Category Archives: nonviolent action

Online harassment

Harassment online is a big problem. Legal remedies have limitations. It’s worth gaining ideas from nonviolent action.

stalking

One of my friends told me about a time, years ago, when she was stalked by a former student who threatened to kill her. The police could only recommend driving home using a different route and being cautious. She is pretty tough and is a politically aware feminist, yet she worried about what he might do to her or, if he turned his attention elsewhere, to someone else.

One of the difficulties in dealing with stalking is that, to outsiders, it doesn’t seem so bad. So what if someone comes by your neighbourhood and watches from a distance or shows up when you’re shopping? If he hasn’t physically touched you, what’s the problem? Until you’ve been stalked yourself, or talked to friends who have been, it’s hard to appreciate the terror it can cause.

These days, physical stalking has been overshadowed by an online version of the same problem. Stalking is just one version of a wider set of abuses that can be called harassment, bullying or mobbing. As with old-fashioned physical stalking, the online versions are often not treated as seriously as they deserve.

The most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of this problem is Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland. Based on years of study and interviews with dozens of victims, Citron’s book is a call to arms.

 Hate crimes in cyberspace cover

The experience

To give a sense of the patterns and impact of cyber harassment, Citron uses three case studies. One involves a female law student who, for no apparent reason, started becoming a target of abusive, threatening commentary on blog sites, including lies about her test scores, sexual behaviour and mental problems. What happens in cases like this is that after a public attack begins, lots of people join in, turning individual bullying into collective mobbing.

Her employment prospects were diminished because many potential employers look online to check out job applicants; when they see derogatory material, they seldom seek to verify it, instead just passing over the applicant in favour of someone about which there is no adverse material.

The attackers went beyond abuse, seeking to wreck the student’s life and career. They wrote to her employers making all sorts of false, damaging claims, and also made false claims about her husband.

feminism-online-abuse-misogyny

            Another one of Citron’s case studies involves a woman who became prominent as a blogger, discussing software design. Simply by being a woman commenting in a male-dominated technological field, she became a target of massive abuse, including death threats, rape fantasies and the like.

The third case study is of a victim of revenge porn. This woman’s ex-partner posted nude photos of her on various websites, plus her contact details. An online profile falsely stated she wanted sex for money. This and other posts led to a barrage of unwelcome attention. Her boss and colleagues received photos by emails that seemed to come from her.

These three case studies, with many details (but not names), provide powerful testimony of the damage that can be caused by online abuse. Citron supplements these with a range of additional examples.

stalking-online

            Several factors contribute to the prevalence of cyberharassment. One is the online disinhibition effect: when people are anonymous, or just feel anonymous and separated from their target, they are less inhibited in what they say. The tech blogger received mountains of online abuse but none face-to-face. Another factor contributing to cyberharassment is that many people, including attackers, police and judges, do not think it’s a big deal. Attackers often say, “It goes with the territory” and police may recommend avoiding it: “Just don’t go online.” This is like telling a victim of street assault not to go outside.

Precedents

Citron offers two revealing comparisons, with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatised as wrong and even contemptible and criminalised by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyberharassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Citron gives most attention to legal remedies. She examines existing US laws for prospects of using them against cyberharassment – mostly the experience has been that they are useless – and recommends law reform and education of police and judges. She also recognises the importance of cultural change, including via interventions with Internet firms and in families.

 Danielle Keats Citron
Danielle Citron

Options in Australia

Citron’s focus is on the situation in the US, and she closely examines US court decisions and legal doctrine, especially concerning the protection of free speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Online harassers often defend their actions as exercising their own free speech. Citron shows, through a careful analysis, that it is possible to legislate against cyberharassment in ways compatible with the First Amendment. Her discussion is a fascinating tour of US free-speech law, much of it showing the sophistication of court judgements.

first amendment

            In Australia, however, this analysis is largely irrelevant, because there is no explicit constitutional protection of free speech, only an inferred and quite limited area of protection. In Australia, then, there is no constitutional barrier to passing laws against online harassment. Paradoxically, though, far less has been done in the legal domain than in the US. This may be because legal remedies are more a consequence of cultural change than a driver of it. Furthermore, laws sometimes give only an appearance of protection.

I remember when, decades ago, the issue of sexual harassment came onto the agenda for Australian universities. At the Australian National University in the mid-1980s, two groups were set up, one to address complaints, the other to raise awareness. I was in the awareness-promoting group: we wrote and distributed leaflets, wrote articles and gave talks. Then, in 1986, I obtained a lectureship at the University of Wollongong and joined the sexual harassment committee when it was formed that year; the same differences in function were apparent. Over the next decade there was considerable effort to raise concerns about sexual harassment and a related issue, abuse of trust and conflict of interest when academics had sexual relationships with students.

In those years, there was considerable attention to sexual harassment. But then the issues dropped from the main agenda. At Wollongong, the sexual harassment committee was abolished in 1998. The formal procedures remained, but efforts to generate awareness declined. Sexual harassment continued, but less was done to alert new cohorts of students and staff about the problem.

My experiences with sexual harassment committees made me sceptical of formal procedures as the primary tool for addressing problems. In many cases, official processes served to keep problems from being publicised. My special interest remains in helping people acquire knowledge and skills to deter and resist abuse.

Nonviolent action and cyberharassment

Citron, although emphasising legal remedies, also canvasses other options. One of them is individual resistance by exposing attacks. Some targets have courageously made public statements describing abuse and denouncing it. This is a potentially a powerful response, generating awareness and stimulating support, but sometimes it leads to the abuse becoming even more intense. Harassers are outraged when victims refuse to acquiesce, and are especially angry when their aggression, and sometimes their identity, is exposed.

In Australia, Emma Jane has undertaken in-depth research into what she calls “e-bile,” which incorporates various forms of online abuse and harassment. Her special interest is online misogyny, and the increasing prevalence of threats to women of rape, torture and murder. Like Citron, Jane is disappointed with institutional responses, and as well decries academic studies that minimise or ignore the serious impacts. She acknowledges that direct action by targets, called vigilantism, sometimes can be worthwhile, but argues that collective responses to change policies and cultural attitudes are necessary too.

