All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Speak up or keep quiet? Your options for everyday dissent

Have you ever been with people who start talking about a topic where they all agree? The topic might be religion, politics, sport or fashion. The trouble is, you have a different viewpoint. Should you say anything? And if so, what?

Nearly everyone has had this experience. In some families there are rules: “We don’t discuss politics or religion.” The rule might be stated but is often implicit.

Then there are taboo topics. Never mention Aunt Issa. You might not even know why. Did she do something terrible? Don’t ask.

You’re gossiping with your co-workers. They all hate the boss but you actually think the boss is doing a pretty good job. Should you say something or keep quiet?

These are instances where you have a choice about whether to express dissent and, if you do, how to do it. Should you challenge views you think are wrong or dangerous, or keep your mouth shut to maintain the peace? Should you pretend you agree with everyone else when actually you don’t?

These situations can arise in enclaves of political correctness but are more general than what is usually called PC. When you’re with a group of veterans, just try expressing your view that going to war is only for suckers.

            Most people have highly developed skills in getting along with others. If this were not the case, there would be disagreements and arguments all the time. If you’re in a shop and an assistant says, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” then it’s polite to agree. If you always say, with a snarl, “What’s so nice about it?” you may not have many friends!

I’ve been aware of these issues for a long time and had my share of experiences in keeping quiet or disagreeing with standard views. In my research, I’ve explored many controversial topics, for example nuclear power, fluoridation and vaccination. I’ve promoted nonviolent alternatives to the military and participatory alternatives to representative government.

Most importantly, since the 1980s I’ve been a supporter of dissidents and whistleblowers. A classic situation is an employee who sees something wrong at work, for example fiddling the books. Speaking out in such situations can be very risky, so often it’s better to say nothing and collect information about wrongdoing. My involvement with whistleblowers made me acutely aware that honesty is not necessarily the best policy. As we will see, this applies to many situations, including everyday interactions and ones not related to employment.

So let’s begin with options for everyday dissent.

Avoid

Your friends are talking about a sensitive topic. It might be abortion, political parties, immigration or child rearing. Whatever it is, you soon realise that you disagree with what everyone else seems to think. One way to avoid confrontation is to say nothing.

            Why would your friends be talking about abortion? Perhaps the issue has been in the news, or one of them tells a personal story about having or not having an abortion. Often you can escape embarrassment by saying nothing. But sometimes this is awkward. What if someone asks, “Have any of you ever had an abortion?” You might shake your head to indicate “No,” but that could be deceptive, as a more accurate response might be “No, but I would have had one if necessary.”

To avoid uncomfortable questions or probing, you can try to change the topic before it becomes too personal. You might say you’re not feeling well and need to leave the room. Or you can say something like “I’m not sure how I’d react in the situation” even if you know for sure.

            If you fear being asked a direct question and you don’t like lying or evading, there are several ways to take precautions. Sometimes you can pick your conversation partners, knowing that you agree with their views or that the topic will never arise. You can seek a welcoming community where everyone seems to agree. A campaigning group is often quite safe, for example pro-choice or anti-abortion.

Sometimes, though, it’s not easy to avoid disagreements. In families and workplaces, you may interact with the same people for months or years, even a lifetime.

Go along

You may prefer to go along with whatever others are saying. This smooths relationships and usually prevents any backlash from causing offence.

You might be, or become, a chameleon, adapting your views according to what everyone around you appears to think. In one group, you’re opposed to immigration; in another, you support it. You might need to change your behaviour too. Among colleagues who drink and smoke, you join in; among those who abstain, you do too.

            Most people are chameleons to some extent. Those who never adapt may be seen as principled but more commonly as inflexible or obnoxious.

There’s another way to go along: lie, either by making false statements or not revealing the truth about what you think. You might have some beliefs that are shocking to others, for example that infanticide is okay in some circumstances or that some groups are genetically superior to others. If the topic comes up, you can readily go along with the consensus.

Lying has a bad reputation, and there are many preachy recommendations to tell the truth. Yet in practice people regularly hide the truth and tell falsehoods, as I learned when investigating lying and activism. In many cases, lying is intended to benefit others or to maintain relationships. Your friend asks, “How do I look in this?” You may prefer to tell a “white lie” and say, “You look good.” If a relative is dying, you might tell her that she has always been loved. Of course, there are also toxic lies, used to hide responsibility for stealing and for cheating in relationships. But we’re not talking about toxic lying, just about getting along with others by going along with what they say.

            There’s one unexpected downside to going along with the group, and that is if everyone else is doing the same thing. Then it would be like in a dictatorship where everyone seems to support the regime but actually nearly everyone hates it. If a few people speak out, it can inspire others to join in and even trigger the formation of a powerful opposition movement. How can you figure out whether others are covering up their views?

Inquire

When I was studying the controversy over the addition of fluorides to public water supplies, I interviewed leading Australian proponents and opponents. It was illuminating to learn about their views, so different from each other on many dimensions. While questioning these partisans, I didn’t need to explain or defend my own views.

Learning by listening can be used in other contexts. Become an inquirer. Your aim is to understand how others think and to probe into their assumptions, viewpoints, commitments and activities. You might ask for their views on Israel-Palestine, sexuality, life after death, UFOs, Donald Trump or the Holocaust — whatever seems topical.

Even if you do have a strong view, you can say that you’re eager to learn from those with different ideas. “I’m against kangaroo culling but would like to hear the evidence and arguments for it.”

Most people are quite willing to talk about their beliefs, especially with someone who is willing to listen. The crucial part here is to listen. As an inquirer, your aim is to listen and learn, not to pass judgement or to persuade. You are like an anthropologist, studying a culture to find out how its members think and behave, even if they are your family, friends and workmates.

            They might well ask what you think, in which case you can say you’re an inquirer, without a strong view. I had this experience when my university secretly entered an arrangement to set up a degree funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Many of my colleagues were vehemently opposed to any degree called Western civilisation, especially one funded by the Ramsay Centre, on whose board were prominent conservative politicians Tony Abbott and John Howard. Other colleagues were involved in the degree. Rather than joining either side, I put on my sociologist hat and tried to elucidate the issues. This seems to enable me to keep on good terms with colleagues on both sides of a polarising issue.

To be an effective inquirer, you may genuinely have no strong view or you may be a chameleon, adapting your views to your audience. In either case, it is surprising how tolerant others can be of differing views when you genuinely listen, showing interest and respect.

Shape others’ expectations of your behaviour

A friend of mine, Richard, is predictably provocative. On just about any issue that comes up, he seems to adopt a contrasting perspective, in a manner that makes listeners unsure whether he really supports the view he expounds. It is in a spirit of playful combativeness, jousting with ideas. Once we know how Richard engages, we are not offended. We know he just loves taking a contrary view, often for the sake of it.

Another image is the jester, who takes nothing seriously or, perhaps more accurately, is deadly serious underneath a layer of humour or light-heartedness. Again, after getting used to this style, listeners are less offended than by a more serious disagreement. However, for many people, there are topics that should never be the butt of jokes.

            Your image, reputation and social position greatly influence the way others react to your behaviour. In general, they expect you to act just like you usually do. If you’re always polite, then when you start swearing it is more shocking than if you swear in every sentence — and when the habitual foul-mouth suddenly starts talking in a prim and proper manner, we pay attention.

If you want to be able to express challenging ideas, you may be able to prepare the ground by dissenting from orthodoxy in ways that do not upset your regular conversationalists, thereby establishing a reputation as a free thinker, a questioner, a humourist or a provocateur. As you do this, you obtain practice in pushing the boundaries, always being prepared to back off as necessary.

You might think that being provocative is not the real you and that adopting the persona of a clown is fakery. However, there’s nothing wrong with practising a different style with strangers and seeing what happens. If you keep pretending for a few weeks or months, eventually it will become natural.

Challenge

No more pussyfooting around: you decide to say what you really think and damn the consequences. You speak out regardless of who you’re talking to and who’s listening. Isn’t this what free speech is all about?

            Perhaps you think terrorism is overrated as a danger, that all drugs should be legalised, that homeless people should be imprisoned or that crystals have healing powers. In a sympathetic group there’s no problem but in others you may be shunned as a lunatic.

What happens depends a lot on how you behave and on the circumstances. If you’re polite, soft-spoken and have a smile, others are far more likely to respond favourably, even if they don’t agree. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how you say it. You may regret speaking out.

Assume that you care about an issue and want to get others to think differently about it. Before questioning the dominant viewpoint or attitude — dominant within the group you’re in, that is — it’s worth doing some preparation. You might have done this already, but there’s nothing like taking your time and putting in some effort. After all, a lot could be at stake. You might lose a friend or a job. Maybe the stakes are smaller, but you don’t know for sure. I draw here on what I’ve learned from whistleblowers.

            Check the social environment. Is there a general feeling of tolerance? Do others encourage debate and disagreement? Or do you sense fear and hostility? Are you aware of toxic behaviours, including shouting, undermining and malicious gossip? Does anyone behave in an authoritarian manner, seeking to dominate others, especially those who step out of line?

One of the most useful bits of information is about what happens to others who speak out. How are they treated? If you never see anyone questioning dominant views, that might be a sign to be wary.

Assess your vulnerability. The more you have to lose, the more careful you need to be. In some jobs, even a minor break from orthodoxy can make the difference in terms of promotions or opportunities. Are you willing to risk your job? Relationships are also crucially important. How will you cope if someone close to you decides to cut you off?

If you have fallback options, for example other jobs or a wealth of relationships, then you are better able to take risks. Indeed, sometimes speaking your mind may help clarify who you really want to spend your time with.

Develop your skills. Verbal skills can be very useful in presenting a challenging idea without suffering too many adverse consequences. You might read Suzette Haden Elgin’s classic book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, or one of her many later books, and practise her recommended ways of dealing with attacks. Or you could draw on ideas about effective communication and negotiation in George Thompson’s Verbal Judo or Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference. Practising their recommended methods may enable you to maintain relationships and memberships that otherwise would collapse.

            However, in some circumstances verbal skills can’t help. If you offend a close friend who then cuts you off and does not return messages, even the best skills are inadequate.

Learn backfire techniques. If others treat you badly because of your views, sometimes you can use their attacks against them, in other words make them backfire. If your boss repeatedly shouts abuse at you, a powerful response is to reveal this to others, for example by making a recording and circulating it. Your co-workers, or the boss’s boss, might be more appalled at the abuse and shouting than at your views, especially if you respond calmly and rationally.

Be aware that by exposing abuse, you are raising the stakes dramatically. Your attackers might regret being seen as intolerant and aggressive. On the other hand, you need to be prepared to be fired or sued. A lot depends on the circumstances and the wider system of power.

Develop a strategy. Rather than dealing with challenges as they arise, plan ahead. If you’re going to reveal your sexuality or political or religious views to a group you think will be hostile, get advice from trusted others. Develop your communication skills. Anticipate likely reactions and prepare for them by practising with someone you trust. Have friends test the waters by asking questions.

            You need an exit strategy. If worse comes to worst and you are ostracised or defamed, with relationships and career in jeopardy, have plans for what happens afterwards. This includes ensuring financial survival and obtaining emotional support.

If all this seems too much to handle, then reconsider your plans. Maybe it’s better for you and everyone else to avoid sensitive topics, or to lie with confidence.

Dissent can be powerful in stimulating others to reconsider their assumptions and viewpoints. But only sometimes. It’s worthwhile to try to figure out when and how to challenge orthodoxy.

Final thoughts

It’s also worthwhile to think of times when your view is the dominant one. How do you respond when someone questions your deepest assumptions? Would you welcome having a discussion or do you join in attempts to silence the dissenter? Do you try to change the topic when a sensitive issue arises? Are you tempted to terminate a relationship with someone when you learn about their contrary political or religious views?

Assuming you’d like to enable dialogue rather than shut down those who disagree, it’s useful to consider your options in advance, and be prepared. This includes being prepared to intervene when others try to discourage dissent.

And what if no one ever disagrees with you? That might be a cause for worry. Maybe you’re living in a bubble or others are afraid of how you’ll respond. If others never disagree with you, perhaps you should disagree with them!

For helpful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Isla MacGregor, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Majken Sørensen, Melinda Waterman — and “Richard.”

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

O beautiful for polluted skies

Energy politics in Wyoming are hazardous for free speech.

A fracking operation in Pinedale, Wyoming.

The US state of Wyoming sits in the Rocky Mountains north of Colorado. It is large in area but sparsely populated: its two largest cities have just over 60,000 people each. Wyoming is known for Yellowstone National Park, a popular tourist destination. It still retains the image of the wild west, with farmers and cowboys enjoying the open skies and a clean environment.

However, that image is dated. Today, Wyoming might better be described as “energy country” or “pollution central.” The state has an abundance of coal, oil and natural gas, the major fossil fuels. It also has great potential for wind and solar power, but the carbon-based resources have become the basis for a booming industry. Along with the industry have come economic and political power — and intolerance of any public criticism.


Wyoming

            For decades, I’ve been studying suppression of dissent, especially dissent in science. When a scientist speaks out critical of orthodoxy, sometimes bosses or outside groups find this unwelcome. I discovered numerous cases in which scientists who did research or spoke out about pesticides, nuclear power, forestry, fluoridation or other contested topics experienced reprisals, for example having articles censored, research grants denied, promotions blocked or access to research materials denied. Some lose their jobs.

In most of these areas, scientists confront an orthodoxy that aligns with powerful economic and political groups. For example, concerning pesticides, the mainstream scientific position aligns with pesticide manufacturers. Concerning genetically modified organisms, the mainstream scientific position aligns with GMO companies.

Interestingly, there are two prominent exceptions: smoking and climate change. The tobacco industry has waged a long campaign against medical orthodoxy on the hazards of smoking. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has done what it can to question the dominant scientific view about climate change.

In Wyoming, it might be said that the energy companies are in charge in a way unlike most of the rest of the world. To obtain a sense of Wyoming energy culture without experiencing it directly, there’s no better source than Jeffrey Lockwood’s book Behind the Carbon Curtain. The title is a play on the phrase “behind the iron curtain,” which refers to life in the former Soviet bloc, where there was pervasive censorship.

