Category Archives: tactics

Assassination, Inc.


The US government uses drones to murder its opponents. Drones are an ideal tool to minimise public outrage from military operations.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, there is an ever-present danger of death from missiles in the sky. US military drones fly high over these countries, controlled from bunkers thousands of kilometres away. Some drones are for surveillance; some are for killing.

A new book, The Assassination Complex, documents the US drone warfare programme. A great deal of information about this programme became available via a major leak, and this has been supplemented by comments from former employees. Much of the information was published by The Intercept, an online magazine set up in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government surveillance. For those who like hard copy, The Assassination Complex provides a convenient package of material. The authors include Jeremy Scahill, author of books about the shady side of US military operations, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who initially reported on Snowden’s material, and several staff members for The Intercept.


The drone warfare programme operates like this. Data is collected about possible targets: men considered dangerous enemies. Some information is gathered on the ground, but most is from electronic surveillance, for example metadata about phone calls. When a key figure is identified, drones track them continuously, often via sim cards in mobile phones. Authorisation for attack is obtained through a chain of command in the US, after which the CIA or military has 60 days to act. When a suitable occasion presents itself, attack drones launch missiles against the target.

Regular drone killings began after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush and then greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Thousands of people have been killed by strikes.


Double standards

From the point of view of those behind the programme, it is an effective way of eliminating terrorists with minimal risk to US personnel. Proponents believe the drone attacks are surgical, namely highly selective, with only enemies killed. The authorisation protocol, combined with US laws, provides justification for the programme.

Critics offer a completely different picture. According to information in The Assassination Complex, the strikes are not nearly as surgical as claimed: as well as the target, many others are killed: non-combatants including women and children. Furthermore, potential targets are becoming sophisticated in evading attacks, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Knowing that their sim cards are used to track them, groups can mix up the cards. Someone may be killed, but not necessarily the primary target.

The drone strikes do not provide targets with an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Killing is carried out on the basis of suspicion. No charges are laid, no trial is held and no judge or jury is allowed to see the evidence against those killed.

Finally, when strikes kill non-combatants, as so often occurs, this alienates the population, generating greater opposition. Drone killings radicalise a fraction of the population; rather than repressing the insurgency, they add fuel to resistance. In this way, drone killings perpetuate the very thing they are supposed to stop. They are part of a cycle of mutual provocation that fosters perpetual war.


Imagine that a small group in one of the target countries, let’s say Pakistan, manages to obtain its own fleet of drones, or perhaps commandeers US drones through a sophisticated hacking operation. The group designates portions of US territory as a warzone and commences a surveillance and attack operation targeting leading US politicians and military figures, especially those who run the US drone programme. The operation is successful: strikes kill several US leaders, with some collateral damage (family members). Imagine the outrage in the US. “Murderous thugs! This is an outrage. This means war. We must strike back. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.”

Yet this scenario is an exact parallel of the US drone programme, except with the perpetrators and targets reversed. This example shows the incredible arrogance underlying the US programme, an assumption that “we” are righteous and can take action to kill “them” who are a dangerous threat (as judged by “us”). A reversal of “we” and “them” is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, the implicit double standard is invisible to US perpetrators.

Outrage management

Think of an injustice in which the perpetrator is more powerful than the target, for example torture, massacre of peaceful protesters, or genocide. Such injustices have the potential to generate outrage among those who witness or learn about it. Therefore, perpetrators regularly use five sorts of techniques to reduce public outrage: cover-up of the action, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the events (by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others or reframing), official channels that give an appearance of justice, and intimidation of people involved. Each of these techniques is readily apparent in the US drone programme.


Cover-up is a key feature of drone killings. The programme operates largely in secret, and little would be known about it except for leaks and exposes such as The Assassination Complex. Of course survivors of strikes know about them, as do family members, but the US population is left in the dark. Video footage of strikes is kept secret, as indeed are the names of most of the victims. The US government does everything possible to keep the programme secret. Indeed, the choice to use drones for military purposes may reflect the relative ease by which the human costs are hidden.

Devaluation is a powerful technique for reducing outrage: when victims are lower in status, there is less concern about what is done to them. The targets of drone strikes are labelled terrorists and portrayed as serious threats.

Reinterpretation means explaining what happens in a way that reduces outrage. It can involve several methods, including lying, minimising consequences, blaming others, and reframing. According to White House guidelines released in 2003, drone strikes are only undertaken when there is “near certainty” that the target is present and “near certainty” that no one else, namely non-combatants, will be injured or killed. However, the part about non-combatants is not applied in practice: strikes are regularly carried out without satisfying this criterion, which means the guidelines are a public lie.

The harmful consequences of drone strikes are routinely minimised. Anyone killed in addition to the target is labelled an “enemy killed in action.” This includes women and children. In this way civilian injuries and deaths are reframed, namely looked at from a different perspective. Another aspect of reframing is the designation of target areas as “warzones.” However, setting aside that the US Congress never declared war, this is a unilaterally declared war, with the so-called warzones being designated by the US government.