To help judge when open resistance is likely to be effective, it is useful to turn to experience with nonviolent action against injustice, using methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. One option is using some of these techniques against groups that enable or tolerate cyberharassment. A possibility would be organising protests or boycotts of companies that advertise on sites refusing to restrain attacks. However, obtaining sufficient leverage to promote change might be difficult.

Another option is to apply the general approach of nonviolent action to a different domain, cyberharassment, where there is seldom any physical violence by harassers (though the threat of violence is routine). Naming and shaming harassment and harassers can be considered analogous to nonviolent action against a violent opponent.

Gene Sharp is widely considered a pioneer thinker about nonviolent action. His 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. It also presents a set of stages or elements of nonviolent campaigns. The first stage he calls “laying the groundwork”, which means building awareness, organisations and skills, all before taking action. The next stage Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”: campaigners take (nonviolent) action against the opponent, knowing that their open resistance may trigger a repressive response. The third element in Sharp’s framework is “maintaining nonviolent discipline”: if activists use violence, this helps to justify their opponent’s use of superior violence. By refusing to use violence, campaigners build greater support. Sometimes the opponent’s violence can trigger a huge increase in popular support, a process Sharp calls political jiu-jitsu.

Sharpeville-massacre
T
he 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa triggered international condemnation: it backfired on the government.

            This framework can be applied to responding to cyberharassment. An individual who is being harassed might be courageous to go public about it, but to be effective it may be better to lay the groundwork first, by collecting more evidence, building ties with other targets and with opponents of harassment, and preparing a strategy. Only when fully ready psychologically and organisationally is it time to openly resist, in what Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”. An increase in attacks should be expected. The challenge then is for everyone involved to remain composed and not respond in kind. At this point, anything that seems like a counter-attack, for example a legal action or exposing private details about harassers, should be avoided so it is completely clear to neutral observers who are the aggressors. The possibility then is that further harassment, if exposed, might lead to a huge increase in support.

Students-are-taking-a-sta-011

            For an individual, this may involve considerable sacrifice: standing up to abuse remains risky. Therefore, it is wise to act as part of a supportive group, with links to a wider movement.

For those willing to take the risk, it’s possible to learn from research on nonviolent action about how to increase the effectiveness of resistance. Activism against cyberharassment is vital in changing cultural attitudes. Future generations may be the primary beneficiaries of efforts today to openly resist abuse.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks for Sharon Callaghan for valuable comments.

The story-editing solution

The way people think about their lives can have profound effects on the way they behave. Timothy Wilson explains how to reap the benefits of story-editing.

Stereotype-threat

Two groups of US students sit down to take a maths test. The groups are similar and the questions they are asked are identical, but there is one difference between the groups. At the top of the test, students in one group are asked to indicate their sex, male or female; the students in the other group are not.

It seems like a trivial difference, but it’s not. Boys aren’t affected, but girls are: the girls who are asked to indicate their sex before the test do worse. This is an example of a stereotype threat: bringing to consciousness a stereotype, in this case that girls aren’t good at maths, harms their performance.

What is going on? Being reminded of being female stimulates mental effort to deal with the stereotype, and this is mental energy that can’t be used to focus on the maths problems.

This is one of numerous examples of how beliefs about ourselves can affect how we behave and perform. There’s a large amount of social and psychological research about this phenomenon. A really valuable overview of the research and its implications for policy and practice is Timothy D. Wilson’s book Redirect.

Redirect

Wilson makes two main points. The first is that social interventions need to be carefully tested, preferably with a design in which individuals are randomly assigned to a control group and an experimental group. It is not good enough to undertake interventions that seem like they should work because they are obvious and sensible.

Wilson’s second main point is that the story-editing approach, namely getting people to change the narratives they use to understand themselves, can be far more powerful than other methods.

Scaring kids

There is a popular programme in the US to discourage teenage delinquency. At-risk youngsters are brought together to hear lectures from prisoners, who tell them about what is in store for them should they make the wrong decisions about their lives. This programme is well-meaning and seems plausible: scare these kids with warnings about their possible fate and they’ll be more likely to go straight. There’s one major problem: it doesn’t work.

scared-straight-kenan1

Wilson uses this example as one of many in which a well-meaning intervention was rolled out across the US before it had been adequately tested. When controlled trials were finally undertaken, it turned out that the lectures intended to scare the kids out of trouble were actually making things worse. These kids were more likely to drop out of school, be arrested and go to prison. Wilson provides example after example of plausible interventions that have no benefit or even make things worse. He assigns the “bloodletting” award to counterproductive interventions: doctors used to treat many illnesses by drawing blood, thereby making the patient more likely to die.

What was wrong with the scaring-kids intervention? Thinking in terms of stories people tell about themselves, an explanation goes like this. Some supposedly at-risk kids previously thought of themselves as regular, honest and well-intentioned. They did the right thing because that is how they thought of themselves. But then they were put into a group labelled “at risk” and given lectures about the dangers of crime. Some of them started thinking their reason for avoiding crime was to avoid the consequences: their motivation, previously internal, became external, and this is not as effective a deterrent when the circumstances are less favourable. Furthermore, these kids were put in a group of others considered at risk, and this is truly a risk, because they are influenced by peers setting a bad example.

Timothy-D-Wilson
Timothy D Wilson

            Wilson’s main attention is on interventions to address social problems in the US including poverty, low education, crime, sexism and racism. The bottom line is that all interventions should be tested before being used on a wide scale, and that story-editing approaches are often extremely effective.

It’s possible to use the insights from the story-editing approach to look at some other sorts of issues, including ones where interventions cannot be readily tested.