Sinking Carbon Sink

Lockwood tells about a long-running saga involving an art installation at the University of Wyoming. Here’s a picture of it.

Just by looking at the work, you might think that there’s nothing contentious about it. But the title was Carbon Sink. All it took was a bit of media coverage about it and executives of energy companies swung into action. Carbon Sink had to go because it implied criticism of fossil fuels, and that could not be tolerated. The executives applied pressure on senior figures at the university.

Next came a sordid process of public relations blundering. University officials gave lip service to the ideal of academic freedom, as indeed did the companies. So when Carbon Sink was prematurely disassembled, university officials gave out a false reason, which caused further embarrassment when their lie was exposed.

The story of Carbon Sink is revealing in several ways. It shows how incredibly sensitive the energy companies are to criticism. Despite their immense economic and political power, a piece of art was seen as threatening.

The story also showed how tied university officials were to big funders. From the university administration’s point of view, they were doing what was needed to ensure continued funding. The energy industry provided massive grants directly to the university and also indirectly influenced most of the rest of the university budget, because the state government was beholden to the industry. Lockwood writes, “At the university, speech is not free — it’s bought and paid for by the energy industry” (p. 68).

The industry’s feeding trough

The story also shows how subservient many citizens are to the industry. A common comment was “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Lockwood obviously finds this attitude objectionable. It implies that people in Wyoming are akin to dogs being fed by their master. It assumes that the energy industry is like a generous royal patron, granting largesse to grateful subjects. Criticism of the industry is an insult to the ruler, something called lèse-majesté, and amounts to heresy. In this picture, the industry is entitled to own and exploit the state’s resources.

            An alternative perspective is that natural resources are a form of heritage, to be used for the welfare of all, which includes both local residents and all life on earth, and the natural environment too. For many in the US, this perspective is almost unthinkable: it is the sort of thought that underpins socialism.

A more conventional alternative is the economic view in which so-called externalities such as polluted lands, health impacts of mining and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions should be included in the cost of doing business. This is a mainstream economic position that takes environmental costs seriously. It is also anathema to Wyoming industry. This is perhaps one reason why the industry reacts viscerally to any criticism of fossil fuels: any hint that it is involved in exploitation of the population and the environment is intolerable.


A photo by Ted Wood from an exhibition cancelled due to pressure from the energy industry

Lockwood versus Wyoming industry

Lockwood’s book is remarkable in several ways. It is a rare account of suppression of dissent that gives a careful and detailed explanation of the sordid details of censorship. The cases are complicated in their ins and outs, with claims and counterclaims and all sorts of devious behaviour. Lockwood takes a leisurely stroll through several stories, giving plenty of background and context. He tells of artworks and scientists that became targets of industry censors operating through the political system and the university. At the same time, in another way the cases are simple: free speech is the victim.


Jeffrey Lockwood

            Behind the Carbon Curtain is also remarkable in being so well written. It is more than a documented contemporary history. It is filled with portraits of individuals, activities and poignant observations that together make this an engaging book to read quite independently of its lessons about economic and political power.

Finally, the book is remarkable because Lockwood is employed by the University of Wyoming. He works in the very organisation that was the target of concerted actions by companies, politicians and university officials to squelch any dissident voices. Lockwood was better placed to speak out because he works in a part of the university not directly dependent on industry money: creative writing. But that alone was not enough. He had to be willing to speak out. Few others were.


University of Wyoming

            Behind the Carbon Curtain is a scholarly book, filled with references. The main text is less than 200 pages, and there are 75 pages of notes. This is a sort of protection against the possible claim of academic shortcomings. However, in the main text, the scholarly apparatus is carried lightly. Unlike the majority of academic writing, Lockwood’s prose contains both sadness and delight: sadness over the human and environmental damage caused by the energy industry, and delight in exposing political shenanigans and pathetic excuses for censorship.

Tactics

One chapter is titled “Where the skies are smoggy all day,” a variation of a classic line in the song Home on the Range, “And the skies are not cloudy all day.” Gas production near the town of Pinedale led to serious air pollution, a sort of photochemical smog much worse than downtown areas in big cities. This might seem to be a problem, especially when residents of Wyoming pride themselves on their pristine environment. Moreover, the pollution had damaging effects on people’s health and led to townsfolk demanding action.


Pinedale Anticline drilling rig

            This story provides a capsule lesson in the methods commonly used by a powerful perpetrator to reduce outrage over an injustice. The methods regularly used are to cover up the action, devalue the target, reinterpret the action by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give a misleading impression of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. Lockwood’s account of struggles by Pinedale residents to raise their concerns offers evidence of all of these techniques.

In the case of air pollution affecting Pinedale residents, it was hardly possible to hide the actual pollution, but industry supporters did what they could to deny responsibility.

“The governor and others implausibly attributed the pollution to the interstate highway 80 miles south of Pinedale, dirty air drifting 250 miles from Salt Lake City, and automobile exhaust from the residents of Sublette County (population density, two people per square mile).” (p. 149)

This is a good example of the tactic of blaming others.

The Pinedale Anticline Project Office refused to finance research that would identify sources of pollution. This is an example of what might be called cover-up. It’s an illustration of “undone science,” research that government and industry refuse to do or sponsor because the results might be unwelcome.

Then there were official channels. One was PAWG (Pinedale Anticline Working Group). It was chartered by the Bureau of Land Management, which did everything possible to prevent PAWG from having any influence. The existence of PAWG thus gave a misleading appearance of doing something about the problems.

The tactic of intimidation was apparent in the industry’s threat to leave the area, thereby withdrawing the financial bonanza from industry that supported employment and government income. Taxes paid by industry operated as a type of bribe.

Intimidation was also used in more targeted ways in attempts to silence critics.

“For example, a gas-field manager stopped by the Ford dealership to tell the owner that it would be good for business (the energy industry bought lots of vehicles) if the fellow would quiet down his father, an irascible legislator who sometimes spoke ill of the industry. Walker [Perry Walker, a citizen activist] also knew several other owners of small businesses in Pinedale who didn’t dare to speak up because the gas companies were paying top dollar for their services.” (p. 155)

There is one revealing sign that the energy industry is not all-powerful in Wyoming. The industry seeks to shut down criticism, and has many ways of doing this, but it is not so powerful that it feels able to censor critics openly and blatantly. Instead, censorship efforts are covert, while the main players announce that they respect free speech or just that they were not involved. As Lockwood puts it,

“However, overt acts of censorship can be self-defeating when they draw attention to the message they seek to quash. The alternative of frightening people into silence is a potent strategy, an advantage of which is that powerful individuals or corporations keep their oppression out of the limelight.” (p. 11)


The geyser Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, an image preferred by tourist operators

Conclusion

Jeffrey Lockwood writes from the belly of the beast or, in his own metaphor, from behind the carbon curtain. Few others have done so. Most would rather offer justifications for acquiescing to power.

It’s useful to reflect on ways in which we accept dominant institutions that seem to have made themselves essential. This includes governments, corporations and authoritarian workplaces. Lockwood sends his epistle from behind one curtain. His book is a model for how we might reveal our lives behind other curtains, ones that few are willing to question.

Brian Martin

bmartin@uow.edu.au

PS When writing this post, I originally mistyped the title as “O beautiful for specious skies.” It is strangely appropriate.

Thanks to Kathy Flynn, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde, Olga Kuchinskaya, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu for useful textual suggestions.

Comment by Jeffrey Lockwood, 1 June 2021

Regarding ongoing energy politics in Wyoming, nothing much has changed.  Our governor and legislature seem dead set on denying the precipitous decline of fossil fuels.  In a pathetic effort to prop up this industry, the state government is providing tax breaks to energy companies (see https://www.wyofile.com/lawmakers-weigh-tax-relief-for-oil-and-gas-again/) and suing the state of Washington for its refusing to permit the construction of a coal port to ship Wyoming coal to foreign markets, primarily China (see https://www.wyofile.com/gordon-asks-ag-for-strategy-to-sue-washington-over-coal-ports/).  Having failed to diversify our economy because energy revenues were so lucrative for so long, the legislature’s “plan” is to double-down on carbon-based energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/unable-to-diversify-legislature-doubles-down-on-energy/).  The state is investing heavily in carbon capture technology, unable or unwilling to recognize that sustainable energy sources are favored not so much for their greenness as for their lower cost.  Indeed, the legislature is actively favoring coal plants with (unproven) carbon capture technology over solar and wind energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/stripped-of-1b-limit-gordon-carbon-capture-bill-clears-house/).  The politicians want to blame President Biden and climate change activists for the decline of coal when it’s obvious that even if we had a way to burn coal with zero CO2 emissions, the market would still favor natural gas (and sustainable sources).  As for industry-driven censorship, the dramatic decline in state revenues translates into deep financial cuts to the university which means the fear of offending the increasingly conservative legislature is surely quashing dissent.  In the most recent round of cuts, the creative writing program was slated for elimination (retribution for having spoken out?), but the administration botched the fiscal analysis and there was significant public support for the program (see https://www.wyofile.com/creative-writing-to-be-cut-uw-counts-on-you-not-caring/).

Conspiracies are everywhere!

What’s going on with the alarm about conspiracy theories?

It seems that conspiracy theories have become a new, even urgent danger. There are numerous articles and commentaries decrying beliefs in seemingly implausible conspiracies, often holding these beliefs up to ridicule. Examples include that the moon landings were faked, that KFC has a secret lab producing genetically-mutated chickens, and that the world is ruled by alien shape-shifting lizards.

            What exactly is a conspiracy theory? Simply, it is a belief or claim that people are plotting to accomplish something. A conspiracy must involve at least two people secretly arranging to do something, most commonly for ethically dubious purposes. The “theory” part of the term just refers to an explanation. So a conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation for events based on the assumption that some people are covertly cooperating for a shared purpose, often one contrary to others’ interests.

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as absurd ravings emanating from impressionable or paranoid minds. The most common way to discredit conspiracy theories in general is to refer to ones that seem absurd, at least on the surface. Is the US government really covering up information about visits by aliens?

By pointing to allegedly absurd beliefs, the very idea of a conspiracy theory is made to sound irrational. The assumption that conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous has become so common that to call something a conspiracy theory has become a way to discredit it. The label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse.

Philosophers have a look

Looking more closely provides a different picture. Unbeknownst to most people, for many years philosophers have been debating claims about conspiracy theories. One set of philosophers argues that there are features of conspiracy theories that make them suspect, so they should be dismissed out of hand. For example, new evidence can never refute a conspiracy theory because the evidence is just part of the conspiracy — or so these philosophers say. They are called generalists because their assessments apply to conspiracy theories in general.

Another set of philosophers argues that conspiracy theories are not systematically different from any other explanation for events and that each conspiracy theory should be examined on its merits. They are called particularists: they argue it is wrong to dismiss explanations according to generic features.

            Particularists like to point out that there are plenty of actual conspiracies, ones that have been exposed and widely acknowledged. For example, in the Iran-Contra affair, the US Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran despite an embargo and used the money to fund rebels in Nicaragua that were falsely claimed to be independent.

Some people define conspiracy theories in more limited ways than I’ve indicated here. Whatever the definition, particularists would argue that the onus is on those who dismiss an explanation just because it is categorised as a conspiracy theory.

Whistleblowers

Having read arguments by generalists and particularists, I started thinking about what I know about conspiracies, and eventually reflected on the experience of whistleblowers. For decades I’ve been talking with whistleblowers, who are individuals who speak out in the public interest. A typical whistleblower is a conscientious worker in an organisation who notices something that seems wrong and reports it to the boss or someone else in authority. They might report a discrepancy in accounts, abusive behaviour, danger to workers or customers, or deceptive claims. After making the report, which in many cases means just doing their job, suddenly the worker starts experiencing adverse actions, which can be called reprisals. These include ostracism, petty harassment, rumour-mongering, denunciation, demotion, punitive transfer and/or dismissal. In nearly every case, superiors claim the actions taken against the worker are justified.

            The worker’s concerns might or might not be validated, but in quite a few cases they are, and most of those cases involve conspiracies. Occasionally just one manager is fiddling the books, but in many cases the fraud involves more than one: a conspiracy. In many cases, higher management knows what is going on and tolerates it. Then there are the reprisals, which often are coordinated. Another conspiracy.

Police conspiracies

In many police forces, it is common for officers to make false arrests. Someone talks back to them and they arrest them and then coordinate their lies to justify the arrest. When officers lie in court, this is called verballing. It is perfectly routine.

The worst thing a police officer can do is report on wrongdoing by another officer — the worst, that is, from the point of view of senior police. In what is called the police code of silence, officers are expected to remain silent when their co-workers steal from premises or take illegal drugs. Those actions might be wrong, but not as wrong as reporting on them.

            In Los Angeles on 19 March 1991, around midnight, a motorist named Rodney King was arrested after a car chase. During the arrest, he was badly beaten. Four officers were involved in the beating and more than a dozen others were at the scene, which was illuminated by a helicopter’s spotlight. This beating might never have been known to the public except that George Holliday, who was living nearby, was woken by the commotion, and recorded the beating on his newly purchased videocamera. Later, he took the videotape to the media. When it was broadcast on television, it caused a storm of outrage against the police. But were the police at the scene concerned? No, not a single one reported the beating. Nor did a single one of them testify in the subsequent court cases.

This sounds like a conspiracy. It happens all the time. The only difference in the beating of Rodney King was the videotape. Few police conspiracies are ever revealed. Only occasionally, as in the killing of George Floyd in 2020, does the non-local public become aware of police abuse. (My analysis of the beating of Rodney King.)


A still from George Holliday’s video of the beating of Rodney King

Developer conspiracies

Next consider property development. In Australia, there is rampant corruption at the local and state government level. Property developers influence politicians and government employees to rezone land, give building permissions, enable clearing of land and a host of other actions that benefit the few at the expense of the public. A play was written about corruption in Wollongong. It started off with a list of other local government areas that had been exposed for corruption. There’s no reason to think this sort of corruption occurs only in Australia. Every time, it involves a conspiracy.


