Category Archives: tactics

When they attack you online

Online attacks on your reputation can be distressing and difficult to deal with. Sometimes there are no good options, just options that are less bad.

            What’s the problem? On your favourite Facebook page, something you wrote is taken out of context to convey the opposite of what you meant. Then there are claims that you took a bribe. There’s a website with compromising photos, featuring you! Your boss and co-workers receive racist messages — from your email address. And there are news stories linking you with hate groups.

            Imagine that your activist group becomes the subject of repeated nasty, damaging messages online, where they are seen by audiences you care about. There are blatant falsehoods, repeated over and over, and subtle misrepresentations that seem plausible enough to believe. Your group’s Wikipedia page is hostilely edited to make all of you seem self-interested and misguided. There are deepfake videos that falsely show your leading members renouncing their views and engaging in salacious activities.

            It’s bad, but it’s not new. Even before the Internet, individuals and groups were attacked in the mass media and in campaigns organised by opponents. But quite a few things about online attacks are different, many of them worse.

            Anonymity It’s now easier for attackers to hide their identity. This means you can’t easily assign responsibility or begin a dialogue.

            Less restraint When you can’t see the other person, and they can’t see you, it’s easier to be nasty. Researchers call this the online disinhibition effect. In contrast, when you’re face to face with someone, personal and social expectations encourage politeness: people are more reluctant to be rude.

            Less filtering Editors of newspapers screen submissions to weed out inappropriate material. This does not eliminate problems but at least reduces them. In contrast, many online platforms are not moderated, or not very well: there is less filtering. This makes it far easier for attackers to post their material.

            Permanence After someone posts a hostile comment, it can stay there indefinitely, and others can post it elsewhere. It’s not so easy to have the comment removed. In contrast, spoken comments and ones in print only are less likely to have lasting impacts.

            New technology Tools using artificial intelligence are readily available that enable users to alter photos and create videos in which, for example, your face realistically replaces someone else’s. You might be shown chatting with Vladimir Putin or kicking a puppy.

Reputations under attack

This is the sixth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and malicious gossip.

Options

Imagine you’re in a group dedicated to public welfare. Opponents mount a campaign to discredit your most prominent figure, Alex, and your group, with false claims and nasty comments on Facebook pages, doctored pictures on Instagram, and a webpage with a “Hall of shame” listing Alex’s personal details and contact information, inviting harassment. Your website is hacked and your Wikipedia page is edited to put your group in an unfavourable light.

            It sounds horrible, and it is. Before doing anything, it’s worth thinking through options, examining each type of attack and choosing the most effective option.

Ignore

For some attacks, it’s easier and safer to do nothing. If nasty comments are on an obscure Facebook page, responding to them might only draw more attention to them. Fake videos may be unbelievable. If your reputation is sufficiently strong, you may not need to worry. Remember that you will probably think negative comments and images are more significant than they seem to others.

Reply

In some cases, you can reply in the same forum, or another one. Prepare a careful comment and post it in the same place, or another one, or send it to your supporters. What sort of comment? It might be better to focus attention on your positives and not spend too much time countering hostile comments. Often, readers don’t have the time or interest to get to the bottom of disputes: “they said – we said.” Instead, they will be influenced by the style of the comments. If you come across as calm, sensible, coherent and generous, this can be more effective than an angry rebuttal.

Counterattack

You’re aware that your attackers are hypocrites, are being funded by a notorious source, and have a long record of discreditable behaviour. Instead of defending against false claims, you can try to discredit the attackers, exposing their agendas and methods.

            Sometimes this can work wonders. It’s also risky, because it might lead to more abusive exchanges.

Complain

It’s the obvious option: make a complaint to someone in authority. It might be a tech company like Facebook, an Internet service provider or a government agency. You can ask them to take down offending posts, photos and videos, cut off service to offenders or in some other way stop the abuse.

            The trouble is getting a response. The history of tech company responses to obvious violations of rules, such as sending death threats, is that usually nothing much is done. The company may consider the comments about you and your group “acceptable.”

            There’s another problem. Even if you get some action from authorities, the attackers might just pop up somewhere else, using different names. In fact, after they learn what you’ve done to try to stop them, they might become more careful — and more persistent. Furthermore, they might start claiming you’re a censor.

Take legal action

You can sue for defamation. Good luck, because you’ll need it. Sometimes you can’t even identify the attackers. Even if you can, legal processes are slow and expensive, and most cases are settled out of court. If, by unlikely chance, you have some success in court, attackers can continue their assault, being extra careful to remain anonymous.

            Suing has another disadvantage. The attackers can publicise your legal action, giving even more attention to their claims. You might become a victim of the Streisand effect, in which an attempt to silence someone online leads to greater publicity about their claims.

Reputation management

Rather than trying to get rid of damaging material online, you can try to overwhelm it with positive material. You can set up websites and Facebook groups and encourage supporters to make comments on them and links to them. People searching the web seldom look beyond the first few links, so if you can push adverse material to the second page, few will see it. In general, having positive material adds to your reputation, often far more than trying to directly counter negative material.

            Reputation management techniques only work for some types of attack, mainly hostile material online. It doesn’t address damaging emails.

            You can pay reputation management services to do this sort of work for you, but it can be quite expensive. There’s plenty of information available for companies. You can also do it yourself.

Protect

If online attacks put you in personal danger, you need to protect yourself and other group members. If you are doxxed, the online threats might lead to physical ones. Consider what you need to do to ensure your safety. In extreme cases, this might mean moving away from home, closing all your social media accounts, changing your phone number, even adopting another name.