Official channels include courts, expert committees, grievance committees and any other agency or process that ostensibly provides fairness and justice. The problem is that when powerful groups like the government commit crimes, official channels may give only an illusion of justice. In the case of the US drone programme, the closest thing to an official channel is the policy guidelines released in 2003, already mentioned. These give the illusion of justice – only terrorists are supposed to be targeted – when in practice many civilians are killed.

Intimidation is the use of threats, reprisals and attacks to deter people from expressing outrage. Drone strikes themselves are a potent tool of intimidation. Indeed, they are a form of terrorism, terrorism by the US government. As well, whistleblowers and journalists are subject to intimidation. Those working in the US national security system who speak out about abuses are potentially subject to dismissal and prosecution, and some go to prison.


Although the drone programme is in many ways an ideal way to run a killing operation while minimizing the possibility of domestic protest, nevertheless there has been opposition. Each of the five techniques for reducing outrage can be countered.

Exposure of the programme is the counter to cover-up, and is crucial. This has been achieved through the combined efforts of insiders who speak out or leak information, investigative journalists who collect and analyse features of the programme, and editors who publish exposes. The Assassination Complex is a significant outcome of these efforts.


Validation of targets is the counter to devaluation. Validation can occur by showing that many targets are innocent victims and by giving them names, faces and life histories. When targets are seen as real people rather than nameless “terrorists,” assassination seems less justified. The following quote illustrates devaluation and lying by the US government, and validation of the target by providing his name and some personal details.

The third – and most controversial – killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was in fact twenty-one. After the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.” (p. 47)

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Interpretation of the events as an injustice is the counter to the reinterpretation. Lies and minimising of consequences can be challenged with facts; reframing can be challenged by the frame of injustice. The labels “assassination,” “murder” and “killing” starkly articulate the realities of drone warfare.

Mobilisation of support is the counter to official channels. So far, there has been relatively little popular protest in the US against drone killings. Protest is the most potent challenge to the drone programme.


Finally, resistance is the counter to intimidation. Everyone involved in producing the Assassination Complex and related outputs has to stand up to the possibility of coming under surveillance, being put on watchlists and jeopardising their jobs.

On an optimistic note, the escalation of drone warfare by the US government might be considered a sign that it is more difficult today to muster support for open warfare, hence the need for killing to be covert. The drone programme has an added bonus for the military-security establishment: fostering the very problem it is supposed to solve, namely radicalisation of populations (though of course this is not how establishment figures think about the programme). How to undermine the drone programme and foster alternatives such as nonviolent action remains a major challenge.

Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Programme (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2016)

Brian Martin

Politics and morals


Jonathan Haidt has analysed the moral foundations of people’s political orientations. To fully explain people’s political allegiances, attention also needs to be given to the ‘tactics of assignment’. Proponents of deliberative democracy can learn from studying moral foundations.


Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has investigated the foundations of people’s morality. In his engaging and pathbreaking book The Righteous Mind, he draws on a wide range of evidence to argue that morality has six main foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Previously I commented on how this framework applies to whistleblowing.


            The ‘care’ foundation means caring for others, an extension of the instinct to care for children, necessary in human evolution for the survival of groups. Care in a contemporary political context means concern for those who need assistance, such as people who are poor, disabled or abused. This care foundation inspires support for government welfare services such as unemployment payments.

Haidt applies his framework to US citizens, with a surprising conclusion. He finds that libertarians rely especially on single foundation, liberty, which means opposition to domination. Libertarians oppose government controls, and taken to extremes this leads to surprising conclusions: they may oppose drug laws, environmental regulations and even taxation. A principled libertarian trusts in individuals and markets to solve social problems.

Liberals in the US – which might be called progressives or leftists elsewhere – draw heavily on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, with care as their foremost value.

Finally there are US conservatives. The more a person follows a conservative line, in Haidt’s assessment, the more likely they are to rely on all six moral foundations in roughly equal measure. Conservatives are influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity more than are libertarians and liberals.

One measure of where you stand on the liberal-conservative continuum is openness to new experiences. If you are stimulated by new foods, new ideas and people from different cultures, you are likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Haidt notes that within universities, liberals greatly outnumber conservatives.


One important consequence of differences in moral foundations is that people do not fully understand what drives others. Unless you realise that libertarians prioritise liberty in their assessments of right and wrong, it can be hard to figure out how they come to their judgements.

Haidt has a message for liberals: conservatives have an advantage in political engagements. Conservatives, drawing more equally on all six moral foundations, can understand where others are coming from. However, liberals, emphasising just three foundations, cannot as easily understand the passions of conservatives, because for liberals the roles of authority, loyalty and sanctity are less salient.

A conservative, for example, may react viscerally to the act of defacing the American flag. This is a violation of a sense of sacredness that underpins emotional responses and consequently shapes viewpoints. A liberal might think, ‘it’s just a piece of cloth, so what’s the big deal?’ The liberal simply does not rate stamping on a flag (a violation of sanctity) as anywhere comparable to stamping on a person’s body (a violation of care).