A shot from the play “The table of knowledge,” about corruption in Wollongong

Corporate conspiracies

Advertising is all around us. Some of it is honest and straightforward, such as the price of bananas at the local fruit shop. However, much advertising, especially the more expensive varieties, is deceptive: using the most sophisticated persuasion techniques, it is designed to manipulate the desires of consumers. This is business as usual but, arguably, it involves conspiracies. Few workers in advertising agencies — who perhaps should be called conspirators — break ranks and explain in detail how they omitted information, massaged statistics and appealed to unconscious prejudices.

In pharmaceutical companies, scientists make choices that favour their employer’s drugs, for example by ignoring side effects, excluding certain subjects and using placebos with active ingredients. Then they recruit academics who were not involved in the research to be authors of publications about it. This is a massive deception that has led to harm to hundreds of thousands of patients. Surely it should count as conspiracy. Indeed, many of the biggest companies have been fined billions of dollars for their activities, though this is a small penalty considering their much larger profits. The few regulators who tackle big-pharma fraud certainly treat it as a conspiracy.

            Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes claim that big conspiracies cannot be maintained because too many people are involved. There are lots of contrary examples. Think of Volkswagen’s fraud about its emissions being low. None of the Volkswagen workers who knew about the fraud spoke up. It was only revealed by outside testing.

Surveillance conspiracies

Do you have a loyalty card at a supermarket, or regularly use a credit card when making purchases? Do you know that doing this enables the company to keep track of every purchase you make, and that your data might be sold to other companies, so that the advertising you see online is tailored to your interests? Data collection and sharing occurs all the time, usually without your knowledge. It’s a type of conspiracy. In some ways it’s in your interests, to better supply you with products and provide you with information about things you can buy. It can also be used to manipulate your preferences. Be assured that highly talented experts in psychology, marketing and data heuristics are working hard to collect and use your data without you taking much notice.

Governments also engage in surveillance, both of corporations and other governments, and of their own citizens. The US National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications around the world, was once so secret that even the massive agency was hardly known to the public. Edward Snowden’s revelations exposed some of the NSA’s activities. Still, it’s reasonable to say that the NSA and its Five Eyes partners (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) operate as conspiracies against both external adversaries and their own citizens.

            Harmless? Hardly. If you live in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan, you would have reason to worry about being targeted by a drone strike. Military operations are typically carried out in secrecy, while plans and consequences are hidden or disguised through disinformation. For many purposes, militaries are giant conspiracies. If they’re on your side, you might say they are for a good cause. Enemy operations are always thought to be sinister.

And more

Torture occurs in many countries around the world. Just read reports by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Torture is nearly always hidden from the public. It is a conspiracy. So is genocide.

A widespread conspiracy was maintained for decades by hundreds or thousands of people: the cover-up of paedophilia in the churches.

A lot of what goes on in corporations, churches, trade unions, environmental organisations, police, militaries and governments is plotting to achieve goals. Some of this is for the good of others; much of it is not. Some of this plotting is known to informed outsiders; a bit of it is known to the wider public. It all can be categorised as conspiratorial — but seldom is.

Conspiracy and social theory

Jaron Harambam is a Dutch sociologist. For his PhD, he spent two years in Dutch conspiracy-theory circles, talking with key figures, attending meetings and in other ways learning how participants — called, by others, conspiracy theorists — thought and acted. Among his many insights is one about the connection between conspiracy theorising and scholarly social theorising.


Jaron Harambam

            Few academics like to be called conspiracy theorists. Quite separately from the derogatory associations of the label, social scientists think what they do is different from uncovering conspiracies. What Harambam discovered is that there is much in common between conspiracy theorising and conventional scholarly theorising in the social sciences.

In both cases, the social world is explained, in part, through processes that happen behind the scenes, in ways about which most people know nothing. In conspiracy theorising, the processes involve plotting by individuals, usually powerful ones. In social theorising, the processes involve systems of power that shape people’s thoughts and behaviour.

A standard concept in social science is neoliberalism, which is a particular manifestation of capitalism. Neoliberalism is both a set of ideas and a set of practices. One facet is turning activities into markets, for example through privatising health care or prisons. This doesn’t happen by magic but by people making decisions, for example to set up a private hospital and to change laws to make this possible and lucrative. This involves people getting together to achieve their aims, often ones that give them wealth and power. This isn’t greatly different from a conspiracy, if a conspiracy is defined as people plotting to achieve certain aims.

Another example is patriarchy, the collective domination of men over women. Patriarchy is a standard concept in social science, though often contested. For patriarchy to operate, men (and women) need to make decisions that maintain certain patterns of thought and behaviour, for example that combat is a male domain. So it seems that patriarchy involves conspiring, for example to block women from being front-line soldiers. Think of the old boy’s club, an expression referring to the insider groups of men and some women that ensure that men are given preference for appointments and opportunities.

            In social science, there is a longstanding tension between structure and agency. Structure refers to widespread patterns of regular activity. Neoliberalism and patriarchy are concepts of social structure. Agency refers to what people do. Structure is maintained and sometimes changed by people’s agency, while agency is channelled by structure. Trying to reconcile these two perspectives on the social world has exercised generations of social theorists.

Many academics prefer a structural perspective. Those who are called conspiracy theorists typically use an agency perspective: they explain occurrences through the activities of individuals. In many ways, this is not all that different from what social scientists do. After all, the social world is composed of individuals whose activities maintain what are called social structures.

Why discredit conspiracy theories?

Given that numerous conspiracies are around us all the time, most of which we are not aware, why do conspiracy theories have such a bad reputation? How is it that the label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse?

One explanation is that in the late 1960s the CIA initiated a programme to stigmatise conspiracy theories. Why? The CIA wanted to discredit challenges to the view that President John F. Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman. Previously the term had few negative connotations, but the CIA’s efforts associated “conspiracy theory” with lunatics.


Lance deHaven Smith writes about the CIA’s role in stigmatising conspiracy theories

            This explanation is itself a sort of conspiracy theory, but should not be rejected on that basis alone. There is evidence to back it up. However, even if the CIA played a role in discrediting the idea of conspiracy theories, that doesn’t easily explain why so many people have jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation, especially because so many conspiracy theories these days have little to do with the CIA or national security.

Another explanation involves the concept of boundary work. Scientists make efforts to distinguish their activities and knowledge claims from neighbouring endeavours or claims. This protects the status and domain of science. For example, astronomers distinguish their field from astrology and from the study of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). This ensures there is a clear boundary distinguishing science from what is labelled non-science or pseudoscience.

            As noted, many conspiracy-theory explanations are not all that different from scholarly explanations of the social world. However, there is an important difference. Most so-called conspiracy theorists are not academics. Some of them are highly knowledgeable but do not have the degrees, scholarly publications or jobs that are characteristic of professional scholars, ones with positions in the academic system. These conspiracy theorists are, from the academic point of view, amateurs. To defend academic turf from interlopers, it is useful to discredit conspiracy theories. If the theories can be discredited, then so too are those who endorse them.

Yet another explanation for the attack on conspiracy theorising is support for the status quo, in particular support for dominant political and economic institutions, along with the experts who gain their livelihood from these institutions. Many conspiracy theories are about plotting by powerful groups. If taken seriously, these ideas could threaten these groups.

In this context, it’s highly convenient to apply the label “conspiracy theorist” to anyone who questions orthodoxy. You think pharmaceutical companies are selling drugs they know are dangerous? You’re a conspiracy theorist, and not to be taken seriously. You think Google, Facebook and Apple are manipulating people’s desires? You’re a conspiracy theorist.

            There’s a straightforward way to test this explanation: have a look at those who are most vociferous in condemning conspiracy theorising and see whether they are supporters or critics of dominant institutions. Do they defend or attack the US government or big companies?

Is there a lesson here? Personally, I support the particularists who say explanations should be judged on their merits. This has an uncomfortable implication: it’s no longer easy to dismiss ideas that might seem crazy on the surface but you haven’t investigated in depth. It’s reasonable to think that establishment experts are often right, but also reasonable to leave open the possibility that they might be wrong or that there are other truths available.

This means being sceptical when hearing the term “conspiracy theory.” An appropriate response might be, “So what?” or “What exactly is wrong with this particular explanation?”

I’ve talked with whistleblowers from all walks of life, including those working for government departments, private companies, the police, the military, schools, universities, churches, environmental organisations and Indigenous organisations. Their stories are remarkably similar, and nearly all involve conspiracies to cover up wrongdoing and to take reprisals against the whistleblowers. Conspiracies are everywhere, and some of them are affecting you. Who doesn’t want you to take them seriously?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kurtis Hagen and Jaron Harambam for valuable comments.

The watched versus the watchers

Surveillance has become pervasive. What can be done?

Do you have a mobile phone? Do you ever use Facebook or Google? Do you have a credit card? Do you ever walk on a city street or enter a shop? If so, someone is collecting information about you, using it to better understand your thoughts and behaviours and possibly to influence them.

As you scroll through a website, you’re being targeted with ads, and some of the ads are chosen according to your previous web use. Nothing to worry about perhaps, unless your web use provides clues about your medical conditions, relationships, addictions, political leanings and personal finances. How long you pause over a picture on the web can be, and is, used to learn more about what makes you tick.

            If you subscribe to a customer loyalty scheme, for example at a supermarket, then a record is maintained of every purchase you make, providing information to inform future marketing. Banks and credit card companies have a lot of information about your financial activities.

It has become a cliché to say that we’re being watched, yet it is true far more than ever. Measures taken to control covid-19 are in addition to everything being monitored before.

For decades, I’ve been following studies of surveillance and privacy. This is important for anyone concerned with social control and how to resist. In societies with authoritarian governments, data is collected by authorities in order to maintain power and prevent challenges. In societies with less formal repression, vast quantities of data are collected by both companies and governments. This is a big risk if the wrong people gain power. Indeed, it’s already a big risk.

Many scholars, commentators and insiders have written about the surveillance society. There have been numerous powerful exposés. I’ve long thought that this is an area simply waiting for a social movement to emerge and counter the increasing power of watchers. That was true in the 1980s, yet no movement has emerged in the following decades. Why not? Perhaps because many of the tools of surveillance are part of everyday life, have obvious benefits and are used voluntarily. A mobile phone has many practical uses. It can also be used to track your movements throughout the day, record when you’re awake and how many steps you take, and collect data on who you connect with, when and how long.

The big surveillance organisations — governments, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and others — do everything they can to make you believe your data is safe in their hands. After all, it’s in their interest to do so. In this context, it’s valuable to turn to critiques. There are many to choose from. Here I tell about a new book by Carissa Véliz titled Privacy is Power. It has many attractive features.

Privacy is power

Véliz begins by describing a typical day, pointing to all the ways that data about you might be collected, mostly without your knowing or noticing. While driving, texting, banking and just walking around the streets, your data is being collected, and not always with your interests at heart.

The next step is to point out that data can be misused. Your credit rating is downgraded because of a mistake or you miss out on a job because of something online about someone with the same name. There are biases in the algorithms used to analyse data. Then there are malicious uses, for example identity theft and credit card fraud. But there are deeper issues.

            Véliz presents a simple yet powerful idea: stores of personal data are toxic. She makes an analogy to asbestos, which is an exceedingly useful material for buildings and other purposes because it won’t burn or degrade. The trouble is not when it just sits there in the walls of a building; it’s when it escapes, becoming a serious health hazard. Data is similar. There are vast quantities of it sitting in computers around the world, and it can be used for beneficial purposes like medical research. The problem is when it escapes. Then it’s toxic.

A famous case involved Ashley Madison, an online service for affairs and discreet married dating. Except it turned out to not be so discreet when a vast quantity of data held by Ashley Madison was hacked and posted online, to the embarrassment of those exposed.

Then there are the cases of exposures of credit card information, passwords, medical records and other data. Toxic indeed, both when the information is accurate and when it is inaccurate.

Part of being free is being able to experiment with ideas and actions. Not all of them turn out well, but in the old days it was possible to tell inappropriate jokes or hold prejudices, yet to learn, change and move on. With the recording of so much of what we do and say, the past can hold us hostage. A racist or sexist comment can be held against you decades later. Of course, we should be held to account for serious wrongs. The trouble with having vast stores of personal information is that it is too easy to target someone, using a minor fault as justification for adverse actions.

A teacher challenged the principal of her school. To get back at her, a search discovered a student complaint about her teaching made five years previously, so trivial that she had not been told about it at the time. This illustrates two points about toxic data. First, small bits of accumulated data can be used in undesirable ways. Second, it was the principal who had access to files on teachers, while the teachers did not have access to files on principals.

Collective effects

Privacy is often seen as strictly a personal matter. My interest is in my privacy, not in yours. Véliz disagrees. She says we all benefit from everyone else having greater control over data about them and how it is used. In other words, privacy has vital collective dimensions.

            Suppose you use encryption for your communications and for the data on your phone. If no one else is using encryption, then your use of it may make authorities suspicious. They might wonder what you’re hiding and make special efforts to access your data. But if lots of people are using encryption, then you’re less likely to be singled out. Your privacy is enhanced by others’ privacy.

Another example is genetic information. If a close relative of yours has their DNA tested to determine their ancestry, that same information will have many overlaps with your own DNA profile. If your relative’s genetic data is compromised, then so is yours.

            If there are security cameras on every street corner, you can try to escape surveillance by using a disguise or by not going outside. Getting rid of the cameras benefits your privacy, and everyone else’s.

“Our interdependence in matters of privacy implies that no individual has the moral authority to sell their data. We don’t own personal data like we own property because our personal data contains the personal data of others. Your personal data is not only yours.” (p. 79)

What to do?

Véliz offers numerous recommendations for greater privacy. At an individual level, there are quite a few things you can do. Avoid Facebook if you can. Use a search engine that doesn’t track your searches: not Google, perhaps Duckduckgo. Don’t carry around your phone unless you really need it. Don’t join loyalty programmes at shops.

If asked for information beyond what should be needed, make mistakes: “Whoops, I got confused when writing my birthdate.” Ask permission before posting information about others. That includes baby photos on Instagram.

Individual-level steps to greater privacy are, in many ways, the easy part of the process. These are things under your control. You can’t evade all surveillance, but you can definitely reduce the amount of toxic data about yourself.