            If you are outspoken online, have a public profile, you may receive hostile messages, especially if you are a woman or member of a minority group. The more prominent you become, the more likely you are to receive threats and abusive messages via email, phone and social media platforms. This is serious and you need to find ways to protect yourself. Note that when you receive a threat by a direct message, it may be extremely distressing but it is not an attack on your reputation, because your reputation is what other people think about you.

Set an example

Try to behave in a model fashion: polite, sensible, supportive, generous, courageous. Many people who know you will see the attacks as lies and misrepresentations. Some of them might be able to counter some of the attacks.

Organise

Find others who have been attacked, and join with them to resist. This might mean collecting documentation to highlight the problem, sharing insights about what works and what doesn’t, providing mutual support to deal with trauma, and working together for common causes. You and your group shouldn’t try to do it all on your own.

            Tech companies make more money the longer users stay on their platforms, and one way of keeping users engrossed is by making them angry. This isn’t a conscious plan but just results from algorithms carefully designed to maximise screen time and hence profits. Changing the algorithms means changing the entire business model, for example by making the companies non-profit public entities. That’s not going to happen easily or quickly!

Conclusion

Online attacks are especially difficult to handle. Sometimes there’s little you can do. Complaint procedures are weak and ineffective, and counterattacking might make things worse. There’s no easy solution, so think about your values. At the very least, you can behave according to the highest principles. Others can attack your reputation, but you can still behave ethically and altruistically.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Clark Chilson, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde and Julia Nennstiel for helpful comments.

When they gossip about you, with malice

You discover that others are talking about you — and you don’t like what they’re saying!

            One of your closest friends tells you, “They’re saying the only reason you’re helping at the charity is to impress people.” Who are “they”? People who apparently know you.

            At work, word goes around that you and Chris are in a romantic relationship. Yes, the two of you work together, but what they’re saying is absurd, and offensive.

            One of your neighbours asks what seems like an innocent question about your family. It suggests people are making assumptions. Has one of your family members been telling tales about you?

            The gossip is upsetting and is getting in the way of what you’re trying to do. You can’t get it out of your head. What can you do about it?

Reputations under attack

This is the fifth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and online attacks.

Functions of gossip

You probably engage in gossiping yourself, so you know something about it. It’s a rare person who never says anything, or at least anything negative, about others behind their backs.

            Why do people spend so much time talking about others? Researchers argue that gossip is part of what helps group members coordinate their relationships. By sharing thoughts about others, people build bonds. In the right circumstances, gossip can help a group operate more efficiently.

            When you meet someone in one of your networks — neighbourhood, workplace, club or church — it’s useful to have a starting point, and it’s also useful to know something about them, so you don’t say the wrong thing. Gossip helps you learn something about them beforehand. It helps you interact with a wider circle of people without making a mess of it.

            There’s lots of research on gossip, carried out in different ways, looking at positive and negative aspects and examining different functions and impacts. But researchers seem to have little to say about how to resist harmful gossip. The most practical advice I found is on WikiHow.

Resisting malicious gossip

Although gossip has positive functions, it can also be nasty — exceedingly nasty. It can spread falsehoods, poison relationships, promote prejudice and even drive someone out for no good reason.

            If you think gossip is unfairly hurting your reputation, what can you do about it? Should you do anything about it? Consider these options.

Ignore

In many cases, it’s best to ignore gossip, whether it’s about you or others. You might listen and learn, including to find out who repeats stories. Does one of your friends quickly pass on every confidential comment, with a few creative embellishments? If so, be careful not to say anything to them you don’t want repeated.

Learn, and possibly change

Sometimes you can learn what others think about you. If there’s a grain of truth in the gossip, and you don’t like that truth, you may decide to change your behaviour. Maybe you should be kinder in your comments, or more explicit. Maybe you should be more open about your beliefs and intentions, or more cautious in revealing them.

Welcome

Maybe the gossip is benefiting your reputation. How? People who know you might be offended by nasty and unwarranted comments about you, and come to your defence. They might think less of the gossiper. The person trying to discredit you might actually be damaging their own reputation. Before you act, try to find out if this process is happening.

Defend

If everyone you know seems to have heard malicious gossip, you may choose to counter it. You could send an email to everyone, or just to a few individuals who you know will circulate it to others. Or you could print out a statement and put it in people’s mailboxes.

            What should you say? You could say that some people are making negative comments about you, and then deny them, or present correct information. Your statement needs to be carefully worded. It’s usually best not to name or blame anyone: “Unfortunately, there’s been some incorrect information about what I’ve been doing. Here’s what’s really happening.” The idea is to appear magnanimous rather than distressed or vindictive.

            An even better option is to find someone who will speak on your behalf, preferably someone with credibility. They can make a statement in defence. Alternatively, and usually more effectively, they can provide some news about you and what you’ve been doing. It’s positive news. It doesn’t mention the nasty gossip but counters it implicitly.

Counterattack

You can fight gossip with counter-gossip. You can try to start nasty rumours about the person or group you think are spreading comments about you.

            This is a risky sort of response, because it might lead to an escalation of rumour-mongering. As well, you might gain a reputation as a malicious gossiper!

            A safer approach is humour. You could make jokes about the gossip, or about yourself, that are obviously absurd. “Did you hear the story of how I climbed up the side of a building just to show off?” Be careful, though, because even apparently absurd stories can sometimes be taken seriously, or used against you.

Praise your enemy

Counter-intuitively, you can try saying nice things about the people spreading hostile gossip about you. This might confuse them or make them rethink. You might be able to start a virtuous cycle of positive comments.