Whistleblowing

When a worker speaks out about a problem in their workplace, such as corruption or hazards to the public, they often suffer reprisals such as ostracism, petty harassment, reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, demotion and dismissal. This seems a harsh response to someone who is concerned about problems. What are the stories told about this common scenario?

From the employer’s point of view, the worker is out of line, challenging management and threatening the viability of the enterprise (not to mention seeking to expose management involvement in unethical and criminal activities). The worker is labelled a traitor, malcontent, snitch or dobber. The story provided is that the worker is in the wrong, due to personal failings. Rumours may be spread that the worker is a poor performer, has a mental illness or is involved in unsavoury sexual practices. Quite separately from the labels applied, the actions taken against the worker suggest their own meanings. Being referred to a psychiatrist is demeaning and signals to others that the worker is mentally unstable.

In some cases, the worker starts believing what is said about them, thinking “There must be something wrong with me.” The late Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, worked as a psychiatrist, and treated quite a few such workers. After hearing their stories, she would say, “You’re not insane. You’re a whistleblower.” This is a story-editing intervention. Jean changed her patient’s script from “There’s something wrong with me” to “There’s something wrong with the organisation.” She changed the label from “dobber” to “whistleblower.”

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?

Back in the 1990s, the NSW branch of Whistleblowers Australia held weekly meetings. Some people who attended for the first time said, “I’m not a whistleblower, but …” and went on to describe experiences that perfectly fitted the usual idea of a whistleblower. At that time, the term “whistleblower” had a negative connotation and many workers were reluctant to accept the label.

In the following years, the label “whistleblower” gained in status in Australia, in part through media stories that used the term in stories portraying gallant individuals challenging abuses of power. Workers were less likely to acquiesce in labels applied by bosses and more likely to take pride in calling themselves whistleblowers. Employers are more often losing the story-editing struggle, though reprisals against whistleblowers remain all too common.

War

Another arena for story-editing struggles is war. A familiar example is what to call a fighter challenging a repressive government: a terrorist or a freedom fighter. Governments have far more power to label than do their opponents, as shown by the ubiquity of the label “terrorism” applied solely to challengers, not to governments themselves, even though many government actions fit standard definitions of terrorism.

terrorist-or-freedom-fighter

By labelling opponents as terrorists, governments might in some cases actually be assisting their enemies in recruitment, especially when entire groups are stigmatised. It is useful to remember that the South African apartheid government called its armed opponents “terrorists,” that the US government, during the Vietnam war, called the National Liberation Front “terrorists,” and the Philippines government calls armed opponents “terrorists.” Commentators in the US have called some environmentalists “eco-terrorists.” The aim in such labelling is to stigmatise, but is this effective? It is possible that it may cause some activists — even ones who had not considered the use of violence in resistance — to identify with the government’s opponents.

A related story-editing struggle concerns what to call those who refuse to fight, by refusing conscription or by deserting from the army. Military leaders typically call them “traitors” or “cowards.” Within the peace movement, they might be called conscientious objectors or war resisters and be seen courageous or even as true patriots.

Vaccination

What should a parent be called who has reservations about vaccination, or who declines some or all vaccinations for their children? They can be called conscientious objectors or, more pejoratively, vaccination refusers or deniers. Some campaigners who raise concerns about vaccination are called baby-killers.

Does this sort of labelling help promote vaccination? From a story-editing perspective, derogatory labelling of people with concerns about vaccination could be ineffective or even counterproductive, by alienating some parents who had cautiously expressed concerns and found themselves grouped with more vociferous critics. In addition, hostile labelling may drive some parents towards vaccine-critical groups as a source of identity.

vaccine-cover-detail

A different approach to vaccination critics is to label them concerned parents and to provide information about how their concerns relate to vaccination. The story promoted with this sort of intervention is that it is legitimate for parents to have concerns about their children’s health and that choosing to vaccinate is one possible resolution for their concerns.

In this case, the story-editing struggle occurs mainly between advocates of vaccination, namely between those who stigmatise parents reluctant to vaccinate and those who respond to their concerns with sensitivity and sympathy. From a story-editing perspective, the latter approach is more likely to be effective, though designing a way to rigorously compare the two approaches would be extremely difficult.

Conclusion

Redirect provides a powerful summary of a body of research showing that the way people think about themselves makes an enormous difference to their behaviour. Seemingly trivial interventions that change self-perspectives can have long-lasting impacts.

Wilson has two main aims in Redirect. The first is to show the power of story-editing and the second is to emphasise the importance of careful studies of social interventions. Research shows that all too many well-intentioned interventions appear to be ineffective or, even worse, counterproductive.

Yet in some areas it can be difficult or almost impossible to carry out controlled tests. I’ve outlined three areas where story-editing struggles take place: whistleblowing, war and vaccination. Based on the evidence provided in Redirect, the preliminary hypothesis in each case is that a key in such struggles is changing the way people think about themselves. It might even be possible that derogatory labelling is ineffective or counterproductive. Read Redirect and decide for yourself.

 ***

Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect: changing the stories we live by (Penguin, 2013)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Jørgen Johansen and Cynthia Kardell for useful comments on a draft.

The politics of American Sniper

 Am Sniper-sniper

Recently I saw the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall. The film is a dramatisation of the life of Chris Kyle, the most deadly military sniper in US history, with 160 officially credited kills over four tours of duty in Iraq. Kyle is played by actor Bradley Cooper. Here I examine the perspective presented in the film without entering debates about how accurately it portrays Kyle and his actions.

Part of the film shows fighting in Iraq, with visually compelling recreations of combat conditions. The other part of the film shows Kyle before and between his combat tours. He grew up in Texas, learning to shoot from an early age. Lacking direction in his life, he was galvanised to join the military after seeing television reports of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa. He joined the Navy and did SEAL training, and we watch Kyle going through the arduous exercises involved. Meanwhile, he meets his future wife, and they go on to have two children.