The bigger challenge is collective steps. The longest chapter in Privacy is Power is about measures that Véliz thinks should be taken to ensure greater privacy. She devotes many pages arguing why personalised advertising should be stopped: it involves sacrificing privacy for very little benefit individually or collectively. She continues with a variety of other recommendations, including stopping the trade in personal data, making data collection opt-in rather than opt-out, stopping the use of algorithms to make inferences about people, deleting data and reducing government surveillance.

These are all worthwhile. The question is, what will bring them about? We can hardly rely on governments and big corporations to suddenly change course and start taking measures to empower citizens by ending their current data-collection practices.

I remember the struggle over the Australia Card, a personal identification card proposed by the government in the 1980s. This triggered the rise of a remarkable opposition movement uniting left-wing and right-wing groups, and the Australia Card proposal was withdrawn. Not long after, though, the government introduced the Tax File Number, for purposes of paying income tax, solemnly promising that the number would never be shared with other government departments. The promise obviously meant nothing because before long people’s numbers were shared with numerous other government departments.

            It’s not likely that governments and corporations will voluntarily cut back on their data collection. The evidence that security cameras in public places reduce crime is questionable, but this seldom leads to cameras being removed. Cameras are widely used by repressive governments to monitor the population. In a free society, it would be wise to avoid technologies that governments could use for repression and select ones that empower the population. So far, this has not been the pattern for surveillance technologies.

The one thing that has a chance of making a difference is a social movement based on an aware and aroused public, with campaigners taking direct action against surveillance. This is happening to some extent with personal devices, for example to use of secure phone software.

What will trigger the formation of a powerful anti-surveillance movement? That is unclear. Anyone potentially interested can benefit from reading Privacy is Power and getting ideas about what needs to be done.


Carissa Véliz

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kelly Gates, Olga Kuchinskaya, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.

PS My own writings about surveillance, from many years ago: “Antisurveillance“; “Opposing surveillance“.

Humans: reconciling bad and good?

I’ve read two books that seem to come to opposite conclusions. They are about humans’ capacity for good and evil. Could both be right?

The first book, by philosopher and psychologist Steven James Bartlett, is titled The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. It is a huge and wide-ranging study pointing to deep-seated features of human thought and behaviour that are highly damaging to humans and the environment. Bartlett argues that people don’t want to face up to this side of the human species.

The second book is by historian and writer Rutger Bregman, and titled Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is an exposé showing flaws in studies and episodes claiming to show that humans are easily susceptible to doing harm to each other, and an argument that humans have a natural inclination to do good. Bregman argues that people don’t like to acknowledge this inbuilt drive for goodness.

Perhaps these two perspectives can be reconciled by saying that humans have the potential for both bad and good. Yet it seems contradictory that Bartlett says people don’t want to acknowledge human evil whereas Bregman says people don’t want to recognise human goodness. And even if humans have a capacity for both bad and good, do these writers offer insight into what enables the worst and the best?

Here, I’ll first give a brief outline of the ideas in each of these two books. Then I’ll address some key contrasts between them and suggest what we might learn from them.

The pathology of man

Steven Bartlett set out to examine the psychology of human evil. He uses the word “evil” in a clinical rather than a religious sense, to refer to humans harming each other and the environment that supports their life. Evil in this sense includes torture, genocide, war and ecological destruction. Bartlett’s quest is to identify the source of these sorts of harmful activities. His diagnosis: features of human thought and behaviour are pathological. In other words, the human species is diseased. This sounds gloomy indeed.

The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, is lengthy and erudite. Bartlett examined a great range of studies of human evil, for example by prominent figures such as psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, ethologist Konrad Lorenz and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson. He made a detailed examination of studies of genocide.

A widely held idea about evil deeds is that they are committed by psychopaths or others who are psychologically deviant. According to this view, evil is done by others, by people who are different from the norm, not like the rest of us who are normal.

Bartlett challenges this view. In a chapter on terrorism, he examines studies of the psychology of terrorists. Far from being mentally ill or deviant according to the usual ways of diagnosing mental illness, most terrorists are psychologically normal.

In his examination of genocide, especially the Holocaust, Bartlett comes to the same conclusion. Leading Nazis as well as men who were killers were, for the most part, psychologically normal.

In another chapter, Bartlett examines war, noting that it fits perfectly his definition of evil. As well as finding that most men who go to war are psychologically normal, he also notes that most people do little or nothing to try to stop war. Indeed, there are many who cheer for the troops and condemn anyone who questions their sacrifice, indeed anyone who is not patriotic. Bartlett says war is a manifestation of a disease afflicting the human species, writing that, “In short, war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).


A product of human ingenuity

Bartlett also examines human thought and behaviour in relation to ecology. He looks into standard definitions of parasites and concludes that humans are a parasitic species, living off other species and the natural environment, which can be thought of as the host. Furthermore, humans have proliferated to such an extent that they are destroying the host that enables them to live. This, Bartlett says, is an ecological pathology. He writes, “In the human species, the genetic selfishness of the parasite has taken the form of our species’ self-centeredness, our opportunistic exploitation of environmental resources, and our species’ disregard of the degree to which human activity and reproduction displace and exterminate other forms of life.”

Bartlett does not claim that everyone is involved in damaging activities. He recognises that some actively campaign against war and against ecological destruction. However, the efforts of some, or even many, do not alter his diagnosis of the species as a whole.


Steven James Bartlett

It’s not possible in a short exposition to give a sense of the massive scholarship, detailed argumentation and extensive evidence that Bartlett provides in support of his view. Suffice it to say that Bartlett makes a strong case that there is something seriously wrong with the human species, something seemingly deep-seated in patterns of thought and behaviour. (I’ve written elsewhere about some implications of Bartlett’s analysis.)

Humankind

For a complete change, turn to Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. Bregman sets out to challenge what he sees as a widespread assumption that people are inherently bad. To do this, he describes his investigations into some of the most famous stories and studies that paint humans as ready to hurt each other.

William Golding’s famous novel The Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. It tells the story of a group of British schoolboys who are stranded alone on an island. They start off harmoniously but then gradually turn against each other. Symbolically, they regress to a pre-civilised state involving cults and murder.

The Lord of the Flies was a best-seller and made into a movie. As a moral fable, it was widely seen as an accurate representation of what would happen without adult social control. But, Bregman asked, was it actually accurate? He set out to find a real-life example and after much exploration discovered that a group of schoolboys from Tonga had been stranded for over a year before being rescued. Unlike Golding’s fictional portrayal, the boys cooperated to make life as safe and sound as possible. However, unlike the response to Golding’s novel, the actual story of stranded boys received almost no attention. Bregman concludes that people are primed to think the worst of each other.

Then there are experiments that seem to show the susceptibility of people to doing bad things. In the Stanford prison experiment, run by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, male university students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or prison guards. The experiment had to be terminated early because the students’ behaviour was becoming too extreme. Ever since, this experiment has been used to show that people can quickly adopt roles.

Bregman started digging and discovered evidence casting doubt on the usual interpretation. Zimbardo and the other experimenters manipulated the situation to foster conflict. Bregman talked to participants in the experiment who said nothing much was happening until they decided to play the roles expected of them. Contrary to Zimbardo’s interpretation, the experiment did not show that the students quickly adopted the stereotypical behaviours of prisoners and prison guards.

Bregman also tackles Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments that showed that a high percentage of Americans were willing to administer serious shocks to a volunteer “learner”, following the instructions of a scientist. Bregman suggests that the experiments didn’t show nearly as much obedience as claimed.

Then there is the famous case of Kitty Genovese who in 1964 was assaulted and murdered outside a New York apartment block as numerous residents watched — and did nothing. This event was trumpeted ever after as showing that bystanders often will do nothing to stop a crime. However, Bregman discovered bystanders who helped. He also found out about journalists who had written cynical narratives about uncaring bystanders and who refused to listen to evidence contradicting their narrative. These journalists wanted people to believe in the worst interpretation of human behaviour.


Kitty Genovese

Bregman’s telling of his investigations into the Stanford prison study, Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Kitty Genovese story are models of engaging writing. In each case, he presents the orthodox view and then tells about his efforts to uncover a deeper, hidden story. Parts of Humankind read like a page-turner novel. There is a mystery, and the truth is stranger than what everyone believed for decades.

As well as critically analysing claims that humans are inherently bad, Bregman describes many examples of humans behaving with remarkable cooperation, sympathy and sacrifice for the common good. He tells about non-agricultural societies that are cooperative and non-aggressive. He presents the evidence that most soldiers do not want to kill. He tells about a prison in Halden, Norway, that is a model of enlightened rehabilitation. The prisoners are supported to become better people, and they have a lower rate of subsequent offences than those who endure prison time based on punishment. Bregman tells about Jos de Blok who runs a large business in the Netherlands that gives great freedom to employees to proceed as they see fit, with striking results. He tells about the altruism of Danish people who helped Jews to escape the country in 1943 to avoid an impending Nazi roundup.

A scene from the prison in Halden

Bregman says there is too much attention on the negative sides of human behaviour, which makes things worse in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He blames news media for continually focusing on the worst aspects of humans. He argues that humans have a great capacity for good, and that is cause for hope. Humankind is an inspiring book. (Previously I commented favourably on Bregman’s earlier book Utopia for Realists.)


Rutger Bregman

Shortcomings

Before looking at some direct comparisons, it’s worth noting some shortcomings in Bartlett’s and Bregman’s treatments. An obvious criticism of The Pathology of Man is that Bartlett gives little attention to human virtues: it seems to be a relentless focus on flaws. Bartlett acknowledges this one-sidedness, saying it is necessary to counter people’s refusal to face a bitter truth. Another potential shortcoming of The Pathology of Man is its concentration on psychology and neglect of the role of social institutions in shaping human behaviour. I will come back to this.

Humankind can be criticised for an opposite one-sidedness, namely its focus on human goodness. Bregman argues that he is redressing an imbalance and is recommending a positive sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of Bregman’s treatments of case studies can be criticised. Majken Jul Sørensen analysed writings about the Danish nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation. She found much excessive glorification, noting that the rescue of Danish Jews was neither as courageous nor as altruistic as normally portrayed. Bregman devoted enormous energies finding flaws in classic research studies and stories that show humans in a bad light but apparently did not devote quite the same critical effort when investigating stories of positive behaviour.

What do people not want to acknowledge?

The most striking contrast between Bartlett and Bregman concerns their views about what people prefer to avoid. Bartlett observes that humans shy away from recognising their capacity for evil.

“There is a strong avoidance-wish among many people that prevents them from recognizing the ugly side of the human species. It is a very nearly automatic resistance, sometimes a repugnance, to consider, even as an abstract possibility, the hypothesis that mankind may in reality not be a source and model of goodness, but rather, and to a significant extent, possesses many of the characteristics that we tend to associate with pathology. This automatic resistance or repugnance usually appears to be both emotional and intellectual in nature. It is deeply rooted—so much so that many people whom one believes to be open-minded and committed to truth in inquiry, as soon as the topic of human evil is brought to their attention, feel called upon to proclaim man’s native goodness and the praiseworthy qualities of the species, in a kind of reflex arc that blinds our species to its own failings.” (p. 7)

Bregman, in contrast, says humans are reluctant to recognise their capacity for good. He writes, “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic” (p. 4) and “In nearly every country most people think most other people can’t be trusted” (p. 12). He says, “The question that has long fascinated me is why we take such a negative view of humanity” (p. 12).

This seems like an irreconcilable difference in perspective.

Perhaps Bartlett and Bregman are both right. A key theme in Bartlett’s analysis is that most people who do horrible things are psychologically normal, so when he says that people don’t want to recognise human pathology, he’s referring to people not wanting to recognise the presence of this disease, or flaw, in themselves and those close to them. Instead, evil is always what someone else is doing: enemies, terrorists, genocidal killers.

When Bregman says that people don’t want to recognise human goodness, this may refer especially to the goodness of others. Bregman repeatedly complains about news coverage, which is primarily about bad things that people do — especially bad people somewhere else. It is implying that badness is elsewhere, thereby exempting the media consumer.

The difference between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s assumptions about recognition of evil and good may be the difference between out-groups and in-groups. Perhaps people think differently about these two groups.

Obedience studies

Bregman offers a powerful critique of studies apparently showing that ordinary people — specifically, people in the US — are easily led to do harmful things. For a comparison with Bartlett’s view, it’s convenient to look at Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority, because Bartlett also addresses them.

Milgram found that most men designated as “teachers” would keep increasing the voltage of the shock to the “learner” (an actor), even when the voltage was apparently causing serious harm. Bregman, with access to video recordings of the experiments, reveals a number of flaws in Milgram’s studies. One of them was that Milgram had no plausible explanation for the results.

Bartlett also cites Milgram’s studies. Without the benefit of Bregman’s analysis, Bartlett is not critical of them. However, Bartlett has a different complaint: given the real-world evidence about obedience from the Holocaust, other genocides and warfare, he argues that Milgram’s studies were unnecessary. This evidence shows that most soldiers will obey orders to kill others.

One of the sources quoted by Bregman is Don Mixon’s 1989 book Obedience and Civilisation. For his PhD research in the early 1970s, Mixon reproduced a version Milgram’s experiments. Mixon says that a key issue is whether the “teachers” in Milgram’s studies — namely, the experimental subjects — believed the “experimenter” or believed their eyes and ears. The nominal experimenter was acting a role for Milgram, and displayed no alarm when the “learner” was crying in pain. Most of the “teachers” believed the “experimenter” when he told them that the “learner” would not be harmed by the shocks.

I knew Don Mixon. He worked in the Psychology Department at the University of Wollongong, and we were co-supervisors for a PhD student.

Mixon argues that Milgram misinterpreted his experiments: they didn’t show obedience to legitimate authority. However, Mixon has something else to say: although Milgram misinterpreted his own experiments, his conclusions about obedience were correct. Mixon says that people are even more obedient to legitimate authority than Milgram concluded. In saying this, Mixon refers to German soldiers in Nazi Germany. This is the same example used by Bartlett to argue that Milgram’s experiments were unnecessary.

This seems a bit complicated, with Bartlett, Bregman, Milgram and Mixon. The takeaway message is that there were serious flaws in Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority. Nevertheless, both Mixon and Bartlett think obedience outside the laboratory is sufficient to show humans’ willingness to harm others. Even Bregman, after showing holes in Milgram’s research, still accepted that they showed worrying levels of willingness to harm others, writing that “No matter how you look at it, Milgram’s results remain seriously disturbing” (p. 169).