Confront

Years ago, I attended an all-day workshop on “Dealing with difficult people.” Our presenter was experienced and wise. Someone asked her about malicious gossip. She told about a bold technique. She identified the source of the gossip and said to them, “Someone said you are spreading stories about me. Is that true?” The person denied spreading stories, but there weren’t any more after that.

Take legal action

You could threaten to sue for defamation. You could pay a lawyer to write a letter threatening legal action and demanding the person cease and desist.

            Threats to sue are only credible if you have strong evidence of people gossiping about you, for example tape recordings. Threats might work against some people, but they might also lead to more hostile gossiping. Worst of all, threats poison the atmosphere. You might end up with a worse reputation than before.

Mobbing

“Mobbing” is collective bullying. In the workplace, it involves an organised attack on a target, which can include ostracism, petty harassment, onerous work demands, denunciations, referral to psychiatrists — and malicious gossip. If you are the target of mobbing, gossip is just one worry among many. You need to work out a plan to resist. Often, unfortunately, it is better to leave. Your health and wellbeing are more important than any job.

Conclusion

Gossip can be harmless. It can be functional, allowing people to share feelings about others. However, some gossip is misinformed and deliberately harmful. There are so many variations and possibilities that there’s no single best response to gossip that you think is harming your reputation.

            Consider your options, including doing nothing. It might be that by behaving in an honourable and supportive way, you counter gossip through your actions, without saying anything. But sometimes this isn’t effective. Others may be trying to damage your reputation, and are afraid to say anything openly, and will persist. Before taking action, try to find one or two people you trust, and discuss options with them.

            Try to be generous in whatever you do — even if you don’t feel generous! The way you respond to gossip may well form the basis for future gossip.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.

Incidentally, most of the images about gossip I found show women as the gossipers, to other women or sometimes men, and hardly any showing men whispering to women.

When they link you to something bad

When you are subject to “guilt by association,” what can you do?

In the early 1980s in Western countries around the world, there was a massive citizen mobilisation against nuclear war. Critics — defenders of Western military strength, including nuclear weapons — attacked the movement by claiming it was a tool of the Soviet Union, and that Communists were involved. These critics used the tactic of “guilt by association”: if Communists supported the movement, or were in the movement, this discredited the entire movement.

            Repressive governments use the same technique. They claim that opponents are funded by the CIA or are tools of other foreign powers.

            Guilt by association can also be used to discredit individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the leading US critic of fluoridation was Dr George Waldbott, a doctor and researcher, author of numerous publications. The American Dental Association compiled a dossier titled “Comments on the opponents of fluoridation” listing various individuals with far-out ideas, reactionary groups like the Ku Klux Klan — and a few scientists, including Waldbott, with damaging statements about him.

This dossier was circulated for years whenever Waldbott gave talks or testified to legislatures. It served to discredit him by associating him with crackpots and political fanatics. (See Scientific Knowledge in Controversy, and search for “dossier”.)

Reputations under attack

This is the third in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, malicious gossip and online attacks.

Guilt?

“Guilt by association” refers to a process by which the reputation of a person or group is hurt by being linked to a person, group, belief system or activity that is widely stigmatised. The word “guilt” is a bit misleading. The process might better be called “denigration by association” or “stigma by association.”

            This process is found in all sorts of circumstances. Some people will not buy or live in a house where a foul murder was committed. The house is tainted by association with the murder, and buyers don’t want to be tainted by association with the house. This connection might be called superstitious; it is founded on stigma by association. Another example: it is common for children of known criminals to be bullied at school. A moment’s thought should be enough to realise that the children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents.

Guilt by association is a powerful process because it operates without conscious deliberation. It is an automatic reaction and hence difficult to challenge.

            Guilt by association is an attack on reputation, and often quite an unfair one. It is not about some transgression or failing by you or your group, but rather just about your connection with someone or something that is negatively perceived. Logically, an association should be carefully probed to assess its significance. If left-wing or right-wing extremists support your cause, does it mean your cause is any less worthy? The onus of proof should be on those who make the attack but, alas, it’s usually the other way around. Those subject to a guilt-by-association attack need to figure out how to defend. There are several options.

Disown

The association may be so toxic that you want to distance yourself from the stigmatised linkage. Leaders of nonviolent movements might decide to condemn anyone or any group that uses violence, even those with the same aims.

            A guilt-by-association attack on a group can lead to internal strife. A political party might expel members with viewpoints hurting its reputation. The disowning option may come with a high cost.

Accept

Instead of disowning an association, a completely different approach is to accept it, even to welcome it. “Our group is open to anyone who shares our aims. We don’t discriminate.” Can you get away with this? It depends. The broader and stronger the group, the safer it is to use the acceptance option.

Counterattack

When criticised over your associations, you can counter by pointing to the critic’s unsavoury connections. If you’re linked to left-wing extremists, you can point to your critic’s links to right-wing extremists.

            This can be a potent response, especially when critics are obviously hypocritical. Nevertheless, there’s an important drawback in this response: it cements the use of guilt-by-association techniques.

Explain

You might try to explain why stigma from an association is not logical. You can say that just because you live next door to a convicted criminal doesn’t mean you’re less than honest. In fact, it might show your tolerance, generosity and forgiveness. Explanations are valuable when others listen and stop to think.

Ignore

Sometimes you can just ignore attempts to discredit you using guilt by association. Maybe you don’t care or maybe you realise that by defending against the implied allegations, you simply draw more attention to them.