After each of his combat tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes more estranged from suburban life back home. He switches off from his wife and children. It seems that, compared to combat, civilian life is insipid and almost pointless. Kyle is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and prone to violent outbursts in inappropriate situations. He volunteers to return to Iraq despite his wife’s appeals for him to stay home with his family.

Eventually a psychologist helps Kyle by putting him in contact with other war veterans, who have horrendous physical and psychological wounds. Kyle finds purpose in supporting some of these veterans, coaching them in shooting in a forest location. American Sniper thus is in part a film about the human consequences of war for soldiers, and the need to support survivors to recover from their trauma.

The combat scenes in the film show why Kyle found civilian life so inadequate. Combat is about life and death, about loyalty and comradeship, about defending one’s country from enemies. It is here that American Sniper buys into a conventional mythology about US war-fighting.

Am Sniper-desolation

9/11 and Iraq

Early in the film, Kyle and his wife are horrified as they watch television news of the 9/11 attacks on the US Trade Towers. The next thing we see is Kyle in Iraq, a marksman supporting troops undertaking dangerous door-to-door searches for insurgents. The unstated implication is that being in Iraq had something to do with the 1998 bombings and the 9/11 attacks.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others in the US government justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq with two main deceptions. First, they claimed that the Iraqi government was obtaining weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapons. However, no such weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; the intelligence claiming they existed was fatally flawed. Secondly, Bush implied that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. However, there was no decent evidence that the Iraqi regime had any connections with al-Qaeda. To the contrary, the regime was secular and opposed to al-Qaeda.

In American Sniper, Kyle and his team have the goal of opposing al-Qaeda in Iraq, and this group was certainly part of resistance to the US occupation. But the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not a justification for the invasion.

The film frames the Iraq conflict from the US perspective. US troops are shown fighting an unscrupulous enemy willing to torture and murder collaborators. The enemy insurgents are mostly anonymous. However, they also include women and children who carry explosives intended to kill US troops.

Reporting violence

Karen Cerulo wrote an insightful book titled Deciphering Violence. She analysed media reports of violence — murder, bombings, massacres, invasions — and classified the texts into four sequences: victim, performer, contextual and doublecasting.

deciphering violence

An example of a victim sequence is the headline “Three children killed by terrorists”. In this sort of sequence, the reader is more likely to identify and sympathise with the victim, so these sequences are likely to be used when the violence is seen as illegitimate. An example of a performer sequence is “Police shoot wanted man”. In a performer sequence, the reader is more likely to identify with the perpetrator of violence, and these sequences are likely to be used when violence is by legitimate authorities. There is much more to Cerulo’s nuanced analysis, but this is enough to appreciate the distinction between victim and performer sequences.

In American Sniper, the perspective is nearly always that of Kyle or other US troops. As viewers, we see the battle from their point of view, and watch their weaponry cause dozens or hundreds of deaths. The film mostly uses performer visual sequences and thus operates as a US-military-sympathetic prism on the Iraq war.

americansnipershot

            Imagine a different perspective, from the viewpoint of an Iraqi. During and after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was subject to international sanctions that prevented import of goods, including medical supplies and sanitation equipment. The result was that something like two million Iraqis died in the two decades subsequently due to disease and malnutrition. Some call this genocide, because the massive death toll was known to the outside world but the sanctions were maintained nevertheless.

Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was not endorsed by the UN: it was illegal according to international law. The rationales for the invasion were shown to be false.

From an Iraqi point of view, their country was being invaded — and some Iraqis were fighting back with whatever weapons were available. US and Iraqi troops were killing civilians, and torturing some of them, most famously in Abu Ghraib prison.

The invasion of Iraq was justified on false claims. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, why were US troops still there? An Iraqi perspective might portray Kyle as a foreign killer, part of an illegal and illegitimate occupying force.

Kyle in the film says he is defending America, and that the alternative is confronting the enemy in San Diego or New York. This seems almost a caricature of arguments for “defence” by invading a faraway country, one whose military had no capacity of threatening the US.

american-sniper-bradley-cooper-sam-jaeger-600x251

Alternatives?

American Sniper has been a tremendous commercial success, grossing more than $500 million. Presumably some of its popularity in the US is due to its congruence with US-centric perspectives on war-fighting, with US troops as the good guys fighting evil opponents. A different sort of film, Iraqi Sniper, would be unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic response in the US.

I had better make my view clear. I’m an opponent of war and terrorism, and have long advocated nonviolent action as a better option. I was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also opposed to an invasion to overthrow it. It would have been far more humane and effective to promote nonviolent action by Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

However, nonviolent action is mostly invisible in Hollywood films. American Sniper is an excellent war film, but it is a war film, fitting squaring within the genre. It is based on the assumption that war, despite its horrific consequences, is a necessary evil. That assumption needs to be challenged.

PS There are many other critical reviews of American Sniper, some by US veterans, for example Brock McIntosh.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn and Mark Richardson for helpful comments.

Understanding protest

James Jasper’s book Protest provides a valuable introduction to a type of activity around us all the time.

Baghdad-protest
Rally in Baghdad, 2008

I recently read James M. Jasper’s book Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements. It is written to be used as a textbook, but in an engaging style. I found it a useful refresher covering issues I’ve studied for many years.

Reading about any topic can make you more likely to notice relevant examples, and so it was for me in reading about protest. On the day I finished reading Protest I received an email from Antoon De Baets of the Network of Concerned Historians: PEN International Writers in Prison Committee reported on the 30-month prison sentence received by a Paraguayan writer, Nelson Aguilera. His crime: alleged plagiarism! According to the PEN Committee, experts say no plagiarism was involved, so obviously there must be some other factor involved – a connection between the complainant and the prosecutor. Recipients of the appeal were invited to write to the president of Paraguay. It is a type of protest, along the lines of the efforts of Amnesty International.

Nelson-Aguilera
Nelson Aguilera

            Then there was an appeal from my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, to send letters to politicians to stop passage of legislation to deregulate fees at Australian universities. It is a typical pressure technique.