The role of hope

Towards the end of The Pathology of Man, Bartlett discusses hope. He notes that most treatments of social problems include some positive angles, some reason to hope for the future. Bartlett says hope, faith and optimism have a downside: they can obscure human shortcomings.  By constantly looking for bright spots, it becomes too easy to turn away from the threatening truth that the human species is itself diseased, with its pathology deeply embedded in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett says that when confronted with bad things, it’s better to deplore than to hope.

Nevertheless, one topic treated by Bartlett has a positive side: moral development. He examines features of individuals who develop a strong set of principles that reject the usual justifications for causing harm, and implement those principles in their lives. An example would be a pacifist who takes a stand against military systems. Bartlett’s view is that few individuals are morally intelligent in this way. Even so, figuring out how to foster this sort of thought and behaviour is a worthy task.

For Bregman, hope is crucial. The subtitle of his book is A Hopeful History. His purpose is to counter the usual negativity about humans and point to their capacity to do good. He introduces the nocebo effect: when people are told they are going to get worse, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Constant news coverage of violence and exploitation makes audiences think the world is a terrible place. Bregman says, to the contrary, there are signs of hope even in the most dire circumstances. In his final chapter, he tells about the troops in World War I who, on Christmas Day in 1914, left their trenches and joined with enemy soldiers in a cooperative celebration. If the troops had been left to themselves, the war might have been over then. Commanders had to threaten their own troops with serious retribution to get them back to fighting against the enemy.

Lessons

A key lesson from The Pathology of Man is that ordinary people, who are psychologically normal, have a capacity for evil, for harming others. Furthermore, the human species, made up for the most part of ordinary people, is causing massive damage to the natural world, undermining the systems that enable all life to exist. Only a small proportion of people make concerted efforts to oppose these damaging activities. Governments spend billions of dollars training soldiers for war and developing ever more deadly weapons, yet most citizens either support these preparations or are complacent about them. Bartlett argues that the lack of interest in opposing evil reflects deep-seated flaws in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett would like readers to look into this heart of darkness and truly acknowledge it, because otherwise we are fooling ourselves with superficial optimism.

A key lesson from Humankind is that most people want to do good: they want to cooperate and to help others. We should not assume the worst, namely assume that people will quickly and automatically succumb to their worst impulses, becoming cruel prison guards, harming helpless “learners” or doing nothing about a crime in progress. Bregman thinks there is too much attention to the bad side of human behaviour and that by paying attention to the good side, the positives can be made even stronger, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe others will do what’s right, they are more likely to do it.

These seem like contrary lessons, but in principle we can take them both on board. Indeed, it might be argued that by starting with what is good, it’s more possible to act against evil.

The flaw in humans

Bartlett examines human thought and behaviour, delving into what he sees as fundamental flaws. In doing this, he relies on studies of the psychology of evildoers, finding that most are psychologically normal, which is a serious problem: we are all potential or actual perpetrators.

By focusing on psychology, Bartlett gives relatively little attention to the role of social institutions such as the family, patriarchy, bureaucracy, the military, capitalism and the state. Social institutions are in a continual process of change, being the result of human efforts, yet can be remarkably stable in their basic features. Human psychology both shapes social institutions and is shaped by them. If Bartlett has identified a flaw in human thought and behaviour, how is this flaw related to the ways that humans organise their lives?

Concerning this question, Bregman offers insights. Building on studies of human prehistory and present-day non-agricultural societies, he argues that for most of human evolution people lived in small groups that were cooperative and egalitarian. Their lifestyles were ecologically sustainable. They did not manifest the evils of war, genocide and environmental destruction. Nor were racism and economic oppression serious problems.


Agriculture: beginning of the downfall?

Bregman, like a number of other authors, traces the beginning of the downfall to the rise of agriculture. With agriculture, human groups settled in one place, and it was possible to accumulate a surplus of food and material objects. Along with the surplus came hierarchy and a division of labour — and exploitation, oppression and organised violence against other humans.

With this picture of human social evolution, it is possible to see a reconciliation between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s analyses. This starts with the simple observation that humans have capacities for both good and evil, for living together in harmony and for the most appalling actions. How these capacities are allowed, encouraged and channelled depends heavily on the way humans organise their lives, in other words their social arrangements. When they live in autonomous groups of one or two hundred people, hunting and gathering, their positive sides are evoked. When they live in settled communities, creating large surpluses, developing advanced technologies and dominating nature, their negative sides become enabled.

Another crucial factor is hierarchy, in which some people have more power and status than others. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Bregman cites the fascinating studies by Dacher Keltner on the damaging effects of power on those who have it, including that those with power over others “are more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average” (p. 229). Modern societies are set up with command hierarchies, with some individuals having vastly more power than others, thus fostering corruption and abuse. As as well as Keltner’s research, it is worth exploring the earlier empirical studies of the corruptions of power carried out by psychologist David Kipnis.

Where does this leave us now? Some people, called primitivists, advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but in the foreseeable future this is not feasible for most of the world’s population. A more plausible path forward is to build on the positives of humans and to find ways to counter the negatives. How to do this is not obvious in a world in which scientists design ever more deadly weapons, psychologists design ways to manipulate people, economic systems lead to greater inequality and the environment comes under ever increasing stress due to population growth, affluence and technological change.

The clue may lie in social arrangements. If, as Bregman argues, many of the problems of contemporary societies stem from the rise of agriculture and all that came after, then there still remains the possibility of finding better ways for humans to live together, in other words to create better social institutions.

These need to be something different from capitalism, militarism, states, mass surveillance and other systems that enable domination of humans and the environment. Many activists and social-change agents are challenging these systems and building alternatives. In these efforts, it is worthwhile being inspired by examples of cooperation and altruism, while remaining aware of the dangerous capacities in every one of us.

Bartlett and Bregman each see themselves as voices in the wilderness, challenging serious gaps in people’s understanding of human capacities and predilections. Given their own analyses, it’s quite possible that their diagnoses will be little noticed or actioned. The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, has not received much attention. Nor has there been much further investigation into pathologies in human thought that underlie behavioural pathologies.


Is anybody listening?

A precursor to Humankind was a 1990 book by Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature. It seemingly did not dent the prevailing views about humans, otherwise presumably Bregman would not have felt the need to write his own book. Humankind is so well written that it may make more of a difference. However, it is one thing to read a book and be alarmed or inspired or both. It is something else to change the way we live in the world.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Majken Sørensen and Pheobe Wenyi Sun for useful comments.

At your best

Do you know for sure when you are being your best possible self? And how can you be that way more often?

            I came across a recommendation for a book titled Exceptional: build your personal highlight reel and unlock your potential by Daniel Cable. The title made me a bit sceptical. A “personal highlight reel” sounds suspect, reminiscent of the US self-help genre that is all about the individual and says nothing about social conditions.

Still, I was intrigued. Even since I was young, I’ve experimented with self-help techniques. They don’t have to encourage self-centredness and self-indulgence. After all, if you can be more effective in achieving your goals, you can be more effective in helping others and in contributing to positive social change. Personally, I didn’t feel a great need to unlock my potential. But I thought, “I’ll give this book a try. Then I can tell others if there is anything from which they might benefit.”

Cable tells about a man named Dave Maher whose friends thought he had died while in hospital. They posted touching comments about him — then he awoke from a month-long coma.

It seems a pity that you have to die before those who know you tell stories of what a wonderful person you were in their lives. So why, Cable asks, do you have to wait? He says there’s a great reluctance to talk about people’s strengths while they’re alive, a reluctance he calls the “eulogy delay.”

            Most people — narcissists excepted — also have a reluctance to talk about their own excellence. Combined with the eulogy delay, the result is a continual focus on shortcomings. Many people are down on themselves, being constantly self-critical. They focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend enormous energy trying to fix their weaknesses. This self-critical attitude is often applied to others. Bosses criticise their subordinates for what they do wrong.

For decades, I’ve seen this orientation to flaws among academics when they comment on each other’s research papers. They focus on mistakes and weaknesses, saying little about strengths. No wonder so many people suffer the imposter syndrome, believing that any day others will discover that they aren’t nearly as good as imagined.

Cable’s programme

Cable shows how to identify and then focus on your strengths. To benefit from this programme, you have to undertake some tasks. Just reading his book is not enough.

The first major task is to write down times when you were at your best. I did this by selecting five categories in my life where I thought I had done well.

I can understand why some people would be reluctant to write about when they’ve been at their best. It might seem too much like self-promotion. And besides, what about all the bad times? A good part of Exceptional involves Cable trying to convince you to get past these sorts of reservations. He’s seen them all before, many times, and argues that they are misguided rationalisations.

After writing about your own highlights, the next major task is more daunting. You write letters to other people in your life telling them when they were at their best. It’s sort of like writing eulogy letters, except they’re still alive.

I knew about writing gratitude letters as a result of co-teaching a class on happiness for nearly a decade. Researchers have identified a number of different activities that make most people happier, including physical activity, relationships, optimism, forgiveness — and expressing gratitude. If, every day or every week, you stop to reflect on three things that you are thankful for, like a friendship, nice weather or listening to music, this is likely to make you happier. It’s simple and easy and remarkably effective. In the happiness class, students were asked to try out an activity shown by research to increase happiness. Many of them chose expressing gratitude.

            There’s also a more powerful method for evoking the benefits of expressing gratitude: writing a gratitude letter. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, tells about doing this. You write a letter to someone important in your life thanking them for everything they’ve been and done for you. For maximum effect, you read it to them in person.

By all accounts, this is a powerful emotional experience for both parties. However, despite knowing about the research, I had never written a gratitude letter. Cable’s programme provided both the stimulus and the rationale for writing letters of gratitude. Well, not exactly, because Cable’s task is to tell others when they’ve been at their best, which is not quite the same. But there’s a significant overlap.

Cable quotes several participants in his classes who say to write as many of these letters as you can, to people in all parts of your life, past and present: family members, friends, work colleagues, neighbours. Here’s the extra part: when you write a letter to one of these individuals saying when you’ve seen them at their best, you also ask them to reciprocate by writing to you saying when you’ve been at your best.

Then, Cable advises, don’t read the replies right away. Wait until you’ve received at least ten responses, find a quiet place and read them all. Powerful indeed.

If you have doubts about your own worth or feel down on yourself in some way, this exercise can be a way to dramatically raise your morale. Moreover, it can shake you up, helping you see better what’s worth doing.


Dan Cable

Continuing

But wait, there are several more chapters in Exceptional to read. Figuring out when you’re at your best should be more than a brief feel-good exercise. You can use the insights gained from your own reflections and from others’ comments about you to identify your signature strengths and practise using them more often.

Signature strengths, also called character strengths, are things like bravery, kindness, humility and humour. There are 24 possibilities in all. Two of mine, according to an online assessment, are creativity and curiosity, and some respondents concurred. One wrote that I “latch onto a new idea or process and stay with it. You test it, integrate it, write about it, share it in all sorts of different ways.”

            You may think that focusing on your strengths is a very self-centred sort of thing to do. However, Cable has observed that it often makes people more other-directed, using their strengths to help others, to make organisations better and to engage in campaigns to improve society.

After receiving comments from many correspondents about my strengths, I felt a sense of responsibility. It’s going to be a challenge to continue to be at my best. My feeling was just what Cable said: “Learning about your most exceptional qualities doesn’t make you arrogant and complacent; instead, it makes you humble and energized to work harder” (p. 163).

Many people take their strengths for granted. Because they seem to come easily, they aren’t valued all that much. Instead, they put more effort into fixing weaknesses. Cable argues against this tendency. He says that you can often do more by building on strengths.

Habits

The biggest challenge is ahead: changing your habits. It might sound wonderful to use your signature strengths more often and more effectively, but this requires change, and this is difficult.

Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It uses engaging stories to explain how habits are broken and formed, offering great insight. I thought the book was fabulous and then discovered that so did lots of other readers. If you can identify your signature strengths, then you can formulate and execute a plan to use them more often and consistently, and to turn doing this into a habit. Not easy but very worthwhile.

I’ve noted some but far from all of the key aspects of Cable’s programme. Should you follow it? He’s the expert at using it, having worked with over a thousand people to develop their personal highlight reels and build on them. That’s why I followed his advice. His programme has strong connections with findings from research on happiness and habits. That gives me confidence.

I think the programme will be especially valuable for anyone who has doubts about their life and where they’re going in it, for anyone who wants to build stronger connections with others important to them, and for anyone who wants to make better choices about what to do with the rest of their life. That sounds like just about everyone. However, I know that overcoming the mental resistance to the activities involved can be enormous.

Last year, one of my most valued colleagues, Mark McLelland, died. Our offices were a few doors apart and we often chatted about common interests, including defending against attacks on academic freedom. We co-supervised two PhD students. I now regret that I never wrote Mark a letter expressing everything I treasured about him.


Mark McLelland

Then I think of others who have died in recent years to whom I now wish I had written a gratitude letter. Cable is quite right about the “eulogy delay.” Henceforth I’ll continue to try to overcome it.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

A singer and a crooked lawyer

In 1987, I met Delcie Schipp. She was a piano and violin teacher, but her real love was singing. We got together to play trios: Delcie as soprano voice, me on clarinet and Alice Fitzsummons on piano. We were brought together by Wayne Dixon, conductor of the Wollongong Symphony Orchestra, who suggested we might make a good combination.

Once a week, Delcie would pick me up from home and drive us to Alice’s home in southern Wollongong, where we would rehearse a range of pieces for an hour or so. The most famous piece for soprano, clarinet and piano is “Shepherd on the rock” by Schubert. We practised and performed it but soon became tired of it. I tracked down many additional pieces for the combination, plus Delcie sang solos with piano, Alice and I played clarinet and piano pieces, and we even had a couple of pieces for soprano and clarinet.


Brian, Alice and Delcie

            Over the following decade, we enjoyed playing music together, and performed occasionally at music club concerts and other events. We organised several performances at Delcie’s unit in downtown Wollongong. We would invite friends to attend, charging a small amount that we donated to a good cause. Delcie had an excellent grand piano and a large main room. She had some chairs and we encouraged guests to bring pillows to sit on the floor. These were delightful occasions.

