Oprah says 'speak your truth.' But how is that different from 'the truth'?

Tana Smith is a professional YouTube personality and has decided to use her program to speak her truth, meaning what is important to her and her life, instead of just DIY decor, in the coming year.

For the last four years, Tana Smith’s YouTube channel featured DIY decor strategies and makeup tips. But as a cultural reckoning rages and Hollywood encourages women to speak up, she’s refocusing her channel of more than 300,000 subscribers to something more personal: “speaking your truth.”

Smith, 24, is now using her online platform to tell her story, even the uncomfortable parts — the painful breakup, the eating disorder, the alcohol addiction. Her aim is for viewers to know they aren’t alone in their own struggles, so they might be encouraged to speak their truth, too.

“The reason to speak your truth is to help people and be more connected, and create more of a sense of oneness and community,” said Smith, who lives in Kensington. “It’s not about being right.”

Smith is one of millions of Americans who were struck Sunday night by Oprah Winfrey’s rousing Golden Globes speech, but for her, what resonated the most was Winfrey’s message of “speaking your truth.” The media mogul referenced this three times while addressing the seismic #MeToo movement, including: “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

This idea of subjective truth — your truth, my truth, his truth or her truth — isn’t new. But Winfrey renewed the mantra, and with a potential presidential run topping the headlines, she was criticized by some who wondered whether the wording “your truth” diminishes the power of “the truth.”

A conversation has since emerged about whether living out your truth is a slip farther into postmodernism, in which facts are distorted by personal bias. Is living your truth a laudable goal, or is it the left’s version of Orwellian doublespeak, similar to “fake news” or “alternative facts”? And what if “your truth” is that the Earth is flat or that dinosaurs helped build the pyramids?

As a rule, of course, it’s not. When Winfrey and others say, “Speak your truth,” they typically mean something more like: Share your perspective, tell your story, open up about your experience. But in an America some call “post-truth,” semantics matter.

Camera icon PAUL DRINKWATER/NBC
Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said the idea of a subjective truth isn’t at odds with actual facts.

“Some people say, ‘This is postmodern nonsense,'” said Nunberg, a regular contributor on WHYY’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. But “when people are talking about ‘my truth,’ it’s that ‘when he hit on me persistently, I was made uncomfortable.’ Those truths are the ones that are bubbling to the surface now.”

Aliya Steele, a 21-year-old aspiring marketing professional who lives in West Philadelphia, is trying harder to speak her truth. She said she grew up shy, reserved and “agreeable,” but is working to better express what she feels in the moment — at work, at home and online — without fear of being judged.

The important part of speaking a personal truth that some people miss, she said, is realizing it also means listening to others’ personal truths.

“I kind of feel like there isn’t one truth,” she said. “Of course there’s facts. There’s certain things that are true. When it comes to perspective on things? There’s a lot of wiggle room.”

Alex Crispino similarly described what her “truth” means. She’s a 27-year-old who works in learning and development at PricewaterhouseCoopers and also runs a network for women alumni of Temple University. For her, a personal truth means authenticity — “whoever you are, bring your full self.”

“You can’t verify someone’s truth. You can’t verify someone’s journey,” said Crispino, who lives in the city’s Francisville section. “And it shouldn’t have to be verified. It’s theirs.”

“Speak your truth” has been cited most frequently in reference to the #MeToo movement, which has empowered people, mostly women, to come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault. But the terminology has been in use for years, as the title of many motivational speeches, as the crux of a book about recovering from lupus, as a slogan for the self-aware (though recent research shows humans aren’t nearly as self-aware as they think they are).

Camera icon Susan Rocco
Susan Rocco, founder of Women to Watch.

It’s that self-awareness that Susan Rocco says allowed her to finally speak her truth. It was Aug. 7, 2012, two days before she was expected to meet with WFYL-AM, a small radio station in King of Prussia, to pitch an idea for a talk show. She wasn’t quite sure what the topic would be. That morning, Rocco had one of those visceral shower revelations. At age 48, she realized what she had to offer the world: The power of telling women’s stories.

She got the show. Today, she’s at a bigger radio station, WWDB (860 AM) in Bala Cynwyd and building Women to Watch, a media company of her own that aims to empower women.

“When I finally spoke my own truth, everything turned around for me,” Rocco, 54, said. “What it means to me is to go out into life and live your life as your original self, because that is where you have the most power.”