I also had just finished providing assessments concerning the Navco database of nonviolent challenges to governments. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carried out a path-breaking study comparing nonviolent and violent challenges to repressive regimes (as well as secession and anti-occupation struggles). They compiled a database of 323 struggles between 1900 and 2006. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, they showed that anti-regime struggles were far more likely to be successful if they relied primarily on nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes and boycotts. Furthermore, this conclusion held up regardless of how repressive the regime was: nonviolent action is just as effective against the most ruthless governments.

Erica is now updating and augmenting the database. She sent me and various others a list of over 100 additional nonviolent anti-regime struggles, some in the years since 2006 and some from earlier years that were not included in the original database. There were cases from Algeria and Armenia through to Western Sahara and Yemen.

MST-protest
Landless Workers’ Movement, Brazil, 2005

I had to try to judge whether each struggle was maximalist (seeking to change the government), constituted a campaign, was nonviolent (rather than violent), was successful or unsuccessful, and warranted being in the database. This was a challenging exercise, because quite a few of the cases did not fit neatly into the target categories and because online information was less than ideal. The exercise certainly made me aware of the remarkable capacity of citizens to organise for major political change, using an eye-opening variety of techniques with amazing courage against brutal governments. And in many of the cases, these brutal governments lost the struggle.

Jasper’s book

Jasper-protest
Protest
covers a standard set of topics: defining social movements, the role of meanings in their operation and presence, the wider social context, recruitment, maintaining operations and momentum, making decisions, interactions with other players, and winning/losing. Jasper’s cultural approach has a couple distinctive features. He emphasises the roles of meanings for participants, such as how they see themselves; these meanings draw on beliefs and images in the surrounding culture. Associated with this, he emphasises the role of emotions in social movement dynamics, an area in which he is a pioneering researcher.

JamesMJasper
James M Jasper

            Jasper also brings to his treatment his special interest in dilemmas: choices that movement activists need to make that involve difficult trade-offs. An example is the organisation dilemma:

Protesters face many choices about how much to formalize their operations through rules, fundraising, paid staff, and offices. Formalities like these help sustain activities over time, but they can also change those activities. The goal of sustaining and protecting the organization appears alongside its original mission, and more time is devoted to raising funds and expanding staffs. In some cases, the survival of the organization becomes the primary goal. Members may then grow cynical about staff salaries, the paid trips leaders take on official business, large and lavish offices. Laws governing the operation of officially incorporated organizations – especially their tax-exempt status – constrain their tactical choices. Organizations are like other strategic means: they always have the potential to become ends in themselves … (p. 82)

One thing that comes across strongly in the book is that activism isn’t all that easy. Movements don’t start or continue by accident: lots of committed people work to bring an issue to public attention, pressure governments or directly implement solutions.

Of special interest are social movement organisations (SMOs). Some well-known examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and there are thousands of others. SMOs are not the same as social movements, which typically incorporate multiple SMOs, independent activists and supporters, and occasional participants. Movements are also more than people and organisations. They involve knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, symbols and many other intangibles.

Occasionally I read a letter to the editor saying, “Where are the protests about X?” where X might be street violence, discrimination or aggression in a foreign country. The letter writers are often decrying what they see as double standards: if environmentalists are protesting about whaling, why aren’t they protesting about land degradation? I assume few of these letter-writers have ever tried to organise a rally. If they had, they would realise how much effort it requires – especially the effort to convince people to attend – and even then a rally does not automatically translate into media coverage.

People who have been involved in social movements often have a deep understanding of how they operate and what they are up against. So what is there for them to learn from Jasper’s book? The advantage of a straightforward, well-written text is putting personal experiences in context. After all, there are hundreds of different social movements, with quite a few commonalities but also a number of differences.

Personally, I found it useful to go through Protest as a refresher about the basics, and an update concerning theoretical developments that might offer insight into movements.

Nonviolent action

On only one point would I differ significantly in emphasis. Jasper distinguishes between two categories of protest methods, calling them “nice” and “naughty.” Nice protest methods operate within the system and accepted by authorities, for example lobbying, voting and petitions. Naughty methods include wildcat strikes, massive rallies and assaulting police: they transgress norms about normal or proper political behaviour, and are seen as threatening.

iww_wildcat_strike
What this distinction misses is the expanding body of research on nonviolent action, which refers to non-standard methods of social action that do not involve physical violence against opponents. (Nonviolent protesters often suffer violence from police and others.) Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, strikes, boycotts, fasts, sit-ins and setting up alternative political institutions, among others. The dynamics of nonviolent action have been studied in some depth, and diverge in significant ways from the dynamics of violence. For example, police violence against peaceful protesters is likely to generate public outrage, whereas police violence against violent protests is not – even if the police violence is much greater. The choice is not just between naughty and nice but also between violence and nonviolent action.

Conclusion

In the late 1970s, I was active in the Australian anti-uranium movement, and after a number of years started reading social analyses of the movement, and was most disappointed: there was nothing I felt I didn’t already know. This convinced me that there’s nothing quite like being in a movement to understand movement dynamics. However, that was a long time ago, and research into social movements was far less developed than it is today, and I don’t recollect any overview with many insights such as Protest.

Social movements are central to many of the advances that we take for granted today, including overcoming slavery, preventing nuclear war, and challenging racial discrimination and the subjugation of women. I recommend Jasper’s Protest both for movement participants to get a broader view of what they are part of and for outsiders who want a sense of what really goes on in movements.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Military research dilemmas

Should peace activists care about corruption and exploitation in military research?

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In May 2015, a new law will take effect in Australia concerning military-related research and development. The law has many critics, including leaders of Australian universities. Among the law’s opponents is Brendan Jones, a high-tech entrepreneur. In a strongly argued article in the December issue of  Australasian Science, he lays out the case against the new law. The article begins:

From 17 May 2015, when the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) comes into effect, the federal Department of Defence will gain control over a very large share of high-tech and science research in Australia. Under the Act, publication, discussion or communication of research without a Defence permit will be punishable by up to 10 years jail, a $425,000 fine and forfeiture of research to the government. This includes scientists, academics, librarians, engineers, high-tech workers and companies that have never had a prior relationship with the Department of Defence.