Haidt says there is something to learn from conservatives, for example the value of traditions. More generally, he argues that politics needs to be based on mutual understanding. In particular, liberals need to better understand what drives conservatives so that each of them can move beyond pointless arguments that are based on deeply felt, but sometimes unrecognised, emotional responses.

The rider and the elephant

Haidt, like other psychologists, finds it useful to think of the mind as composed of two components. One is intuitive, fast and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the elephant. The other component, which is reflective, slow and strategic, Haidt calls it the rider.

Elephant and Rider

            The intuitive side of the mind is very useful for day-to-day life, making quick evaluations that enable survival. If you see an object rapidly coming towards your head, it is better to duck immediately rather than first try to calculate its trajectory. The rational part of the mind carefully considers evidence and options and is more suited for evaluation and long-term planning.

Haidt uses the labels elephant and rider because, according to the evidence, much thinking operates by the elephant making a quick judgement and the rider working out a way to justify it. There are some ingenious psychological experiments showing how the power of rationality is used to justify gut reactions, sometimes involving elaborate intellectual contortions. Those whose rational powers are more developed may actually be better at developing rationalisations for pre-made judgements. The rider usually follows the elephant’s preferences.

Applied to politics, this means that a lot of political argument is just a sideshow, because evidence and arguments are mainly used to justify positions based on intuitive judgements, themselves related to the six foundations of morality. The metaphor of the elephant and rider helps to explain why so few people change their minds when exposed to new evidence. More commonly, they ignore or dismiss the evidence, or find ways to undermine it. This is a feature of the phenomenon called confirmation bias, in which people look for evidence to support their current views and ignore, dismiss or criticise contrary evidence.


Assigning moralities

A question Haidt does not systematically address, though he is aware of it, is why moralities are assigned in particular ways and not others. For example, in relation to sanctity, why should someone care more about desecration of the US flag than, for example, the California flag or the UN flag? In terms of the fairness foundation, why should someone get more upset about welfare cheats than about inherited wealth?

There are big differences between the US and Europe in how some moralities are assigned. For example, in the US, people who have never been employed may not qualify for unemployment payments. In many European countries, universal unemployment insurance is taken for granted, and is far more generous. Does this mean that in the US, the fairness foundation is more important than the care foundation? Probably not: a better explanation is that US citizens have been conditioned to think about welfare in a different way than Europeans.

This is apparent in the US debate about ‘socialised medicine,’ which means universal health insurance. Many in the US see this as a dangerous idea, presumably appealing to the foundation of liberty, namely resistance to government domination. In Europe, universal health insurance is seen as normal, and appeals to the foundations of care and fairness.


            Another example is transport. It is well known that US transit systems — trains and buses primarily — are limited in service, low in quality and expensive compared to many European systems. In the US, the car reigns supreme, a symbol of independence and freedom, appealing to the liberty foundation. But what about roads? The US interstate highway system, built in the 1950s onwards, was the largest public works program in the world. Yet no one in the US talks about ‘socialised roads’ or even castigates trains and buses as ‘socialised transport’. Admittedly, some libertarians would like to privatise the road system, but they are a tiny minority.


            To explain the peculiarities of how moralities are assigned in different ways, Haidt refers to moral entrepreneurs, public relations people and political operatives. A moral entrepreneur is someone who tries to stir up passions about a topic. Anti-abortionists, animal liberationists and sellers of deodorants all are trying to persuade others to think and act a certain way, and doing it by linking their special concerns to moral foundations. Anti-abortionists and animal liberationists each appeal to the care foundation, but with very different objects of concern, while deodorant advertisers appeal to the sanctity foundation, trying to induce people to buy deodorants to prevent or disguise allegedly disgusting body odour.

Loyalty to what?

Moral entrepreneurs are active in all things political. Patriotism is a prime example, linked to the loyalty foundation. Early humans lived in small groups, comprising dozens to a few hundred individuals. Maintaining loyalty to this group often made the difference between life and death for group members, so in evolutionary terms it makes sense that human minds are primed for loyalty. As Haidt expresses it, loyalty is an aspect of the first draft of the mind.

But loyalty to what? Why should a mental preference for loyalty to small human groups be assigned to a country, sometimes with millions of people, in what we call patriotism or national pride? Why not loyalty to one’s nearest one hundred neighbours? Or why not loyalty to the entire human species? Or maybe loyalty to life more generally, in a type of pantheism?

The answer is that identification with one’s own country is cultivated in all sorts of ways, many of them so obvious as to be unnoticed. In school, children are taught about their country’s history, often in biased ways. Students in Australia learn much more about Australia — usually good things, sometimes bad things — than about Brazil or Ethiopia. Then there is the media, reporting national news as a priority. In sports coverage, it might be reported, ‘Australia took a lead over India’. Yes, it’s cricket, and nothing really significant perhaps, but it reinforces thinking about the world in terms of countries.



Winston Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried’ is often quoted. The system of government commonly called ‘democracy’ has taken on a type of god-like status. Indeed, it appeals to the sanctity foundation in many people who follow politics.