Honour by association

A potent counter to stigma by association is to make connections with people or things that are highly valued. This is called reflected glory or honour by association. You didn’t do anything special but knowing a celebrity or brain surgeon gives you greater status.

            Honour by association is all around us. You might think you’re not susceptible to this process because, after all, it’s just an association and the positive spin-off is not sensible. Consider some examples.

  • Selfies taken with prestigious or good-looking people or locations.
  • Name-dropping: mentioning famous or accomplished people you’ve known, met or even just seen. The opposite is name-withholding: you don’t mention low-status individuals you’ve known.
  • In academic work, citing well-known intellectuals, but not obscure ones.
  • Having prestigious figures as patrons for your organisation.
  • Having high-status individuals as referees for job applications rather than lower-status individuals who know you better.
  • Barracking for a sporting team that is doing well, but dropping away when they’re not.
  • Choosing to live in a high-status suburb.
  • Attending a prestigious university rather than an equally good but lower status one.
  • Entering a respected occupation (doctor, lawyer).
  • Attending talks by famous people (rather than equally informative talks by others).
  • Owning a nice house, car, watch, clothes, etc., and making sure others see your possessions.
  • Being seen with good-looking or popular people.

These examples suggest the powerful role of honour by association in the way societies operate, especially ones driven by materialism, in which striving for status through possessions and titles, for getting ahead, takes precedence over the quest for a virtuous life. Honour by association is important in politics: politicians acquire status mainly through their positions, not their achievements. Indeed, being prominent is often thought of as an achievement itself, as in the case of celebrities who are famous for being well known.

            Although honour by association is often an unconscious process and used to serve dubious purposes, there is nothing wrong with using it for worthwhile goals. Consider the circumstances of people with intellectual disabilities, who are often shunned and looked down upon. Wolf Wolfensberger developed an approach called social role valorisation, or SRV, to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.


Wolf Wolfensberger

Part of SRV is promoting positive images through enhanced competencies and favourable associations. Honour by association comes from being well dressed in the company of valued individuals, living in a nice neighbourhood (and not next to a cemetery or waste dump), and having a respected job.

Implications

When your reputation is threatened by a guilt-by-association technique, you have a variety of options. Rather than responding quickly and emotionally, it’s worth choosing the option that serves your purposes most effectively. It might be tempting to respond to an attack with outrage, or to counterattack, but maybe remaining silent or calmly pointing out the lack of logic might be better.

            You can also use the technique of honour by association to enhance your reputation. And you can use this technique to help others. Assuming you and your group are respected, you can make a difference by aligning yourselves with others who are stigmatised. When it comes to the reputation game, we can all make a difference.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, John Armstrong and Anneleis Humphries for useful comments.

When they call you a bad name – and hurt their cause

Sometimes using derogatory labels can be counterproductive.

My recent post “When they call you a bad name” suggested options for responding to demeaning labels, for example when someone calls you a fascist. By chance, a friend told me about her recent experience being part of a group targeted with abuse, and how this affected her. A key insight is that calling someone else a bad name can be bad for your cause.

            Here is her short account of her experience. Afterwards, I offer a few comments.

“This scum needs to be removed from our streets”: How to create enemies, by Claudia Carson-Clarke

            I have been involved in the human rights and peace movement for over 25 years. In my younger days I was involved in the usual peace and equality movement student politics, including attending peace protests against the Iraq war, and the fallout from the so-called War on Terror.

            Over the years I have watched the peace movement slowly falling to pieces, bit by bit. I am not surprised given the lack of strategic thinking and my recent experiences.

            On Saturday 3 December, I attended a lecture in Sydney by Dr Jordan Peterson.

            There was a stark police presence at the event, including mounted police and rows of police guarding the entrances. I had to go through a metal detector and bag check upon entry. I was prepared for this level of security.

            What I wasn’t prepared for was abuse hurled at me for simply wanting to attend this lecture.

            A small group of protestors had assembled at the main entrance to vilify anyone entering the lecture. Here was a group of people yelling at me, calling me a fascist, Nazi, racist, bigot. They were intimidating, just like the police.

            The protestors need to ask themselves, “What are we trying to achieve?” Listening to the live-stream from the safety of the building, I heard several citizen journalists ask people walking by what they thought of the protests. Every person said they didn’t even know what the protesters were talking about because they were simply shouting into the loudspeaker and they couldn’t understand what they were talking about. The people walking by simply wanted to get to their dinner or Christmas party events.

            One of the more disturbing elements was the violent rhetoric coming from the protestors, including calling attendees “scum” who needed to be “removed” from the streets.

            What were the protests trying to achieve by calling the young men who attended “incels” and misogynists, other than creating a political enemy? Did those protesting consider having a discussion with some of the young men about why they were attending and about their views about women?

            I did, and I found them to be thoughtful, courteous and curious minds. These young men found hope and purpose in the words of Dr Peterson. They wanted to clean their rooms as one of their rules for life.

            At the end of the day, the only people spewing violent rhetoric and hate were the protestors. Dr Peterson’s lecture was about meaning-making in life, and the importance of love. He discussed the psychology of play and the development of relationships as core to life and psychological development. Most importantly, he offered a stark warning of the road we are taking in relation to war, noting that we are much more technologically powerful than they were in the era of Hitler and Stalin. The core message was that of peace.

            Perhaps if the protestors had gone inside and listened to Dr Peterson, rather than denigrating him and everyone who went inside to listen, they would have developed their understanding. The protestors created their own enemies and ensured that those that attended felt intimidated and denigrated. To indiscriminatingly apply the label “fascist” to groups of people, some of them long involved in the peace movement, is just appalling.