Jones has been passionate in raising the alarm about the DTCA. He claims his business was the victim of depredations by the Australian Department of Defence, which took over his intellectual property without any compensation, causing his business to fail. If it had just been him, he might not have tried to expose it, but after he found out about several other similar cases, he decided he had to act.

It appears the Defence Department has its own favoured business partners. The department seeks out promising research and uses the ideas for its own purposes, without permission or compensation. The DTCA will legalise this sort of extractive process, backing it with punitive penalties for resistance.

Jones quotes several organisations and high-tech entrepreneurs who are critical of the DTCA. And not just critical — some of the entrepreneurs are planning to leave Australia. Jones is one of them, but not without a fight.

For months, Jones has been writing the most amazingly comprehensive treatments of the problems facing whistleblowers in Australia, typically in the form of open letters to politicians. It’s because of his interest in whistleblowing that I have been in touch with him. I’ve commented on drafts of several of his open letters, and posted a couple of them on my website.

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Jones wrote a highly informative treatment of how whistleblowers should interact with journalists. In preparing his article, he contacted numerous journalists for feedback and advice. His article, “A whistleblower’s guide to journalists,” is the best available treatment on this topic. One of his recommendations for whistleblowers is to always remain anonymous if possible.

Several of Jones’ open letters are impressive pieces of research, with dozens or even hundreds of footnotes with references, quotes and examples. If you want a compendium of serious cases of corruption in Australia, Jones’ “Royal petition concerning federal government corruption” is the best available. Likewise, for a powerful indictment of the state of free speech in Australia, it is hard to go past his “Debunking Dreyfus on free speech and freedom.

Corruption in the military

Military expenditures are huge and highly subject to corruption. In many countries, the government runs a monopoly. In others, notably the US, the government buys from favoured suppliers. Because of secrecy and the pretext of national security, shonky operations prosper. In the US, where the processes are best documented, there is a revolving door for top-level military personnel, who join companies and lobby to obtain lucrative contracts.

One of the most famous early whistleblowers in the US was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who in the 1980s exposed a $2 billion cost overrun in a military aircraft project. Taking inflation into account, this would be more like $20 billion in today’s dollars. For his efforts, Fitzgerald was subject to the usual methods of discrediting, harassment and sidelining. He wrote two books exposing corruption in US military contracting: The High Priests of Waste and The Pentagonists.

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Over the years I’ve talked with quite a few military whistleblowers. They seldom have an easy time. Corruption is as common in the military as in any other part of society, perhaps more common; speaking out about it is quite a bit riskier, because reprisals can be severe, and sometimes whistleblowers are physically attacked. Few areas pose this level of danger to whistleblowers.

There’s a fascinating connection between military corruption and whistleblower laws. During the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was disgusted by companies cheating the government when providing military supplies, because their shoddy goods were undermining the war effort.

Lincoln-memorial

The government passed the False Claims Act, allowing whistleblowers who exposed companies defrauding the government to take legal action on behalf of the government, sometimes with the backing of the Department of Justice. The act provides financial rewards to these whistleblowers when prosecutions of corrupt companies are successful. The False Claims Act was revived in 1986 in response to corruption during a massive expansion in military expenditures, and is now widely seen as one of the most powerful pieces of whistleblower legislation. In Australia, the government has long resisted introduction of a similar law.

A dilemma for peace activists?

I’ve been involved with peace issues since the 1970s, and occasionally pondered the question of military corruption and waste. Should a peace activist care? Perhaps military waste is better than military efficiency!

In 1982, Mary Kaldor, a prominent figure in the European peace movement, authored a book entitled The Baroque Arsenal. She argued that military technology was becoming ever more gigantic in scale, high-cost and elaborate, rather like baroque churches that took decades to build. The result was that many weapons systems were becoming almost irrelevant for actual war-fighting: they were not rational from the point of view of military efficiency.

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After I read Kaldor’s book, not long after it was published, I wrote in my notes about it, “But all this has little direct relevance to how to move against war. It seems more useful for those military and civilian planners who would like to truly modernise their armaments towards new industries and simplicity.”

Another thought: perhaps it is better for money to be wasted on inefficient, pointless technological monstrosities, especially if they don’t work. Billions of dollars spent on fighters or bombers that were never deployed might be better than less money spent on lean, efficient tools for killing.

On the other hand, when a military force has more than enough firepower for its purposes, additional expenditures may be pure waste and a drag on society. Furthermore, military corruption and waste may lead to lobbying for more funding: beneficiaries of boondoggles will seek to find ways to continue and increase their income streams. And even if some projects for new fighters or submarines are dropped after the expenditure of billions of dollars, this doesn’t mean other weapons disappear. Whatever the level of waste, rifles keep being produced.

Recently I read Paul Koistinen’s book State of War. His analysis of US military systems supports Kaldor’s analysis. Koistinen writes:

As a form of state capitalism, the defense sector was freed from practically all competitive market pressures. Under those circumstances, the industry became characterized by inefficiency, waste, and corruption; defense contractors too often turned out defective or failed weapons and equipment. Over time, massive expenditures for defense have had a very deleterious effect on the economy. These outlays have led to the hoarding of capital and human resources, especially among scientists and engineers, and to the diverting of public assistance from civilian enterprises. Of crucial significance, according to numerous critics, DOD [Department of Defense] budgets have distorted public priorities and spending, denying adequate attention and resources to infrastructure, education, medical care, and other public services and interests. (p. 235)

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Activists have long stated that military spending would be more beneficial if redirected to human needs. However, making the military more efficient does not guarantee that savings will be redeployed for clean water, housing, education or health. Military efficiency might simply mean more money is available for weapons systems.