The media provide a steady diet of news about government policies, government crises, politicians and elections. It might be said that politics is one of the world’s leading spectator sports. Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Politics is indeed a spectator sport in an important sense: most people are spectators, not participants. Aside from occasionally voting and talking to others about politics, most people have no greater involvement. In terms of participation, electoral politics is quite low. Just as it is misleading to refer to a ‘sporting nation’ when many unfit citizens interact with sports only as spectators, it is also misleading to refer to ‘democracy’ when most citizens are passive spectators of rule by politicians, not to mention unelected lobby groups who serve the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

For these reasons, my co-author Lyn Carson and I prefer the expression ‘representative government’ over ‘democracy’. Historically, there have been quite a number of political systems with much greater direct participation in decision making, for example in ancient Athens.

For those who support greater participation, for example through referenda, town meetings, consultative forums, community representatives on planning bodies, and randomly selected policy-advising bodies, the challenge is how to move from representative government to participatory democracy. In Haidt’s terms, current attachments of fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity are to the system of voting and elections — representative government — and not to more participatory processes.

This is not an easy task, to say the least. Representative government is taught to school children, is taken for granted in media coverage, is touted as the solution to autocracy, and is regularly legitimated through voting and elections, in which voters give their implicit consent to the system of rule.


The occupy movement challenged the system by pointing out the complicity of governments and corporations in serving the wealthy at the expense of the majority – the 99%. Representative government in many countries has become a tool of powerful groups and serves their interests regardless of which party is in power. The occupy movement had a presence on the streets of many cities around the world, but in the US was subject to police harassment. Challenging the system in a direct, open way can be a risky business.

Attaching to participatory politics

Many people have developed strong beliefs in the superiority of representative government and the impossibility of participatory democracy. Their moralities have become assigned to one particular moral matrix, namely a configuration of moral assessments. Voting is seen to be fair, and so is the election of rulers, even though having money and connections is crucially important to electoral success. Few people think it is unfair that most people have no hope of being elected to office.

On the other hand, some moral assignments are more compatible with participatory processes. For example, in countries where juries for trials are selected randomly, this is seen as fair — as a way of selecting an unbiased cross-section of the population to hear evidence from two sides and to make a considered judgement. That trial juries are seen as fair shows that the fairness foundation might be assigned in a different way in politics. Randomly selected groups of citizens might be brought together, provided with information about a controversial issue – such as town planning or nanotechnology – hear from experts and partisans, discuss the issue among themselves and reach a consensus. Such groups are called policy juries or citizens panels. Hundreds of such panels, in several different countries, have been formed and have deliberated on a wide range of issues. The challenge is to get more people to think of these sorts of processes as the epitome of fairness, rather than voting.


Participatory democracy can come in various forms, for example referendums and popular assemblies, which complicates the challenge of encouraging people to think of them as viable alternatives to representative government. Another important factor is deliberation, which means careful consideration of arguments, often in discussions with others, as in juries. Only some participatory processes are deliberative: referendums often are not, being determined more by campaigning, advertising and slogans, whereas citizens panels are.

Advocates of participatory and deliberative alternatives can learn from Haidt’s research on moral foundations. Rather than trying to convince people through information and logical argument that participation and deliberation are good things, it is likely to be more effective to come up with ways to get people to sense in their guts that these alternatives are valuable and worth supporting.

Probably the best advertisement for participation is the experience of participation itself. Many of the people chosen randomly to serve on citizens panels find it incredibly engrossing and satisfying: they feel they are doing something worthwhile and become committed to the process. The same applies to experiences in workers’ councils, neighbourhood meetings and social action groups. The occupy movement, for example, provided on-the-ground training in participatory politics.

The implication is that ‘doing democracy’ – namely participating in groups or processes that involve direct decision-making – is a powerful way to promote participatory alternatives to representative government. The challenge is to make these experiences as satisfying as possible, thereby building commitment to the process, without getting too fixated on changing things immediately. This is the familiar dilemma of task functions and maintenance functions within groups. Achieving the group’s goal is important, but so is maintaining good relationships within the group, as the basis for commitment and long-term survival.

Taking a lead from Haidt, promoting participatory alternatives needs to pay more attention to what affects people’s moralities — their senses of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity — and figure out how to reassign moral foundations to participative and deliberative processes. There is nothing automatic or inherent in patriotism or a belief in the superiority of representative government. Alternatives are possible; the question is how best to promote them.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Understanding protest

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

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

            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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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

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.


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.

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.


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).

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.

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.

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.


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.

Whistleblowing and loyalty

Whistleblowers can gain insights from Jonathan Haidt’s studies of the foundations for morality.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, for example to expose corruption, abuse or dangers to the public. Surely this should be seen as a valuable service. Yet whistleblowers are frequently treated as traitors, as guilty of something worse than the abuses and crimes they reveal.


National security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have been called traitors. Whistleblowers who are teachers, police officers, public servants or corporate executives may be called traitors, dobbers, snitches or other epithets.