            This is just a tragedy, not only for the peace and equality movement, but also for society in general. The protests only served to create more division and hatred. Clearly the strategy needs to change if the movement wishes to engage more people.

A few further thoughts from Brian

Claudia’s story is instructive. Shouting at people can be a bad idea, at least in terms of winning them over. So can trying to censor a speaker, especially a popular one. It might be better to try to understand why the speaker is popular and address the factors that make this possible.

            I have not read Jordan Peterson’s books nor listened to his talks, but I do know he has become a symbol of values detested by some of those on the left. That’s fine. But if someone is a symbol of values you detest, is vilification the best way to counter those values and promote your own? Would it be better to ignore Peterson’s talks, or organise a public meeting promoting your preferred values, or give leaflets to Peterson-talk attendees beforehand or afterwards, or interview them afterwards to learn about their experiences, or even attend his talk to better understand his appeal?

            To ask such questions is to begin the process of thinking strategically about protest. This includes formulating goals, considering the other side’s argument and taking into account how your actions will affect others. It includes considering the implicit, perhaps unintended, messages being sent by the protest and the way it is delivered.

            The anti-Peterson protesters can be understood as acting expressively, letting out their own emotions, anger and disgust in this case, and directing them at Peterson and those attending his talk. Protesting, it might be presumed, makes them feel better about themselves, by displaying their values and showing their fellow protesters their commitment to the cause. This can help build solidarity within their own groups and networks, but in this case it had a counterproductive effect on Claudia, and possibly on others who were subject to their verbal abuse.

            One lesson: calling someone a nasty name might make you feel righteous, but it might also make them think less of you — and your cause.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Claudia for her text and additional information about the talk and protest. Thanks to Paula Arvela, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray and Julia LeMonde for helpful suggestions. Several photos are taken from a video by @Chriscoveries.

When they call you a bad name

Fascist! Communist! Lunatic! Murderer! Paedophile!

What do you do when someone calls you a derogatory name, one that really hurts, one that might stick? Your reputation has come under attack. How can you resist?

            And it might not be just you. Your group could be labelled and have a hard time dealing with it.

            Labelling, including derogatory labelling, happens all the time, and it’s an important issue. Many people care more about their reputation than about their health or happiness. In the olden days when their honour was besmirched, gentlemen would issue demands to engage in duels, which sometimes were lethal. Today, you can go to court with a defamation suit. That’s slow, expensive and may not protect your reputation.

Reputations under attack

This is the second in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.

Understanding

It’s useful to understand what’s going on when labels are applied. Words have an explicit meaning, a denotation, and implied meanings or connotations. Derogatory labels are rich in negative connotations. The person who calls you a fascist may know little or nothing about fascism as an ideology or political system. They do know that “fascist” is a term of abuse. They use it to discredit you or simply to show they hold you in contempt. Maybe they are upset and want to take it out on you.

            The key is to realise that the label is less about being a description and more about associating you with the connotations. This is important. You might want to respond to the literal meaning, which is fine, but this misses the power of the label to shape people’s views — if the label sticks.

            It’s relatively easy to see the problems with labels when you don’t agree with them. You know you’re not a fascist and can laugh it off. However, when you agree that someone else really should be called a fascist, it can be difficult to appreciate the hurt and damage.

            Consider “conspiracy theorist.” This has a straightforward meaning: someone who believes conspiracies exist. But usually when someone is called a conspiracy theorist, the main effect, and often the main purpose, is to dismiss or discredit them. Conspiracy theorists are presumed to believe in crazy ideas and therefore must themselves be misguided or deluded.

Options

Suppose someone calls you a conspiracy theorist or dismisses one of your ideas by calling it a conspiracy theory. Consider your options.

Ignore

Maybe it doesn’t matter to you what the person says or thinks. Maybe they have no credibility themselves. It might be safer to ignore the insult because a reply may give it more attention and make people think there is something in it.

            Ignoring a label is not so easy when a friend uses it, when several others start using it or when it starts harming your credibility. If you want to win people to your ideas, you may need to respond.

Deny

You can say you’re not a conspiracy theorist. You can say, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist” and start explaining your beliefs (“Here’s some of the evidence”). In effect, you are denying the connotations of the label while asserting your ideas. There are many examples of this response, for example “I’m not a racist,” often followed by a comment that might be deemed racist.

            The value of this response is in trying to get beyond the label, to get others to discuss the substance of the issues. One disadvantage is implicitly accepting the negative connotations of the label, which means you will continue to come up against prejudicial attitudes.

Accept with pride

You can say, “Yes, I’m a conspiracy theorist — and here’s why.” You can use various techniques to counter the negativity attached to the term. Can you do this alone? Probably not. But over time, some terms can be turned from negatives to positives.

            Think of “Black” and “queer.” These were derogatory but eventually became more positive, accepted with pride. The transformation of the words’ connotations paralleled the change in the identity. If you’re part of a group with a stigmatised identity, you can help challenge the stigma by using the label with pride.

Counter-label

Rather than trying to defend, you can attack — and one way is to apply the same label to those who have labelled you. This only works for some names, but it does work for “conspiracy theorist.”

            A well-known conspiracy theory is that the US government organised the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York. This theory is often assumed to be absurd and used to discredit anyone who supposedly believes in any conspiracy theory. To turn this around, ask “Who do you think planned the 9/11 attacks?” If they say al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden, you say, “Ah, you believe it was a conspiracy. You’re a conspiracy theorist!” This is a good example because nearly everyone believes 9/11 involved a conspiracy. It’s just a question of which one.