The DTCA brought back memories of these issues. The DTCA can be thought of as a straitjacket for Australian military-related research. Arguably, it will hinder research and development, with the additional side effect of undermining related civilian research, especially concerning so-called dual-use technologies, which can be adapted for military or civilian purposes.

Another possibility is that military systems that are fair and honest might be more open to switching to nonmilitary production. For decades, there has been a small but dedicated push for what is called “economic conversion” or “peace conversion,” which means switching from military production to production for civilian needs, for example from military vehicles to public transport. After the end of the cold war in 1989, there were great hopes that much such conversion would take place, as it did after the end of World Wars I and II. But these hopes were dashed: the military-industrial complex continued pretty much as before while searching for a new rationale. (Terrorism turned out to be the prime justification.)

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It does seem plausible that military research and development that is riddled with corrupt and exploitative practices will be resistant to change, because corrupt operators are less subject to rational argument and planning. On the other hand, corrupt systems are less likely to lead to efficient killing machines. Perhaps the world is a safer place if nuclear weapons contractors cut corners in manufacturing, design and maintenance, so that weapons, if ever used, miss their targets or simply won’t work. In this scenario, the baroque arsenal that Mary Kaldor warned about is not such a bad thing: incredibly wasteful but less deadly than it might otherwise be.

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An alternative research agenda

There is an alternative to military defence based on civilian methods of nonviolent action such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and occupations. Many people, because they believe violence always triumphs over nonviolence, see this as totally implausible, but there is good evidence that nonviolent methods can be more effective than armed struggle in challenging repressive regimes, because the goal is to win over the opponent, including the opponent’s troops.

The arguments about nonviolent defence – also called civilian-based defence, social defence and defence by civil resistance – have been canvassed elsewhere. Their relevance here is that if this alternative is taken seriously, it leads to an entirely different agenda for research, development and infrastructure. For example, decentralised renewable energy systems are much more suited for surviving an occupation, a blockade or a terrorist attack than centralised energy systems based on fossil fuels or nuclear power. Analogous considerations apply to communications, transport, agriculture and construction. A nonviolence-driven research agenda would give far more attention to social sciences and would change priorities in nearly every field of study.

From this point of view, the DTCA and problems of corruption in the military seem almost irrelevant. Research continues to be driven by military priorities, whether done efficiently or not.

Back to practicalities

A reorientation of military expenditures towards nonviolent alternatives is almost completely off the agenda. It proceeds only to the extent that developments, for example in energy and communications, increase the capacity of citizens to take action. As seen in the Arab spring and other nonviolent movements, network communication systems help citizens organise and coordinate actions.

For now, I will continue to support two seemingly disparate agendas: one is nonviolent defence and the other is dissent, including those who challenge the DTCA and other such legislation.

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Image: Igor Saktor, The Australian

I’ve talked to a number of people in the military about nonviolent defence. Although most are sceptical about whether it could work, they recognise a common interest in thinking strategically about defending against aggression. Indeed, many officers would prefer to never have to fire a weapon in anger, seeing deterrence and prevention as superior to fighting.

In the same way, there can be a worthwhile dialogue and sharing of concerns when it comes to supporting integrity and free speech in the military. I will continue to support military whistleblowers and hope others will too.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

I thank Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jørgen Johansen, Brendan Jones, Anne Melano, Brian Rappert and Kim Sawyer for valuable comments on drafts.

Jørgen Johansen comments

There are several discussions running in parallel here: one about the waste in military spending, one on the corruption in the military-industrial complex, one on defending a country without violent means, and one on the morality of having an inefficient military system compared to an efficient one. Even if they are related I think these should be held separate. One reason is that addressing topics separately makes it easier to understand, analyse, and act.

More importantly, for anyone who wants to oppose military/violent/corrupt systems, it is strategically important to confront them one at a time. To lump them together makes it almost impossible to “sell the arguments” and/or build alliances with those who are engaged in only one of these topics.

Too many activists are trapped in a fundamentalist attitude; “If you don’t agree with us on veganism, feminism, pacifism, sustainable energy, bi- and trans-sexuality, … we cannot have you in our group.” Almost all successful movements have focused on more limited questions, such as universal voting rights, anti-slavery, civil rights (anti-segregation), anti-personnel mines and anti-whaling.

If you don’t plan to write a huge book, there is no way you can properly describe all the complexities of the issues you mention in a single blog. This is of course not an argument against your topic for the blog, but advice for those who want to take up any of the issues you present and to run a campaign.

A final thought: it should not be on the peace movement’s agenda to discuss what sort of military means we want to see. Leave that to others.

Learning from dictators

Dictators are becoming more sophisticated, according to William Dobson. Studying techniques used by repressive rulers can give insights for challenging injustice in any country.

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The usual idea of a dictatorship is a ruler at the top who uses centralised control, surveillance and violence to smash any challenges. But sometimes heavy-handed measures can provoke internal opposition and trigger concerns by foreign governments and international organisations. So rulers are becoming more sophisticated, learning from their experiences, from their opponents and from what happens to other dictators.

One of the dictators to lose the struggle was Slobodan Milošević, who ruled in Serbia through the 1990s. The opposition movement Otpor used a variety of tactics to drum up support, including many humorous stunts, and pushed opposition parties to produce a united ticket. Milošević called an early election in 2000 and tried to steal it through vote-rigging, but a country-wide convergence on Belgrade caused Milošević’s supporters to give way. Otpor activists went on to provide advice to opposition movements in numerous other countries.

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Slobodan Milošević

To avoid a similar fate, rulers are learning to be more creative and flexible. They can allow a bit of dissent to give the appearance of free speech. They can set up regime-friendly citizens’ groups. They can harass opponents using low-key, procedural methods, such as fire and safety inspections. They can keep the population happy by not interfering with personal activities, maintaining economic growth and responding to citizen complaints.