Just as important as words are the reprisals that whistleblowers experience, including ostracism, petty harassment, demotions, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. To be targeted with such hostile actions signifies condemnation, even contempt. Where does this vitriol and hostility come from?

Also important is the role of bystanders, in particular the co-workers who might personally support the whistleblower but are unwilling to take a stand. Many of them are afraid they will become targets themselves; others always support management, sometimes in the hope of rewards. It is reasonable to ask, where does the incredible power of the organisation come from?

The Righteous Mind

Insights can be gained from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist, set out to discover the biological bases of human morality. But first it is useful to explain Haidt’s picture of the mind.


Imagine that your mind has two main components. The first is a rational, calculating operator that can examine courses of action and logically consider principles of behaviour. This is how most people think of themselves. Haidt calls this component the “rider.”

The second part of the mind is an intuitive operator that makes judgements on the basis of gut instinct, without consideration for facts or logic. This part is filled with passions and commitments, which the rider might consider biased and impulsive. Haidt calls this second part of the mind the “elephant.” The elephant makes day-to-day life possible; its quick responses are often sensible — but not always.

Haidt uses the metaphors of the rider and the elephant to highlight a key insight from studies of the mind: for many purposes, rational evaluation is unable to restrain instinctive responses. The elephant is too large and powerful to be controlled by the rider.

Haidt, through careful assessment of psychological research, concludes that in most cases the primary role of the rider is to figure out ways to justify what the elephant does. In other words, people reach their views about the world on the basis of gut instinct, and then their rational minds figure out reasons to justify these views.

Elephant and Rider

This is not a pretty picture, especially for those who believe in the primacy of rationality, or believe that they personally follow reason rather than emotion.

The next step in Haidt’s analysis is discovering the foundations of morality. Through a variety of means, he arrived at six main foundations that shape people’s senses of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt used various tests to work out which of these values influence judgements in US people. He found that “liberals” (who might be called progressives in Australia) rely especially on care, liberty and fairness, whereas conservatives rely more equally on all of the foundations. This helps explain some of the political differences in the US.

Most of these foundations are relevant to whistleblowers. One key foundation, care, means looking after those in need, for example children and people suffering misfortune. When whistleblowers speak out about abuse of children or shortcomings in health services, they are implicitly appealing to the care foundation for morality. Another foundation, fairness, is relevant for those who speak out about corruption, including bribery, theft and nepotism. These are all violations of fairness.

So far so good. But whistleblowers come up against some of the other foundations. They are seen to be disloyal (to their employers), undermining authority (of their bosses) and sometimes transgressing on things considered sacred (such as when revealing confidential information). Haidt’s framework suggests that whistleblowers can gain support from some foundations of morality but are up against instinctive responses based on others.

At this point it is worth remembering the rider-elephant metaphor. Few people sit around scrutinising the bases of their own morality. Rather, their ideas of right and wrong are intuitive: they react with their gut and then search for rational justifications for their feelings. So if someone’s morality is strongly shaped by respect for authority, they may react emotionally against a co-worker who breaks ranks and then find reasons for their antagonism.

Sometimes there are multiple sources of authority. For example, a person can accept the authority of church leaders or seek a higher authority in the teachings of spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. However, the rider-elephant factor enters in here: because most teachings can be interpreted in various ways, the rider can find ways of justifying the elephant’s actions. For example, even when religious texts oppose killing, most religious leaders allow participation in war, using various rationalisations.

However, it seems too simple to say that whistleblowers put a priority on care, fairness and liberty (moral priorities for liberals) whereas bosses put a priority on loyalty and authority (which influence conservatives more than liberals). Whistleblowers vary greatly in their beliefs; many are the epitome of the loyal employee. Furthermore, what about all the bystanders, who by their inaction support bosses and let whistleblowers cop it? They are bound to include people driven by a variety of moral precepts.


Various researchers have tried to figure out what, psychologically, makes whistleblowers different from others. Employers would love to know, so they could avoid hiring potential whistleblowers or, having hired one, keep them away from sensitive information. Given the lack of any reliable psychological tests to detect potential whistleblowers, it is safe to assume that psychology is not the key to understanding whistleblowing. This is especially the case for inadvertent whistleblowers, the workers who report a problem, are totally surprised when they experience reprisals, and afterwards say “I was just doing my job.” There are psychological factors involved in this, for example honesty and conscientiousness, but no obvious connection to the foundations of morality traced by Haidt. Or is there?

Care versus loyalty?

Sexual abuse is a violation of the morality of care: those who are vulnerable need to be protected. Speaking out about the abuse, on the other hand, challenges authority and loyalty.

Consider, for example, sexual abuse by clergy. The disturbing reality is that many people in churches knew about it but took little or no action. This can be interpreted as loyalty and authority taking precedence over care. On the other hand, the response of many members of the public, when they learned about the abuse, was completely different: many were horrified and disgusted. As outsiders, their conceptions of loyalty were potentially quite different. They may have had no particular connection to the church, or perhaps had their own loyalty, for example to their children.