During those years, Delcie and I had plenty of opportunities to talk during the 10-minute drives to and from Alice’s place. After a few years, Delcie started telling me about a business matter. She had been involved with a property deal that somehow involved lawyer George Harrison, a prominent figure around Wollongong. The deal had gone wrong in some way, and Delcie — or rather her lawyers — were pursuing Harrison for money. Harrison defended vigorously and the costs kept rising.


George Harrison in front of his Lagoon restaurant, 1987

            She was obviously distressed by the events but, from what she told me, I could never make sense of what had happened. She believed she had been at the mercy of some devious dealing but it seemed the details were beyond her comprehension.

It was only years later, when I read about the matters in the Illawarra Mercury, that I finally understood the sequence of events. In the late 1980s, Delcie had been involved in a property deal with Don Cameron, a real estate developer, and George Harrison, a solicitor. Delcie put up the money and the three of them planned to develop the property together. However, the development never went ahead. Delcie sold the property and was pleased that its value had increased. But she wasn’t happy that Cameron and Harrison each claimed $40,000 from the sale, because they hadn’t proceeded with the planned development.

Delcie’s lawyers pursued the two men for the $80,000. Some ten years later, in 1998, a judge ruled in Delcie’s favour, saying that Harrison had willingly lied under oath. Cameron and Harrison claimed that Delcie was financially shrewd, knowing what was happening the whole time. Delcie said she had been duped. Given that Delcie had never been able to explain to me what had happened, I thought she was telling the truth. The judge, like me, believed her and he thought Harrison was a liar.

Harrison was active in the Labor Party, and in 1999, despite the recent court ruling against him, was elected Lord Mayor of Wollongong.

Cameron bowed out of the court case and Harrison took over the legal defence. Senior Labor Party figures told Harrison to pay up, because the ongoing publicity about the case was bad for the party. But Harrison decided instead to appeal the judge’s decision. In February 2001 the appeal court ruled against him, and he declared that he would pay. But then he didn’t. He went to a higher court.

Due to legal costs and interest, the amount at stake grew, eventually exceeding a million dollars. A newspaper article at the time reported on Harrison’s many properties; he seemed to have the means to pay.

Meanwhile, due to some complex matters to do with legal insurance, it turned out that Delcie owed $700,000 to Harrison’s wife Vania. Delcie couldn’t pay. She had no income. She sold her grand piano. Then she declared bankruptcy.

In 2002, the court of appeals ruled against Harrison. The Law Society struck him off the register of solicitors and he was kicked out of the Labor Party. There were numerous newspaper stories about whether he would pay up, including stories about Delcie pleading with him to do so.

            Then Harrison declared bankruptcy. This meant he had to step down as lord mayor, because bankrupts are not allowed to hold public office. It was amazing. Rather than pay Delcie, Harrison preferred to declare bankruptcy and step away from the most prestigious public office in Wollongong.

During this time, Delcie changed her name. Rather than Delcie Schipp, she became Kathryn Chaffey. She told me she had never liked the name Delcie. It took a while to get used to calling her Kathryn, especially because newspaper stories about her stoush with Harrison still referred to her as Delcie.

Even after both parties had declared bankruptcy, the legal cases continued, but I never heard what happened in the end.

Harrison’s failure to pay was hard on Delcie, and her lawyers were left out of pocket too. She was reported as saying Harrison had destroyed her life. She contracted cancer and died in 2006, aged 70. Years later, in December 2020, Harrison died, also of cancer.


George Harrison in 2017

Are there lessons from this story? I can’t think of any obvious ones, except perhaps that amateur music is more likely to give pleasure than property deals.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Selected Illawarra Mercury stories

Lisa Carty, “‘Naive woman held to ransom’: judge’s ruling damns solicitor, real estate agent,” 22 July 1998, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty, “Labor heavies tell Lord Mayor: pay up, George,” 5 January 2000, pp. 1–2.

Lisa Carty, “‘I’ll pay’: Harrison loses court appeal,” 21 February 2001, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty and Paul McInerney, “‘Poor’ mayor has a range of rich assets,” 10 March 2001, p. 6.

Lisa Carty, “Bizarre twist: now Schipp owes Vania,” 29 November 2001, p. 9.

Louise Turk, Paul McInerney and Jodie Duffy, “Struck off! Lord Mayor unfit: Law Society,” 29–30 June 2002, pp. 1, 3.

Lisa Carty, “He’s gone: Harrison quits as mayor,” 26 July 2002, pp. 1, 4.

Lisa Carty, “The letter that could have saved George Harrison’s job: Schipp asked for $20,000, the mayor chose bankruptcy,” 27 July 2002, p. 5

Greg Ellis, “George Harrison dies after long cancer fight,” 17 December 2020, p. 6

Prophetic witness against the war machine

On 28 September 2016, a group of five people calling themselves “Peace Pilgrims” entered a prohibited zone around Pine Gap, a US military base in Australia. They were arrested and tried for trespass. The maximum penalty for their act was seven years in prison.

The story of this action and its aftermath is told with care and sympathy by Kieran Finnane in a new book titled Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent. Finnane is a long-time resident of Alice Springs, a town in central Australia. Although she was aware of the nearby Pine Gap base, she had never paid much attention to the issues involved until the protesters took their action in 2016. With Peace Crimes, she has provided the most detailed account yet available of this form of protest in Australia and the response of the government to it.

            I’m interested in this story for several reasons. In 1979, I became involved in the peace movement, with a special interest in nonviolent alternatives to military defence. I’ve studied the likely effects of nuclear war and followed disclosures about mass surveillance. Not least, for many years I’ve known one of the Peace Pilgrims, Margaret Pestorius, an incredibly knowledgeable and committed activist.

In the following, I first tell about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims and then present a series of perspectives for understanding one or both of them. I’m omitting a lot of the detail and complexity of the story. For example, in addition to the group of five Peace Pilgrims, another Peace Pilgrim protested individually and was tried at the same time. For these and other aspects, and an engaging narrative, read Peace Crimes.

Pine Gap

Beginning in the 1950s, the US government made arrangements with the Australian government to set up a number of military bases in Australia. Officially they are joint facilities, and in some bases today half the workers are Australians. However, Richard Tanter, who has carried out research on the bases, has a useful counter to the idea that they are genuinely “joint” facilities. He says that considering that the bases were built by the US government, their operations are paid for by the US government and their only functions are as part of a network of US military and spying facilities, it is reasonable to call them US bases to which Australian personnel have a degree of access.


Source: Richard Tanter, “Tightly bound“, GlobalAsia

            For decades, the most important US bases were Pine Gap and Nurrungar in central Australia and North West Cape on the western coast of Western Australia. These days, with changing technology, Pine Gap is the most important base.

One part of the base receives and analyses data from US surveillance satellites that collect vast amounts of electronic communications from land, sea, air and space origins. These satellites are in orbits that position them permanently in the same location above the earth. Another part of the base intercepts transmissions from foreign satellites, especially Russian and Chinese ones. The base also is a relay station for signals indicating potential enemy nuclear missile launches, though this function is now redundant given that signals can go direct to the US via satellite-to-satellite transmissions.


Pine Gap from the north (photo: Felicity Ruby, 23 January 2016)

Pine Gap is part of the Five Eyes network that sucks up electronic communications of all sorts, a massive surveillance operation that aims to collect everything sent via phone, email, social media, you name it. The so-called Five Eyes are the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They share surveillance information, though the US National Security Agency plays the dominant role.

Over the years, a number of writers and researchers have exposed aspects of this highly secret network. One of them was New Zealand investigator Nicky Hager in his 1996 book Secret Power, which received relatively little public attention. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked massive numbers of NSA documents to the media, generating international awareness of the extent of government surveillance.

Pine Gap’s surveillance capacities assist in US counter-terrorism and other military operations. US systems collect information about possible human targets. When a decision is made and an opportunity arises, drones are instructed to unleash missiles to destroy a target. Some of these drone attacks are in war zones such as Afghanistan; others are in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Drone killings can be called assassinations. Alleged enemies are not arrested and brought to trial, but simply killed. As well, quite a number of civilians die in the attacks. Via Pine Gap, the Australian government is implicated in a system of extrajudicial murder.

            The most significant US bases were installed in the 1960s when Australia had a conservative government, run by the Liberal-Country Party coalition that had held power since 1949. The opposition Labor Party, at the time having a socialist and nationalist orientation, had a platform that rejected US bases. However, after Labor was elected in 1972, it did nothing to implement its bases policy. Later, after Labor lost office in 1975, opponents of the bases struggled with how to proceed.

In the early 1980s, there was a huge expansion of the worldwide movement against nuclear weapons, which invigorated sentiment against the US bases. Activists argued that the bases contributed to the possibility of nuclear war and made Australia a nuclear target. Indeed, to the extent that nuclear arsenals were “counterforce” — targeted at the enemy’s nuclear war-fighting facilities — then Pine Gap was a prime target in a nuclear exchange. Without US bases, there was little reason for the Soviet military to aim nuclear missiles at Australia.

            Australian anti-base activists argued that the goal should be to get the Labor Party to change its platform to again oppose the bases, and then to get the Labor Party elected. These hopes were forlorn. After Labor was elected in 1983, it took steps to give the impression of Australian partnership in running the bases, while more deeply integrating Australia’s military posture with the US’s.

By the late 1980s, the Australian peace movement was in steep decline. Then in 1989 Eastern European communist regimes collapsed. The Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. US bases in Australia fell completely off the public agenda, though they continued their crucial role in US nuclear war-fighting operations, surveillance of electronic communications, and information gathering for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Peace Pilgrims

After the 1980s, Australian peace movement activity was low-key except for huge surges in public opposition to foreign wars, including the 1990–1991 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some activists, though, maintained attention to US bases. There have been quite a few protests, including major ones at Pine Gap in 1983 (the Women’s Peace Camp), 1987 and 2002. Of special interest here are religiously motivated activists.

            There is a long history of religious opposition to war. In countries with universal male military service, there have been resisters, those who refuse to participate, and many have been driven by their religious beliefs. In the US and several other countries, small numbers of activists have taken direct action against weapons systems, for example sneaking into military bases and using hammers to damage missiles. They are called ploughshares activists, because as Christians they take inspiration from passages in the Bible, such as this one from the book of Isaiah:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Ploughshares actions, although occasionally damaging military equipment, are largely symbolic. The activists take full responsibility for their actions and do not attempt to evade arrest. They feel driven to bear witness against war. Some US activists have spent many years in prison. Their stories are documented in The Nuclear Resister, published for many years by Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa, who I see whenever I visit Tucson, Arizona.

The 2016 action at Pine Gap was in the tradition of radical Christian peace action. The group of five protesters — Franz Dowling, Jim Dowling, Andy Paine, Margaret Pestorius and Tim Webb — expressed their commitment to the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and, as well, adopted lives of voluntary poverty and service to others in need.

The contrast between their lives and the mainstream churches is stark. Mainstream Christianity has adapted to the surrounding culture and political system. Soldiers, arms manufacturers and political leaders might be Christians, but have accepted the need for killing, and indeed have supported the development and deployment of weapons systems with the potential for mass slaughter. The Christian vow of poverty — exemplified by the Biblical saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” — has been displaced by materialism. Some churches espouse the “prosperity gospel” that glorifies making money.

The protesters who called themselves “Peace Pilgrims” wanted to intervene against Pine Gap operations to hinder what they saw as its death-dealing. However, border security around the base is tight. The area is actively monitored for trespass. The outer fence is easy to get through, but not the high inner double barbed-wire fence. In practice, the Peace Pilgrims were making a statement by the simple fact of going into a prohibited area.

The Pilgrims made careful preparations. To get as close to the base facilities as they could, they needed to walk through the night in rather treacherous territory. Andy prepared to film the base and their efforts. Margaret brought her viola and Franz his guitar so they could play a lament.


Margaret and Franz

Peace Crimes provides plenty of fascinating detail about the Pilgrims’ preparations, action and arrest. They expected to be arrested, and they were. Then there was a different sort of drama: in the courtroom. The Pilgrims were charged under a piece of federal legislation called the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. The maximum penalty was seven years in prison.

Finnane attended the case, which went on for days in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, and reported on it in the Alice Springs News.

The prosecution was led by a top-gun lawyer who did everything possible to achieve a conviction and push for harsh penalties, including imprisonment. The government was obviously doing what it could to deter anyone who might try to follow the Pilgrims’ lead.

The Pilgrims had little money and were unable to afford legal representation — so they represented themselves. Margaret and Andy led their effort to develop questions and an argument for the court. They received a bit of free general legal advice, but actually they preferred to run the case themselves since that gave them the most freedom to do it the way they wanted. A lawyer would have been more constrained.

In Peace Crimes, you can read about the legal machinations: decisions about the appropriate jurisdiction, choosing members of the jury, questioning of the judge’s objectivity, attempts to keep the proceedings closed, efforts to exclude evidence and witnesses, giving of evidence and cross-examination, and the subtle factors that determined what could be raised in testimony and what couldn’t. The Pilgrims pleaded not guilty, their grounds being that Pine Gap played an active role in committing crimes, namely in facilitating extrajudicial murder. Peace Crimes also provides fascinating information about the lives of each of the activists.

If you are familiar with any of the issues involved, you may have a view about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims or both. Here, I offer a variety of perspectives for looking at the issues. Each perspective can potentially offer insights.

Moral versus legal

The Pilgrims were driven by a deep sense of what is right and wrong, and they believed that military systems — especially those involved in foreign assassinations — are wrong. They confronted an opponent, comprising the government, the military and parts of the legal system, that justified its position based on law. The court case, described in detail in Peace Crimes, can be read as an extended conflict between morality and legality.


Northern Territory Supreme Court building, Alice Springs

The Pilgrims defended their actions in terms of morality, and tried on every occasion to bring morality into the picture. This occurred when they were arrested and questioned, and it occurred in the courtroom. They liked to bring up Biblical examples of the breaking of unjust laws.

The prosecution, taking its cues from the federal government, attempted to exclude morality from the discussion. The prosecution repeatedly objected to testimony that brought up the Pilgrims’ motivations and instead focused on a narrow legal matter, whether they had knowingly trespassed on the prohibited area around the Pine Gap base. From the prosecution’s viewpoint, it was immaterial why the Pilgrims were there. All that had to be proved was that they were there, aware that they were breaking the law.