This is the message from William J. Dobson in his important book The Dictator’s Learning Curve  (Anchor, 2013). Dobson, an experienced US journalist and editor, spent two years travelling the globe to study repressive regimes, interviewing government leaders, bureaucrats, opposition politicians and activists. He concentrated on five countries: Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela and Malaysia. From this study of struggles over freedom, he offers numerous fascinating personal profiles, accounts of campaigns, and explanations of tactics.

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The Dictator’s Learning Curve is one of the most readable accounts available of the uses of nonviolent action to challenge regimes and of the methods used by regimes to counter it. Dobson did not investigate armed resistance to governments such as in the Philippines or Syria. Instead, he highlights the insights used by campaigners using leaflets, vigils, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods of nonviolent action.

Dobson writes as a journalist and in this book shows the advantages of avoiding an academic style. He offers many more insights than a typical academic text, but without the sort of scholarly apparatus and pretensions that can be so off-putting to people outside academia.

Dictator techniques

One favourite technique of sophisticated rulers is to set up procedures and organisations that give the appearance of openness and fair play without the substance. For example, Putin in Russia set up the Public Chamber to give the appearance of allowing criticism of the government, but critics are not allowed to speak directly to the people. Dobson quotes Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch as saying that government officials “want independent information, but they want to use it for their own purposes” (p. 24).

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Tanya Lokshina

In the old Soviet Union, there were sham elections, with Communist Party candidates typically receiving 99% of the vote. The trouble is that 99% is not credible to anyone. Cagey rulers instead run elections in which they win by a respectable percentage, but not more. Ideally, they would like to win without stuffing ballots, and sometimes this is possible. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez won one election after another, thereby gaining great legitimacy. Dobson recounts how Chávez controlled most of the television stations and was on air for hours every week. He also hampered opposition candidates by banning them from running, imprisoning some of them, creating an elaborate gerrymander, and maintaining a constant state of alarm about dangers from the US government. Chávez was wily enough to gain popular support by rigging the system in a way that wasn’t too blatant. He stacked the electoral office with loyalists, and the electoral office set up the gerrymander that ensured that Chávez’s party could win even with a minority of the vote.

Another important technique is to allow greater freedom but only in areas that do not threaten rule at the top. Chinese leaders are expert at this. Chinese people have greater freedoms than before, including to change their residence, to travel to other countries, to select careers, to obtain information and to live their private lives as they choose. What they don’t have is political freedom.

Chinese rulers have instituted a raft of reforms, including local elections, limits on terms of office, public hearings and involvement of citizens in decisions about local budgets. At the upper reaches of the party, most corruption has been rooted out. On the other hand, Chinese rulers are willing to use force if needed, which turns out to be fairly often, because there is a lot of lower-level corruption and citizen discontent about it. The government now spends more on internal security than for external defence.

Regimes have learned not to use heavy-handed techniques against the general population, but instead to concentrate on opposition leaders, who are imprisoned, “harassed, beaten, and denied their livelihoods. Their names and reputations have been destroyed, their families torn apart” (p. 121). The dual aim is to discourage these opponents and cut them off from the people.

Citizen responses

Just as rulers are learning from experience and observation how to counter challenges from their subjects, so citizens are developing insights and skills in response. The result is an ongoing strategic encounter. No single technique can remain successful for long, because the opponent learns about it and how to counter it. This generalisation applies to both regimes and their opponents.

In Venezuela, Dobson reports that there was a consensus on how to oppose Chávez and his machine: be connected to the people, offer alternatives (not just criticism), and be united.

When regimes offer new processes to give the appearance of justice and openness, critics may be able to use these processes as levers for making a challenge. In particular, when authoritarians seek legitimacy through the law, they can also be exposed through the law. Ayman Nour, an Egyptian notary public, became so effective that the regime took strong action against him, for example banning him from law practice and imprisoning him.

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Ayman Nour

Many regime opponents have had to learn the hard way, through trial and error. There is now another source of insight: information about nonviolent struggle, obtained through the Internet or in workshops organised by the US-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and by CANVAS – Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies – set up in 2005 by former Otpor activists. Dobson provides an illuminating treatment of the global circulation of ideas about nonviolent conflict, interviewing key figures such as premier thinker Gene Sharp and Otpor veteran Srdja Popovic, and attending a CANVAS workshop.

Dobson notes that in some countries, such as Egypt under Mubarak, the official opposition had become tired and predictable, and thus was no threat to the regime. In nonviolent campaigns, built on a carefully constructed strategy taking into account strengths and weaknesses of the regime and the opposition, there is a premium on tactical innovation. Activists cannot rely on repeating the same old methods, but need to keep using new techniques and bringing new sectors of the population into the struggle. One of the key reasons for tactical innovation is that rulers learn from experience, just as activists do. This is one of Dobson’s key themes.

Lessons for elsewhere

Dobson restricts his attention to just a few countries with authoritarian governments, though he is careful to note the differences between them and not lump them together. Indeed, he notes that the techniques used by Chávez in Venezuela, as a populist authoritarian leader, are quite different than those used by, for example, Chinese rulers, who he labels technocrats.

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Hugo Chávez

What Dobson does not do is spell out implications for countries that are ostensibly free. If elections are fair and no one is being whisked away to prison without trial, then it might seem there is little in common with authoritarian regimes. Actually, though, what Dobson has to say is quite pertinent in nearly every country. Governments in so-called free countries try to stigmatise opponents, use sophisticated media strategies, change the rules to centralise power, harass opponents, and set up formal processes that provide the appearance of fairness without the substance.

The rulers in China are eager learners, studying the operations of representative governments for ideas on how to dampen dissent. Campaigners need to be eager learners too, learning from each other and about the various ways that governments discourage dissent and pacify populations. A good place to start is with The Dictator’s Learning Curve.

Postscript

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has pointed out a number of errors in Dobson’s book, in relation to the ICNC itself. This suggests there is a need for others to follow in Dobson’s footsteps and verify, correct or extend his assessments.