But what about authority? Those who are not directly subject to a particular authority may not think deference to it is so important. This observation is compatible with the advice that whistleblowers can gain greatest support from other whistleblowers and from members of the public, for example through media stories.

So morality based on authority seems, at least when it applies to whistleblowers, to be quite specific: deference to authority takes precedence mainly when people are directly subject to the authority, as in the case of bosses or church leaders. This deference can also be explained a different way: people are afraid of the consequences of bucking authority. They might lose their job or, just as worrying, be subject to reprisals such as reprimands, harassment and ostracism. It might seem that fear is a fundamental factor in this dimension of morality.

Loyalty to what?

For me, this raises another question. Why should the two factors of loyalty and authority be tied to the organisation where a person works? In terms of evolution, humans lived in groups whose very survival often depended on banding together. Dissent was potentially dangerous, so it could have been advantageous to attack or expel those who challenged the group’s leaders or threatened its cohesion.

However, many groups today are a far cry from the groups in human prehistory, which were often quite small and probably never much more than a few hundred people in size. Working for a government or corporation with thousands of employees is not the same, neither in scale nor in the danger to the organisation of a bit of dissent.

This suggests to me that although loyalty is a key factor in morality, how loyalty is assigned remains open. Inside a school, for example, a pupil might be loyal to a peer group, a sporting team, a teacher or the school as a whole. In a corporation, a worker might be loyal to a work team, a union, professional peers in the field, a particular boss or the company as a whole. The possibility that loyalty is not automatic suggests that it is worth looking at the methods by which organisations foster it.

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

It’s worth considering each of Haidt’s six foundations for morality and asking, what can be done, by whistleblowers and their supporters, to change gut reactions to whistleblowing so it is more valued? The foundations of care, fairness and liberty are ones that should create favourable attitudes towards whistleblowers. The message is to continually emphasise care for others when speaking out about hazards to the public, emphasise fairness when speaking out about corruption, and emphasise liberty — resistance to domination — when speaking out about threats from government or corporate power.

Those three foundations are the easy ones for whistleblowers, namely ones where they have a natural advantage. The other three foundations are more challenging: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Loyalty to the employer is commonly expected. Whistleblowers violate this sense of loyalty: they are seen as traitors. Are there other ways to assign loyalty to which whistleblowers could appeal? One possibility is loyalty to the mission of the organisation, not to the organisation itself. Of course organisational leaders say they are pursuing the mission, so distinguishing between the mission and the organisation is hard to sell.


Another possibility of an alternative loyalty is to other workers, especially when they are supportive of each other, as in work teams or unions. Instead of speaking out as an individual, a worker concerned about abuses could instead build networks and alliances first, gaining support in order to promote collective action. This is not easy, but does have a prospect of fostering a different assignment of loyalties.

Then there is authority, a moral foundation that whistleblowers almost inevitably challenge. Questioning the boss’s authority is difficult, whether by direct confrontation or by reporting problems to the boss’s boss, higher officials or watchdog bodies. Is there any different line of authority that can be an alternative source of legitimacy? One possibility is the authority of laws. If bosses are violating the law, they are violating legal authority. The trouble is that by the time legal sanctions are applied — if they ever are — it is too late for the whistleblower. After all, corrupt operators do not declare they are breaking the law. Indeed, they commonly allege that whistleblowers are criminals, by violating terms of employment, confidentiality agreements and the like.

One of the advantages of whistleblower laws is that they give legitimacy to whistleblowers. Even though the laws may give little protection in practice and, even worse, give a false sense of security, their very existence may help undermine the assumption that authority is always right.


Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation of special significance to many political conservatives. If corruption is stigmatised, then whistleblowers can draw on this moral foundation. This is suggested by the expressions “clean hands” and “dirty hands,” referring to honest and dishonest individuals. Whistleblowers can assist their cause by avoiding any activity that can be easily stigmatised as dishonest or unsavoury. By the same token, employers regularly manipulate the sanctity foundation by trying to stigmatise the whistleblower, by spreading rumours (sexual misbehaviour is a favourite allegation) and by treating the whistleblower as tainted, not to be trusted or even spoken to. Ostracism — cutting off personal relationships — is in essence to treat a person as dangerous and even contagious.

When whistleblowers join together with others, and obtain support from bystanders, it is far more difficult to stigmatise them. There is protection in numbers.

Considering the various foundations of morality thus provides some direction for whistleblowers and their supporters.

  • When appropriate, emphasise violations of care, fairness, and liberty.
  • Search for alternative bases for loyalty and authority.
  • Try to assign stigma to wrongdoers.
  • Be prepared for the tactics used to turn these moral foundations against whistleblowers.

Brian Martin

More information

I haven’t tried to provide sources for many of the generalisations I’ve made about whistleblowers. For more information see my book Whistleblowing and my site on suppression of dissent.


Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Steven Howard, Nicola Marks and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback on drafts.