            The conspiracy-theory label is seldom applied to the views of government officials. President George W. Bush and others warned that Saddam Hussein had or was getting nuclear weapons — this was the justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but hardly anyone says, “Bush was a conspiracy theorist.”

            A counter-label can reveal inconsistencies in thinking. It might lead to a discussion of the meaning of the label.

Cite experts

Sometimes you may have the opportunity for a discussion, and you can refer to the views of experts. For racial epithets, you can mention that scientists say there is only a single human race and there are few genetic differences between ethnic groups.

            A group of philosophers, called the particularists, argue that conspiracy theories need to be assessed on their merits, just like any other theories. In other words, they argue that explanations involving conspiracies should not be dismissed out of hand, or assumed to reflect poor thinking, but instead evaluated like other sorts of explanations. This is a perfectly rational argument, but that’s not the point. What you do by raising this perspective is draw on the authority of experts.

Use humour

You may be able to distract or derail abusive comments with a humorous response. An off-beat or unexpected reply can sometimes make it difficult for the other person to maintain their mood of condemnation. You can make fun of the topic, make fun of yourself or introduce an absurdity that disrupts the serious intent of the attacker.

            “You know who I think was behind 9/11? Elvis.” If you pick your example carefully, the labeller may not know whether you’re being serious. “You mean you’re not a shape-shifting lizard like me?” This reply will only make sense to someone familiar with this particular conspiracy theory. Ideally, you can expose some of the lack of logic behind labelling and encourage thinking about what a conspiracy theory is.

Reconsider

On some occasions, you may decide there is a serious and helpful intent behind the label. Rather than resist, you might reconsider your position. This doesn’t mean you agree with the label or the derogatory intent behind it, but instead of resisting, you try to join the person criticising your views. This can be disconcerting to them, and they may not know whether you’re being serious.

            “I’m with you. Some conspiracy theories are goofy. We ought to check carefully before going down the conspiracy rabbit hole.”

            “My mother told me never to believe a conspiracy is involved when incompetence or pure chance could be an explanation.”

Conclusion

The examples here involve one-on-one interactions, but there are many other situations where derogatory labelling comes into play. The same sorts of responses are usually possible. A lot depends on the circumstances, your skills, your assessment of the attackers, and the topic. A humorous response may work when you’re called a conspiracy theorist, but maybe not when a racial or sexual epithet is deployed.

            Be creative, and be experimental. You can learn what works by trying out a variety of responses with different people and seeing what happens. If you’re able to strike up a conversation or stimulate some thinking or make the engagement less serious, you’ve been successful. If so, tell others about your techniques. We all need to know.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Ben Case, Kelly Gates, Kurtis Hagen, Julia LeMonde and Erin Twyford for helpful comments.

When they say false things about you

What can you do when people spread false statements that harm your reputation?

It was going around social media that you lied about your personal relationships. There was a news story about your group, saying you supported violence. At a public meeting, a speaker called you a racist. There was another media story about your group, saying you received funding from vested interests. At a staff meeting, your boss accused you of bullying.

            None of it is true, yet the claims are being repeated all over the place. Your reputation is being trashed. What can you do?

            Before making accusations about lies and libel, and before rushing to your lawyer, pause — and consider your options.

Reputations under attack

This is the first in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Future posts deal with derogatory labels, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.

Understanding false claims

To appreciate what’s really going on, try to figure out what’s in the minds of those spreading the falsehoods. Could it be just a difference in perspective? Could there be some misinterpretation of actions or statements? Or is it something malicious?

            Your boss accuses you of bullying. Did you do something inappropriate? Or is the boss bullying you and others, and because you called out the boss’s obnoxious behaviour, you’re now a target?

            To say a claim is false is to make a statement about truth. Is that possible in an age of fake news, disinformation, and the postmodern rejection of ultimate truths? In academic circles, it’s accepted that all knowledge is provisional and open to challenge. Don’t worry about that, because for practical purposes the belief in truth remains strong in most circumstances, though often people disagree about where the truth lies.

            The trouble is that powerful groups try to impose their views as being true. That means bosses, media outlets and governments assert or assume their claims are true even though others — including you — can see they are obviously false.

Issues to consider

When confronted with false claims that damage your reputation, it’s tempting to jump to an immediate defence or to lash out in a counterattack, calling the other person a liar. Usually it’s better to pause and consider what you know about the situation.

            Is the other person — the one who makes the claims you think are false — sincere? Do they believe what they’re saying? This is an important question. If your boss says something damaging about your performance, maybe that’s what they really think, so it’s a matter of different perspectives, different information or a communication problem. Listen carefully. Then, if your boss seems sincere, it may be better to try to explain things. But if you think your boss is trying to get rid of you or trying to warp your perceptions — in other words, gaslighting — then you need to be more careful.

            If the other person is sincere, then they aren’t lying. A lie is an intentional falsehood or intentional withholding of the truth. It’s unwise to call someone a liar if they might believe what they’re saying. To further complicate matters, many lies are for good purposes.

            Another distinction is between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is information that’s incorrect, which may be due to ignorance, mistakes or sincere belief. Your boss can be misinformed while being concerned and supportive. Disinformation, on the other hand, is intentionally false. It is often used to describe covert government campaigns to discredit enemies or disrupt societies. The words misinformation, disinformation, fake news and post-truth are sometimes used as labels for attacking rather than accurate descriptions.

            You need to decide whether you’re being targeted or whether the false claims referred to you inadvertently or as a spin-off from other agendas. When the boss says your report is not up to scratch, is this harassment or is it because the boss needs to please some other player and your report gets in the way? When your group is attacked by a politician in a media story, is your group a special target or just being named for rhetorical purposes?