Power

The interaction between the Australian government and the Peace Pilgrims can be seen as a power struggle. On the surface, it is a very unequal struggle. The government has the power to make and enforce laws, and has at its disposal police and prisons. Then there is the wider power of the US government and military, which supports the Pine Gap operation.

On the other side, the Pilgrims seem to have relatively little power, but this is deceptive. Why would the Australian government bother with an expensive trial against a seemingly harmless and nonthreatening group of activists who never had any realistic prospect of interrupting activities at the base? The reason is that the Pilgrims represented the potential power of citizen opposition. These few individuals posed no direct threat to Pine Gap operations but if their example were followed, a much greater threat might develop.


The Peace Pilgrims including Paul Christie, third from the right

The Pilgrims, in their action, were setting an example. The government, by prosecuting them, was also trying to set an example.

Nonviolent action

Suppose you want to change the government’s policy on Pine Gap. How could you go about it? You might write scholarly articles, set up a newsletter, lobby politicians, join political parties and campaign for politicians who support your viewpoint. You might launch an online petition or form a citizens group. All these methods are what might be called conventional political action. In Australia, they are commonplace and widely considered acceptable.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might join with a few others to launch an armed attack on Pine Gap or, more easily, on its workers or on politicians supporting it. This approach can be called armed struggle or, by its critics, terrorism.

In between conventional political action and armed struggle are a variety of methods, including ostracism of politicians supporting the base, boycotts of companies supplying it, strikes by workers opposed to the base, sit-ins in parliament — and entering the restricted zone around the base, taking photos and playing music. These sorts of methods are called nonviolent action or, alternatively, civil resistance. They go beyond the routine and acceptable methods but refrain from any physical violence.

The Pilgrims were committed to this sort of action. It can make things difficult for authorities, because it involves noncooperation, yet avoids physical violence and so cannot easily be stigmatised as terrorism.

Within the nonviolence field, two approaches are commonly distinguished: principled and pragmatic. Principled nonviolence, associated with Mohandas Gandhi, is based on a moral commitment. Pragmatic nonviolence, associated with scholar Gene Sharp, is undertaken because it is seen as more effective than violence. The Pilgrims obviously fit into the principled camp. But this distinction is a bit academic in Australia, where all activists refrain from using arms.

Activist and researcher Stellan Vinthagen offers an insightful definition of nonviolence: it is without violence and against violence. The Pilgrims, like most people in their daily lives, did not use physical violence. However, unlike most other people, they acted against violence, namely against Pine Gap and its role in military operations.

Antiwar strategy

Nearly everyone says they are against war. Those who support military defence say it is needed to deter war. Many soldiers are strongly in favour of peace.

The question is not whether to oppose war, but how. For those in what is called the peace movement, who question the current military posture, there have been a variety of views about goals. Some oppose use of Australian troops in foreign wars, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some support the Australian government cutting ties with foreign powers and having an independent defence policy. Others favour disarmament. Yet others support development of a nonviolent defence system.

Despite this wide range of visions, amazingly the peace movement has mobilised large numbers of Australians to protest against war and war preparations — but only on some occasions, such as just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In between such mobilisations, few have maintained their activism.


Australian rally against 2003 invasion of Iraq

What about strategy for the peace movement? How will it achieve its goals? Some favour public education, aided by critical analyses of military preparations. Others pursue peace movement goals by lobbying politicians and joining political parties. More visible are public protests. Another approach is to undermine the war system by challenging its roots, including the state, militarism and patriarchy.

In this context, the Pilgrims pursue peace by prophetic witness. Through their actions, they show their commitment and their vision of an alternative world. They are less worried about effectiveness than being true to their beliefs.

Evil

Steven Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist, made an exhaustive study of evil, which he uses in a non-religious sense to refer to the propensity of humans to harm each other and the environment that supports their life. In his epic book The Pathology of Man he traverses a wide range of classic writings about disease, ethology, psychology, genocide, ecological destruction and war. His central conclusion, suggested by the title of his book, is that the human species is pathological, namely having the characteristics of a disease. He argues that aspects of human thought and behaviour are so dysfunctional that they are a danger to survival, yet most humans participating in damaging activities are psychologically normal.

One of Bartlett’s case studies is war. He observes war preparations and the willingness of humans to harm each other, face to face or remotely. War preparations involve only a fraction of the population. What is significant is that so few people do anything to resist. Bartlett concludes that most people do not want to stop war preparations and war. This is a testament to the pathology of the human species.

The stark contrast between the peace Pilgrims and the power of the state used to restrain them is compatible with Bartlett’s analysis. Although there have been large protests at times, most Australians have been content to support or at least tolerate Australian military preparations and their links to foreign wars and assassinations.

One feature of this human shortcoming, according to Bartlett, is the low level of most people’s moral intelligence. Very few develop a strong feeling of disgust about cruelty, violence and other forms of human evil and have the conviction to act on their beliefs. Bartlett’s analysis suggests that the Peace Pilgrims are among these few with high moral intelligence.

Media

From the perspective of communication and the media, the role of Pine Gap and the challenge by the Peace Pilgrims can be seen from several angles. One obvious point is that the role of Pine Gap, or even its existence, receives very little attention. Arguably, Pine Gap is Australia’s most important target in the event of nuclear war, and, if Australia lacked any foreign bases, the country might not be thought worth targeting at all. Yet this existential issue is seemingly off the agenda in the mass media.

No doubt the reluctance to cover Pine Gap-related matters is in part due to the two major political parties having the same stance, which means there are no significant political disagreements to report on. The government’s draconian laws restricting media coverage of matters of “national security” no doubt play a role. Government secrecy about the role of US bases makes reporting more difficult. Also important is the absence of a strong peace movement. Social media are far less inhibited, but even there, Pine Gap is not a major issue.

The Peace Pilgrims, and other direct actions at Pine Gap, provide a news angle. Unusual events, especially arrests, are newsworthy. Imagine that the Pilgrims had asked, “What can we do to generate attention to US bases?” Their protest would have been as good an answer as any.

Finally, there is the important role of Kieran Finnane, the journalist who reported on the protests and trial and whose book Peace Crimes provides an engaging introduction into the issues — and stimulated me to write about it. Those who seek media coverage often want the largest possible audience, but just as important is the depth of impact, which can be influential when only a few individuals are affected. The Peace Pilgrims had a loyal following, in part because of the government’s heavy-handed response. Their action, as a form of communication, was not widely covered but the coverage it did receive has been quite influential.


Kieran Finnane

Moral foundations

Jonathan Haidt has written an insightful book titled The Righteous Mind. In it, he explains research by himself and collaborators concerning what he calls “moral foundations.” These are values that influence what people think is right or wrong. Haidt identifies six principal moral foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Each one has played a role in human evolution.

Consider care, the value people place on protecting and nurturing others. The protection and support that parents give to their children has obvious survival value. In many cases, people expand their sense of caring to those outside their immediate family or tribe, as when a person risks their life to save a stranger.

Haidt argues that the influence of moral foundations operates on each person’s intuitive, fast acting mind, usually without conscious awareness. Through ingenious experiments, he has shown that people make moral judgements intuitively and then try to justify them with rational arguments, which are sometimes highly contorted. In other words, people commonly reach conclusions quickly and automatically and only justify them later. More intelligent people can be better at coming up with rational-sounding explanations for their intuition-driven choices.

Haidt’s framework can be applied to the contrasting views about Pine Gap and the Peace Pilgrims. Each of the six moral foundations is relevant, but they are applied in quite different ways.

Care for others is a key driving force for the military establishment: the care is for those being defended from enemies. The Peace Pilgrims, in contrast, direct their care concerns to the victims of drone attacks and to the world population threatened by wars, especially nuclear war.

Haidt in The Righteous Mind is especially interested in differences between US liberals and conservatives. He found that liberals draw more from the moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty whereas conservatives draw more evenly from all six foundations. Consider authority, a value commonly associated with conservatives. The military is based on obedience to the authority of the military hierarchy and more generally to the authority of the government. The prosecutions of the Pilgrims were backed by the authority of the state, as manifested in the legal system.

Arguably, the Pilgrims were also drawing on authority. However, in their case, the authorities to which they responded were God and their own consciences.

Another moral foundation is sanctity, which can be expressed in rules for eating and hygiene. For example, many people find the eating of the flesh of certain animals to be disgusting. The Pilgrims might be said to be driven by their concern for the sanctity of human life, including individuals killed, far away, in drone strikes. The role of sanctity for the prosecutors does not seem so obvious until we think of Pine Gap as a sacred territory. Authorities were alarmed about the Pilgrims transgressing on the Pine Gap prohibited zone, and prosecutors took great pains to prevent images of the area surrounding the base being made public or even being seen in open court. It seems as if Pine Gap is analogous to a church; entering its grounds and taking graven images are a sacrilege to its holy mission.


Pine Gap by night. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

It would be possible to consider each one of the six moral foundations to see its role in the thinking and actions of the Pilgrims and the defenders of Pine Gap. Each foundation plays a role, but with different anchors. A key point is that the influence of moral foundations is usually unconscious, providing an emotional drive for particular thoughts and actions often without individuals being aware of the source of their thoughts and choice of actions. It is fascinating to imagine that the careful, and sometimes torturous, legal argumentation presented in the trial is a rationalisation for choices influenced by unconscious commitments about what is right and wrong.

Outrage management

When a powerful group does something that others see as wrong, the group can take various steps to reduce the level of public outrage. For example, after the 1991 Dili massacre, when Indonesian troops opened fire on peaceful East Timorese protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery, the Indonesian government and military took steps to reduce international concern. They tried to cover up the existence of the massacre, denigrated the protesters, minimised the scale of the killing, set up investigations and gave minimal sentences to a few low-level perpetrators, and intimidated the surviving East Timorese population.

Despite these efforts, the Dili massacre triggered a large increase in international support for East Timorese independence. The massacre, intended to subjugate the resistance to its rule over East Timor, backfired on the Indonesian government. Perpetrators of a wide range of injustices, from sexual harassment to genocide, use the same outrage-management techniques as those used following the Dili massacre.

The same set of tactics can be observed in relation to Pine Gap, which some people might see as contributing to a number of injustices. The key tactic is cover-up: the intense secrecy about the base and its functions and activities serves to reduce public concern. In relation to drone assassinations, there is an additional tactic: devaluation of the targets, who are portrayed as dangerous terrorists. Then there is the tactic of reinterpretation, namely providing a benign explanation for actions. Defenders of drone killings never use the word assassination. They claim that few civilians are killed, using the euphemism “collateral damage.” Finally, anyone who challenges the programme may be subject to intimidation. This is where the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act comes into play, with its severe penalties for even trivial offences.

The arrest and trial of the Pilgrims can be seen as a form of intimidation of protest, deterring anyone who might follow their example. However, the arrest and trial of the Pilgrims were potentially a new source of public outrage, so it is to be expected that the same sorts of tactics would be used by the government. The tactic of cover-up is most obvious in the concerted attempts by the prosecution to exclude evidence about Pine Gap activities.

The tactic of devaluation is apparent in the prosecution of the Pilgrims as serious criminals who should serve time in prison for their actions. A key tactic of reinterpretation is the assumption underlying the prosecution that the case is about obeying the law, with the possibility of questioning the law off the table.

One of the methods used by powerful perpetrators to reduce outrage from their action is to use official channels to give the appearance of justice. In the case against the Pilgrims, the legal system itself was the most important official channel. By going to court, the prosecution might be seen to reassure observers that it was ensuring justice — even though the legal process in this case was one-sided, with the government throwing enormous resources into the case and using its power to restrict testimony.

Powerful perpetrators do not have it all their own way. The Dili massacre illustrates how attacks can backfire on the perpetrators. To counter the tactics commonly used, challengers can use counter-tactics. They can expose the action, validate the targets, interpret the actions as unfair, avoid official channels and instead mobilise support, and resist intimidation.

The Pilgrims and their supporters used all of these counter-tactics. To counter cover-up, they publicised their arrest and trial.

To counter devaluation, the Pilgrims had only to describe their beliefs and activities: their lives of voluntary poverty and service undermined the prosecution’s portrayal of them as dangerous threats. Furthermore, they organised to get famous and not-so-famous people to write to the Australian Attorney-General requesting that the charges dropped — and to have the letter published in the Saturday Paper.

To counter reinterpretation, they described the prosecution as a gross overreaction, as itself unjust. Rather than relying solely on legal defences, they mobilised support. Finally, to counter intimidation, they valiantly resisted throughout the entire case, refusing to capitulate.

In light of the different methods used by the government and the Pilgrims, did the arrests and prosecution backfire on the government, drawing more attention to Pine Gap and resistance to it than might otherwise be the case? That is hard to judge because there is no easy way to guess what might have happened had the government decided not to press charges. In any case, the issue has not gone away. Pine Gap continues its activities and the Pilgrims, and others, bide their time.


Pine Gap. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

Conclusion

Reading Kieran Finnane’s book Peace Crimes inspired me to write something about the issues it raises. One issue is Pine Gap and military bases more generally. Another is the Peace Pilgrims and their principled challenge to military systems. Yet another is the existence of different ways of understanding protests against Pine Gap.

The dominant mainstream framing is that Pine Gap is a valuable part of Australia’s defence and that the Pilgrims, however well intentioned, should not be permitted to threaten the base’s security. Then there is the peace-movement framing, seeing Pine Gap as part of the US military machine that endangers lives around the world. It is useful to understand these positions and to be aware that they are ways of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrim challenge — but not the only possible ways. There are many others, including peace movement strategy, the contrast between moral versus legal imperatives, the role of human evil, and outrage management tactics.

Is there a best way of understanding Pine Gap and the Pilgrims? It all depends on your purpose. If you want to pass judgement, some perspectives are more useful than others. If you want to know what you might do to take action, that’s another matter. It is quite useful to draw a key insight from the study of moral foundations, namely that people commonly form a judgement based on their intuitive response and then subsequently find or create rational-sounding justifications for their views. The implication is that it can be extremely difficult to change someone’s mind by providing evidence and rational arguments. When judgements are grounded in gut reactions, changing them usually requires something other than reason.