I am vice president of Whistleblowers Australia but my views here do not necessarily represent those of others in the organisation.

Comments from Kim Sawyer

[Kim was a whistleblower at two Australian universities, and has been active on whistleblowing issues for many years.]

Excellent analysis – corresponds to the thoughts I’ve had over a long period of time. Haidt’s prescription of the rider-elephant dichotomy and the six foundations of morality are insightful. Your application of those foundations to whistleblowing is spot on. Two general comments, and then some specific comments from my experience.

First, whistleblowing acts to elevate the conflict between the foundations. It brings morality into focus for everyone; the whistleblower, the respondent, the bystanders. The foundations are like latent characteristics, and whistleblowing becomes the realization of those characteristics so that an individual has to now make a choice. It’s like going to the ballot box, you have to now choose between fairness and loyalty to the institution.

Secondly, one aspect which could be highlighted more is risk. Everyone, whistleblower, respondent and bystander, assesses their risks. Risk minimization takes over – that is, self-interest. The bystander may see the same unfairness as the whistleblower, but they also see the risk to themselves. You could say that these six foundations are a portfolio, and the whistleblower and bystander assign different weights to different foundations. My sense is that the bystander will always converge to the less risky portfolio which is loyalty to authority.

Some specific comments from my own experience

  1. For me, fairness was always the important factor. In both whistleblowing cases, I chose fairness over loyalty to an unfair authority. And it correlates with my political leanings which are progressive. Of course, there was also a sense of professional responsibility, that a professor should act in the long-term interests of the institution and of higher education in general. Obviously, I took my professional responsibilities too seriously.
  2. The two cases I was involved with highlighted the singularity of whistleblowing, but from vastly different starting points. In both cases though, the institution tried to replace the loyalty of colleagues to me by loyalty to the institution. This strategy emphasises the whistleblower and not the whistleblowing; the weaknesses of the whistleblower and not the foundational issues were highlighted.
  3. Another issue is the conflicting loyalties within the whistleblower. I had loyalty to both universities, but the loyalty was principally to the long-term, not to the short-term management. Whistleblowing involves a lot of internal conflict for a whistleblower between fairness and loyalty to authority. Fairness won out for me.

An online mobbing

Tom Flanagan was mobbed online. His experience provides several sorts of lessons.

Tom Flanagan
Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist, worked for 45 years at the University of Calgary. He became a prominent public figure, appearing on television and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. He also had experience in the political system, having served as campaign manager for several politicians seeking office.

Along the way, Flanagan made some enemies. Much of his research related to First Nations and their claims over land, and he took a position contrary to activists in the area. Flanagan’s political leanings might be characterised as conservative: he had managed campaigns for conservative politicians.

On 27 February 2013, Flanagan gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Unknown to him, some First Nation activists attended and planned to use the talk to discredit him. They secretly recorded his talk and asked him a question about an extraneous topic, about which he had once made a passing comment: child pornography.

In the several hours it took Flanagan to drive home the next morning, a social media storm blew up, leaving his reputation in tatters. An extract of his talk, out of context, had been posted on YouTube with the misleading tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Before long, he was widely denounced, including by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, for whom Flanagan had once been campaign manager, by the premier of Alberta, and by numerous mainstream media outlets, with front-page stories.

MacDougall tweet
A hostile tweet

Flanagan soon lost many of the connections he had built up over the years. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cancelled his contract and his own university put out a weak-kneed media release.

Several things about this storm of protest especially annoyed Flanagan. First, he had only made passing comments about child pornography; it wasn’t a topic he had carefully investigated. Second, he had been speaking to an academic audience, in his teacher role in which he tried to stimulate thinking about the topic, but his enemies had treated it as a political opportunity to catch him out and discredit him.

Third, his views on child pornography had been seriously misrepresented. He opposed child pornography, and had only said that penalties for merely viewing it (in Canada, a minimum of several months in prison) might be too stiff. Fourth, those who denounced him and his views had not waited to hear Flanagan’s perspective before rushing to make public comment.

Vulnerability to online mobbing

Mobbing is collective bullying. It’s when a group of people combine to attack a target by abuse, undermining, sidelining, defaming and otherwise causing harm to a person’s morale and reputation. Most commonly, mobbing occurs in workplaces, when a group of workers — usually including the boss, though not always — use verbal and physical methods against a fellow worker. Flanagan experienced a different sort of mobbing. His attackers were online, whereas his colleagues were largely supportive of him.

Flanagan in his book Persona Non Grata (discussed below) says several factors were involved in the online mobbing he experienced. One is that the news cycle has sped up enormously. Before the Internet, it would take a day or two for a story to be taken up widely. Now it can occur in minutes. In the face of a crowd baying for blood, politicians and public bodies did not want to wait a day for claims to be checked out. Instead, they made statements immediately to reduce the potential harm to themselves of being seen as sympathetic to Flanagan’s alleged views.

Another factor is that Flanagan had enemies who were unscrupulous. They set him up with a leading question, made a recording without telling him, produced a clip omitting context, posted it on YouTube with a misleading label and started raising the alert about it. Most people never acquire enemies like this. Flanagan, by being a public commentator who was willing to challenge orthodox views in some areas, was vulnerable.

