Childhood in the Late Cold War.” Diplomatic History, vol. 43 no. 3, June 2019, pp. 418–444.
Robbins, Sarah. Managing Literacy, Mothering America: Women’s Narratives on Reading and Writing in the Nineteenth Century. U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.
Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley, Kindle Edition, 2012.
Thunberg, Greta. “Greta Thunberg’s Speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit.” National Public Radio, www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit. Accessed 2 Oct. 2019.
——. “School Strike for Climate.” TEDxStockholm, YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks 12 Dec. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAmmUIEsN9A&t=1m46s. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.
——. “Greta Thunberg (Young Climate Activist) at the Climate Action Summit 2019 — Official Video.” YouTube, uploaded by United Nations 23 Sept. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9KxE4Kv9A8. Accessed 2 Oct. 2019.
Thunberg, Greta, Svante Thunberg, Malena Ernman, and Beata Ernman. Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Penguin Books, 2020.
Villadsen, Lisa S., and Christian Kock. Rhetorical Citizenship and Public Deliberation. Penn State UP, 2012.
“World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights.” United Nations, 2019, www.reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/WPP2019_Highlights.pdf. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.
COVER IMAGE CREDIT: “Greta Thunberg, Paris (France), 22 février 2019” by stephane_p is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
KEYWORDS: parrhesia, citizenship, transgressive, environmental, activism, activist