In the case of Pine Gap and the Pilgrims, a key judgement is whether it is worth paying any attention to them at all. Because there is little mainstream media coverage, many people assume nothing important is happening. If you decide there is, and you want to know more, then it is valuable to seek information from a variety of perspectives. One crucial source is Kieran Finnane’s Peace Crimes.

P.S. The Peace Pilgrims were found guilty. The prosecution had called for imprisonment but the judge instead imposed fines of a few thousand dollars each. For the Pilgrims and their supporters, this was good news.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For assistance and valuable comments, thanks to Cate Adams, Sharon Callaghan, Jack Cohen-Joppa, Kieran Finnane, Margaret Pestorius, Yasmin Rittau, Richard Tanter and Tom Weber.

A Greta story

Greta Thunberg is an amazingly influential activist, perhaps the most influential worldwide this century. Appalled by the lack of government action on climate change, in 2018 she staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm. As a 15-year-old student, she was skipping school to protest. Gradually others joined her, and news reporters took up the story. Through social media, her example triggered student protests around the world.

I have just watched the extraordinary documentary film I am Greta. Acting on a tip, director Nathan Greenberg decided to film Greta’s activities from her very first protest. He had no idea then that she would become world famous within a few months.

The film follows Greta, often accompanied by her father, as she travels around Europe, by train or electric car, giving short talks at prominent meetings, and addressing large protests where she is greeted as a hero.

Greta is not a scientist: she has not made a deep study into the science of climate change. Neither is she a seasoned activist, with special insights into campaigning. She is exactly as she presents herself, a schoolgirl who is disgusted with the world’s leaders for refusing to act on the research showing a pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In I am Greta, we see her meeting French president Emmanuel Macron, speaking at climate change conferences, meeting the Pope, and speaking at rallies. She was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York. Refusing to fly because of the climate impact, we watch her journey across the Atlantic in a racing yacht.

            Greta has been inspirational to millions around the world, especially young people. Her message is that the world’s elders have failed to protect the Earth, so those who will inherit the Earth, the world’s youth, must protest until action is taken.

Greta’s action served as a spark in a highly receptive social environment. Well before she arrived on the scene, climate change had become the rallying point for the most significant new social movement in decades. There are campaigners and participants across the globe, drawing support from a wide cross section of the population. It is a remarkable movement because, unlike the labour, feminist or anti-racist movements, participants have little to gain for themselves.

Climate change is already having impacts. Yet, to the degree that the movement succeeds, its main beneficiaries will be future generations, many decades in the future. The movement is thus a mobilisation of altruism, of commitment to humankind, other species and the natural environment.

The movement is pitted against formidable foes. Most obvious is the fossil fuel industry, digging up coal, oil and natural gas for profit. Also crucial is social infrastructure and people’s habits, especially those who are affluent. Consumer goods, housing, transport, food production, and consumerism more generally, are built on using lots of energy. As critics have been saying for decades, ever-lasting economic growth is not sustainable.

Greta has been an inspiration because she has expressed a simple truth, that urgent action is needed — and pointed to the failure of leaders. A curious aspect of her fame has been her reception in major world forums. I am Greta shows her giving bluntly-worded speeches to world leaders and receiving rapturous applause. Strange to say, she is lauded for telling leaders that they are not doing what is required. We see her become disillusioned by participating in what seems to be a charade.

By far her biggest impact has been on young people worldwide. Those who attend protests rather than attending classes — sometimes supported by their teachers, sometimes not — become exposed to different truths about society, and experience the exhilaration of taking a public stand in solidarity with others. Greta was the spark for this huge mobilisation and remains an inspiration.

In light of her message and her experience with world leaders, why should she bother addressing their forums? It seems like a contradiction to put effort into addressing the older generation of political leaders, and condemning them, when they seem to be the least responsive audience. Yet there is an intriguing aspect of celebrity involved here. Greta’s biggest impact is the example she sets for young campaigners. By being feted by world leaders, Greta’s own fame increases, and thereby her influence on young admirers.

            Greta has Asperger’s syndrome. In I am Greta, we learn about her struggles, including three years when she was able to interact with only her parents and her dogs. In becoming a popular icon, she has had to push well outside her comfort zone. This is part of what makes her such an inspirational figure.

For any movement, charismatic leaders can play a powerful role but also pose risks. A prominent leader can be tempted by fame and power to forsake the cause. Alternatively, any personal weakness can be a point of attack: discrediting a leader is an often-used way of discrediting a movement.

Greta, so far, has not succumbed to the corruptions of power. Nor has her credibility been dented by those who denounce her. In the film we see and hear from some of her detractors, and in their nasty put-downs it is they who sound like petulant children. In this context, Greta’s single-mindedness about the climate may be her greatest strength.

            I am Greta is a remarkable window into the life of a girl who has become an inspiration to millions worldwide. In being a snapshot, it necessarily leaves the story unfinished — not just Greta’s story, but the story of the climate movement and the future of the Earth. Those who sympathise with the movement can be energised by the film; those who don’t may hate it.

Few of us can ever expect to become Greta-like figures. By the nature of celebrity, there’s room at the top for only a very few. That’s fine. Being an inspirational figure depends on vast numbers of others doing their own bit for the cause — and for those in the climate-change movement, there is plenty to do.

Postscript

As I write this in late October, there have been 1587 ratings of I am Greta on the Internet Movie Database. The average rating is 2.9 which, if sustained, would place the film among the 25 lowest rated movies of all time. Given the film’s good production values and its straightforward narrative, the most plausible explanation for this anomalously low rating is a concerted effort by some climate sceptics to discredit the film and Greta. Reading user reviews and other comments on social media, it is apparent that Greta triggers strong antagonistic emotions in quite a few people, especially men. All I can suggest is that if you don’t believe in climate change induced by human activity and you want to arouse your inner beast, then be sure to watch I am Greta.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Mark Diesendorf and Theresa Huxtable for useful comments.

The virus and the economy

The coronavirus pandemic highlights fundamental shortcomings in the way the economic system is set up.

What is the best way to respond to covid-19? There is commonly assumed to be a trade-off between lives and the economy: precautions and controls are needed to save lives but they cause damage to the economy.

There’s an unstated assumption in this thinking, namely that “the economy” is vital to people’s wellbeing. This needs to be questioned. It has been long known that the Gross Domestic Product or GDP is not an accurate reflection of people’s wellbeing. GDP is boosted by negatives such as traffic accidents, environmental destruction and ill health.

A deeper problem is that people’s happiness levels are not very sensitive to increases in average income, at least above some basic level. Happiness depends more strongly on things like close personal relationships, having a purpose in life, physical activity, expressing gratitude and helping others. In countries with a high GDP per capita, average happiness levels have been mostly stable for decades despite continuing economic growth.

            Another problem is inequality. GDP per capita might be high but hide inequality: the average income might be rising but mainly to benefit the top 10% or top 1%. The more unequal the distribution of income and wealth in a country, the worse off it is in lots of ways, such as more illness, crime and mental disorders.

The economic system

Pandemic control measures have highlighted the problem of thinking of the economy as a universally beneficial entity that needs to be protected and enhanced. The economic system is better understood as a particular way of organising two things: production and distribution.

First think of the production of goods and services, which involves people, skills and technology. Food production, for example, involves growing and harvesting crops and getting them to consumers. We see the results of production around us all the time: streets, hairdressers, schools and mobile devices.


Do you deserve to own a luxury villa?

The second part of the system is distribution, which refers to who gets what. Some people have palatial homes; others are homeless. Some people have access to expensive entertainment; others do not. The assumption underlying the distribution system is that it is based on merit in some way, so those who contribute the most receive the most. This assumption is deeply flawed.

Suppose you were born with a serious brain impairment and your parents abandon you. It will be pretty difficult for you to learn to read and write, much less obtain a high-level job. Do you deserve less than someone born unimpaired into a wealthy family?


Do you deserve to be homeless?

            You may feel that you’ve worked very hard in your life, so you deserve a good salary. But what about someone who worked just as hard but had a bit of bad luck and ended up in an also-ran category? The difference between a sports star and one who didn’t make the grade may be a matter of a few seconds in a race or being injury-free or getting a lucky break. The difference between a CEO and lower-level manager may be only a matter of who you know or of having just the right style and conformity to rise in the organisational hierarchy. The role of luck in success is often neglected.

The way the economic system distributes goods and services to people depends on a whole range of arbitrary arrangements, including laws on inheritance, occupational barriers, and the sorts of employment that receive compensation. Being a parent is usually unpaid, yet it is vital to the operation of the system.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the arbitrariness of the distribution system. Entire industries, such as tourism and hospitality, have been devastated. The idea that workers get what they deserve is shown up as misguided. It was misguided before, but now this is more obvious.

Universal basic income?

What is the alternative? One option is a guaranteed annual income, also known as a universal basic income or UBI. Everyone, from newborns to the elderly, would receive a regular income, no strings attached. Anything earned would be in addition.

            Many people respond to the idea of a UBI with a series of objections. How will it be paid for? Who will do the undesirable jobs? Won’t lots of people just decide not to work? There’s a body of research and writing addressing such objections. The calculations about how to pay for a UBI have been carried out. If no one wants to do undesirable jobs, then increase wages. There have been experiments showing that when poor people are given cash, nearly all use it “responsibly.”

The objection that people can’t be trusted to use money responsibly is always used against the poor, not the rich. If people can’t be trusted receiving money they didn’t work for, then inheritance should be abolished. After all, someone inheriting a lot of money can’t be trusted to use it responsibly.

The other side of the UBI issue is its benefits. Millions of workers would be liberated — if they so wished — from what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs that benefit no one and could be gotten rid of with no loss of productivity.

            Decades ago, J. W. Smith wrote The World’s Wasted Wealth, documenting the massive amount of production in excess of needs in industrial and post-industrial societies. Smith showed that a large percentage of work in many occupations serves only to redistribute wealth to those occupations, with case studies of insurance, law, transport, agriculture, medicine and welfare. Smith also argued that property rights, by being too great, take wealth from the community, with case studies of land, finance capital, intellectual property and communications. His overall conclusion is that organisation of society is highly wasteful and destructive, all to ensure that privileged groups retain their privilege.

            Work is a vital part of many people’s lives. It gives meaning, provides a connection to others and, bullshit jobs aside, provides some satisfaction for contributing to society. There’s evidence that people gladly accept lower pay if their work helps those with the greatest need. Indeed, research shows that helping other people is a powerful way of increasing happiness.

A UBI would also address the curse of the contemporary economy, job insecurity. In the economic approach called neoliberalism, workers are treated as free agents who have to sell themselves to employers, without guarantees of security. This is supposed to boost “the economy” but sacrifices the wellbeing of a large number of the people who are supposed to be served by the economy.

Job insecurity contributes to the spread of the coronavirus when people who have disease symptoms feel they must show up for their jobs to survive. A UBI would reduce the incentive to work while ill and thus save lives.

Industrial and post-industrial societies have an enormous productive capacity, far greater than necessary to provide necessities to every individual and to provide extra support for those who need it the most. Yet these societies are stuck in economic arrangements that assume scarcity, protect and reward the wealthy and stigmatise the poor and marginalised. Logically, it would make much more sense to celebrate abundance and spread it around. In part, this can be done by expanding the commons, those resources that are available to all. In part, it can be done by designing work around the needs of people rather than fitting people into slots in “the economy.”

What level for society?

In their pioneering book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett gathered a range of evidence about the links between economic inequality and the quality of life. They found a remarkable consistency in these links: in just about every way, inequality was associated with bad outcomes for people. When societies are more unequal in income and wealth, they are likely to have more crime, shorter life spans, higher prison populations, more mental illness, worse health and poorer educational performance.

           It is important to note that inequality is not the sole causative factor. For example, a range of socio-cultural factors can affect people’s wellbeing.

A decade later, Wilkinson and Pickett wrote another book, The Inner Level, in which they canvass a wide range of research on the ways that inequality affects people’s behaviour and thinking. Inequality, they argue, makes people more status-sensitive, fosters materialism and makes relationships more difficult. Wilkinson and Pickett write,

“The reality is that inequality causes real suffering, regardless of how we choose to label such distress. Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame which feed into our instincts for withdrawal, submission and subordination: when the social pyramid gets higher and steeper and status insecurity increases, there are widespread psychological costs. Status competition and anxiety increase, people become less friendly, less altruistic and more likely to put others down.” (p. 56).

Wilkinson and Pickett say that inequality leads to pressure to present yourself to others in a flattering light. It leads to more narcissism, more business psychopaths, less empathy and altruism. Yet there is some hope. Studies show that when rich people think about egalitarian values, they become more ethical. Wilkinson and Pickett cite surveys showing most people would prefer their societies to be more equal economically.

Research on inequality suggests that everyone, including the rich, would be better off if societies were more equal, yet the driving forces pushing for ever greater economic inequality seem relentless, at least since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. How to help counter these forces is a great unanswered question. Suffice it to say that groups are doing what they can to raise awareness, promote alternatives and encourage action.

            In this context, the pandemic is a wildcard. It offers an incentive for communities to pull together and make sacrifices to protect those who are most vulnerable. It sends a message that there is more to life than money and status. Indeed, life itself is at stake. Furthermore, pandemic control measures, by requiring greater distancing between people, have highlighted the importance of personal relationships in wellbeing. By forcing some people to slow down, the control measures have the potential to encourage people to reflect on their lives and priorities.

On the other hand, pandemic control measures are having some disastrous effects, increasing the risk of domestic violence and suicide, while enabling governments to justify draconian powers for surveillance and control of movement. It is possible to lapse into despair at the prospect of a terrible choice between control measures of indefinite duration and a continuing health crisis. A more positive agenda comes from looking at the way the pandemic opens the door to greater thinking of ways to improve people’s lives. It does not come from thinking of a choice between covid-19 and “the economy.” The emphasis needs to be on people’s needs, especially those that come from relationships of mutual support, meaningful work and helping others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson and Richard Eckersley for helpful comments.

This post was published in Social Medicine and (in Spanish) in Medicina Social in vol. 13, no. 2, May-August 2020.