A third factor in Flanagan’s case was moral panic, which is widespread alarm about an issue out of all proportion to its actual harm. In his book, Flanagan traces the evolution of moral panics over child sexual abuse, including claims about Satanic rituals at US preschools and claims based on recovered memories, in which innocent workers and parents were charged with crimes and some of them imprisoned despite lack of any material evidence. Child pornography, he says, is the latest version of this genre of moral panic. By making comments questioning the severe penalties for viewing child pornography, Flanagan entered territory in which the merest association with a topic can create a stigma.


Finally, Flanagan says online mobbing occurs because so few people check out the facts before passing judgement. Hundreds of people who didn’t know Flanagan personally were willing to condemn him without hearing his side of the story. Even worse, some individuals who knew him well, sometimes for many years, condemned him without hearing his side first. The rush to judgement overwhelmed their critical capacity: they assumed he was guilty as charged and apparently were afraid of being seen to support him, so they joined the attack.


Flanagan says that if he had been expecting an attack and had been closely monitoring social media, he might have been able to organise resistance at the very beginning and prevent the worst consequences. However, his attackers had operated surreptitiously. While driving home, listening to music, he received initial word of the media storm, but was not well placed to mount a concerted response. Anyway, why should someone like him — an academic who had just given a guest lecture at another university — have to be constantly monitoring social media just in case of adverse comments?

When he got home, he discovered the scale and seriousness of the attack and started responding. Luckily, he still had friends and supporters, and he was able to write explanatory articles in several influential publications. Furthermore, his colleagues at the University of Calgary were largely supportive. Flanagan, having been a campaign manager for several political candidates, knew quite a lot about media dynamics and management, far more than some others who have been targets of virtual mobbing. Even so, he felt overwhelmed, noting that a rushed response, while under siege and before he obtained full information, might make things even worse.

One of Flanagan’s sympathisers arranged an opportunity to write a book, and that is what he did. Before the end of the year, he finished writing Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014). Flanagan had written many previous books, so he was quite capable of such a rapid yet considered response.


Persona Non Grata

Flanagan’s book is a powerful account of his experiences and an indictment of his attackers. One thing that makes the book powerful is his clear, engaging narrative. His treatment is careful and measured, with some degree of outrage to be sure, but more along the lines of being a concerned investigation into a problem about which he has first-hand experience.

By being clear, informative, calm and readable, Persona Non Grata will reach audiences who had never heard about Flanagan before and who would be unsympathetic to his political views. I wrote an article, “When you’re criticised,” on how to respond to attacks, recommending writing a response that is clear, calm and factual, and that is what Flanagan has done in his book.

One of the features of Persona Non Grata is a chapter on penalties for possessing child pornography. As he describes, he had never had more than a passing interest in this topic, but because a false representation of his views was the pretext for mobbing him, he started investigating further. He addresses various arguments and, while expressing his abhorrence at the production of child pornography, and his personal distaste for it, he affirms his previous tentative view that mandatory jail sentences for only possessing or viewing child pornography may be excessive. This is his careful, considered riposte to those who mobbed him.

Academic freedom

In the urgency of the initial online mobbing, the University of Calgary, Flanagan’s long-time employer, issued a statement that was pathetically weak. Flanagan was especially disappointed that an academic institution would put out such a statement without waiting a few extra hours to consult with him. So in Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes a chapter to academic freedom.

He gives one of the most cogent accounts of the arguments for academic freedom in the classroom that I have read. Most studies of academic freedom focus on research, inquiry and public comment. Flanagan, in giving attention to teaching, spells out the justification for academics being given the opportunity to teach what they want in the way they want, as well as to speak out on issues of public importance. He is well aware that academics are inhibited and constrained in various ways, and gives good reasons to continue claiming academic freedom as an important contribution to students and society.

Professors have to have room to discover what works well for them, in their discipline, with their personality, with their particular bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Typical undergraduate students at a large university will be exposed to perhaps three dozen instructors in the course of getting a bachelor’s degree. Out of those three dozen, they will probably find a small handful that seemed especially memorable and another handful that seemed like a complete waste of time or worse. But the variety gives all students a chance to find at least a few inspirational professors whose memory can be cherished for a lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, the student has been cheated. (pp. 162–163)

Flanagan tells about some of the students in his classes over the years, and what careers they have entered, many of them taking different political trajectories than Flanagan himself.


Quite a number of individuals have been caught in a whirlwind of online abuse and condemnation, which harms their reputations and careers far out of proportion to their alleged misdemeanours, as astutely described by one of the leading researchers into academic mobbing, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues. Tom Flanagan has produced the most insightful and readable account available of what it is like to be a target of an online mob. In Persona Non Grata he has shown how to rise above the abuse and respond in a calm, reflective fashion that is the exact opposite of the way he was treated.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Zoë Barker and Ian Miles for helpful feedback on drafts.