            You may not know the answers to all these questions, but it’s worth asking them and keeping in mind that you don’t know for sure what motivates other people’s actions. It’s usually better not to make too many assumptions, so you can adapt your responses as new information becomes available.

            After you’ve tried to understand what’s happening and why, you can consider options. There’s no single best option when you’re subject to false claims, so you need to think about everything you know about the people and the circumstances, and decide what to do.

Ignore

Although you may be upset or angry about falsehoods, sometimes it’s better to ignore them. At work, if co-workers or clients make comments about your performance, you might be better off not seeming to notice but just continuing with your efforts. Responding might seem to others like accepting the comments as potentially valid. Worse, it might simply draw more attention to them. By not responding, you also signal that you’re not easily rattled.

Defend

Counter the false statements. Just say they’re wrong. Present the evidence showing what’s actually going on.

            The boss says you’re not showing up on time and that your work rate is one of the lowest on the floor. You prepared for this. You have screenshots showing when you arrived every single day, and you have the stats on work rates in your team. So there!

            Defending can be effective when others respect honest information. It’s good news if they say, “Sorry, we were mistaken. You’re doing a good job.” On the other hand, if they make some new false claims, you might be subject to mobbing, a collective form of harassment. If so, the facts won’t matter.

            Should you defend by collecting information and providing as many facts as you can? It depends a lot on the circumstances. If there’s any risk of a false-claim attack, it’s nearly always valuable to obtain information to counter the falsehoods. At the workplace, you can collect information about your performance, testimonials from bosses, co-workers and customers, and comparative statistics. Just hope you never need it!

Explain

Instead of defending directly, you can explain what’s going on, for example why someone might want to make false claims. This is best done in a calm manner. If a co-worker says you’re not doing your job, you might explain that the workload has increased with no added staff and for the past month you’ve been doing two people’s jobs.

            Explanation is useful when others don’t know what’s been happening. It provides context so they can understand and make a judgement themselves. Rather than saying “You’re wrong” you’re in effect saying, “Here’s what you need to know so you can decide for yourself.”

            Explanation is an excellent technique for communicating to outsiders, those who have no stake in the conflict. You change their understanding from “You said, they said” to “Let’s see what’s really behind this difference in opinion.” However, those involved in a dispute may just see explanation as a form of special pleading.

Accept

In some cases, nasty comments and misleading statements contain a grain of truth. The boss might say you’re never on time and always too slow, which is a gross exaggeration given that you’re nearly always on time and usually work faster than others. A disarming response is to accept the criticism. “Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate your concern about my performance.” This sort of response draws on the perspective of the Stoics, a group of philosophers in ancient Greece, whose ideas remain relevant today.

            Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator who developed techniques that worked in the most difficult situations. He then found the same techniques applied in other negotiating situations, and wrote about his experiences in his book Never Split the Difference. When you confront someone, it can be powerful to start off by recounting every negative thought they have about you.

            If false statements about your performance have been circulated around your workplace, when you meet the boss or someone else you need to deal with, you can lead off with something like this: “You probably think I’m never on time.” After they nod, you say, “And you probably think that I’m one of the slowest workers on the floor.” Again they nod. The surprising thing about this approach is that it enables a more open and honest interaction.

Sue

“They defamed me. I’m going to sue.”

            The law of defamation is supposed to provide a remedy for damage to reputation. There are two main forms of defamation: slander refers to spoken defamation and libel to written defamation, except that broadcasts are in the libel category.

            There are two main problems with defamation law. First, it serves as a means of censorship. Second, it seldom restores reputations. In addition, it is slow, costly and procedural.

            The general rule is, don’t sue unless you have a lot of money and don’t mind losing it. It’s especially unwise to sue an organisation that has more money than you.

            When you sue, you become the attacker. Before, you might have had sympathy due to being treated unfairly. Now people’s sympathy may switch to the person you’ve sued.

            Suppose there’s a front-page news story that contains false and misleading statements about you and your group. You are accused of fraud, extreme political views, and lying. So you sue the media organisation for defamation. What’s going to happen? The most you can hope for is a published apology. It will be in small print in some obscure location on a website, and most readers won’t remember the original story.

            More often, though, you won’t receive an apology. Months later, after you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers, you might receive nothing or maybe a financial settlement. That means the organisation pays you something. That’s nice but doesn’t restore your reputation.

            Rather than suing, consider other options. You can write a polite letter for publication countering the accusations (defending) or giving the context (explaining). Or you can just let it go (ignoring), guessing that most people will forget that front-page story and that by suing, you may just make more people aware of it.

Conclusion

When others make false statements about you, it can be extremely upsetting. Your reputation is at stake, and it’s totally unfair to be attacked with incorrect, misleading or manufactured information presented as if it’s the truth.

            It’s tempting to reply immediately, while you’re angry and upset. It’s better to wait until you can calmly consider options. If possible, seek advice from people you trust, especially people who’ve been through a similar ordeal. Be especially cautious about defending, in case you draw more attention to the falsehoods, and don’t take legal action unless you know for sure that it has worked well for others in similar situations.

            If you care about your reputation, and the reputation of your group, remember that people are influenced by what you do. That includes how you respond to attacks. If you seem generous, understanding and informative, you have a better chance of making a good impression. And you set a good example.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kelly Gates and Suzzanne Gray for helpful comments.

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/).

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.

The glyphosate chronicles

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide. Is it as safe as its manufacturer claims?

Glyphosate is the principal ingredient in the herbicide named Roundup. It seems miraculous. It is deadly to weeds, yet harmless to humans, or so says Monsanto, the massive chemical company that manufactures it. (In 2018, Monsanto was purchased by Bayer.)

Glyphosate is used on crops such as soybeans, corn and canola. It is used by local governments to control weeds in public areas. It is used on golf courses. It is used by householders to maintain beautiful lawns.

The biggest use is on crops. Glyphosate is deadly to all growing things, so initially Roundup had to be applied to the weeds but not the crops. However, when the patent on Roundup was about to expire, Monsanto developed a brilliant way to maintain sales. Using genetic engineering techniques, it spliced a gene into crops, such as soybeans, that made them resistant to glyphosate. As a result, Roundup could be sprayed directly on the crops. Weeds would be killed, but genetically modified crops would not be harmed. Such crops are called Roundup Ready.

What happened when farmers started reporting disease and scientists started finding problems? If you want the inside story, get Carey Gillam’s book Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer, and the corruption of science. Gillam is an experienced journalist who was put on the agriculture beat and began looking behind the scenes. The picture isn’t pretty. She is now research director at U.S. Right to Know.

The victims and the regulators

Monsanto claimed that Roundup was safe, so safe that you could probably drink it without harm. But what about farmers who had used Roundup for decades and then developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma? There seemed to be a pattern, especially given experiments with mice.

What about government regulators? The US Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is supposed to be protecting the health of both people and the environment. Yet the EPA has seemed to be in the pocket of Monsanto, in all sorts of ways.

The EPA can set upper limits to the intake of chemicals. However, when it came to glyphosate, the limits it set were high, and were increased in line with increased use of the herbicide. This was despite the applications of glyphosate becoming ten times as great over a period of two decades.

You might expect that with glyphosate being the most heavily used herbicide in the world, there would be numerous studies of its prevalence and its impacts. Quite the contrary. For years, no figures were collected of the levels of glyphosate in different crops. The reason: because it was presumed to be safe, there was no need to see what levels were appearing in foods. For years, studies were not carried out on glyphosate’s possible health hazards. Again, the rationale was that it was so safe that there was no need for testing.

Much that Gillam reports relies on documents obtained using the discovery process in court cases, in which parties are required to provide relevant documents to the other side. Monsanto’s activities in subverting scientific research have been remarkable.

Monsanto cultivated allies within the EPA and used them to block introduction of regulations. It cultivated tame scientists who would go on the attack against anyone who criticised glyphosate. These tame scientists were given “talking points” so they would know what to say, and given guidance on venues for giving talks and submitting articles. These tame scientists did not reveal their links to Monsanto. In this way, Monsanto could get out its message via seemingly independent scientists.

Resistance – by pests

According to its promoters and defenders, glyphosate is a miracle chemical, so safe to humans that it can be used widely with little or no impact on human health. However, it is not pure glyphosate that is applied to crops, gardens and walkways, but Roundup, which contains additional chemicals, including one called polyethoxylated tallow amine or POEA. The combination of glyphosate and POEA is what needs to be tested, but this is hardly ever done.

However safe Roundup might be, there’s another problem. Pests can develop resistance to it. This is evolution in action: a few pest species have or acquire resistance to the pesticide, so they are the ones that start growing and spreading.

Because Roundup has been so remarkably effective in eliminating pests, farmers have become complacent. Instead of rotating crops – a traditional practice that reduces pest problems and replenishes the soil – farmers have planted the same crops year after year, relying on Roundup rather than other methods to keep pests at bay.

When Roundup-resistant pests started appearing, what was the solution? Farmers turned to other pesticides, using them in addition to Roundup. Some of these other pesticides are more highly toxic. This is the pesticide treadmill, in which the only solution to pests, even when they become resistant, is more pesticides.

Pesticide treadmill

Some farmers had nearly forgotten how to grow crops in traditional ways. Others, though, have turned towards alternatives, including organic agriculture.

History repeats

Is Gillam’s treatment of the glyphosate saga accurate? Her account rings true, because it is history repeating. Monsanto’s response to criticisms of Roundup is remarkably similar to the response by earlier pesticide manufacturers to criticisms.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring, published in 1962, raised the alarm about the effect of pesticides on wildlife and, tentatively, on human health. Many people have heard of Silent Spring, which is often credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement. Less well known is that Carson and Silent Spring came under fierce attack by chemical corporations. This is documented in a revealing 1970 book by Frank Graham, Jr., titled Since Silent Spring.

In 1978, biologist Robert van den Bosch’s book The Pesticide Conspiracy appeared. Van den Bosch told about the strong-arm tactics of the pesticide manufacturers, recounting case after case of scientists whose research and careers were attacked after they reported findings critical of pesticides.

Gillam’s story of Monsanto’s tactics to attack any threat to its highly profitable Roundup is eerily similar to the tactics used by pesticide companies since the 1960s. It seems little has changed since, decades ago, I investigated suppression of scientists who questioned pesticides. Given that the tactics are predictable, it is plausible to work backwards and assume that presence of these tactics indicates the likelihood of shortcomings in the pesticide paradigm. So what are the tell-tale tactics?

* Attacks on scientists who report research results showing dangers or limitations of pesticides.

* Regulatory agency dependence on industry testing of pesticides.

* Testing only of the active ingredient, not of the pesticide actually used.

* Corporate ghostwriting of research papers.

* The failure of companies to release documents except through freedom-of-information requests or court discovery processes.

* A revolving door between company jobs and jobs in the corporate regulator.

* Presence on expert panels of members with conflicts of interest.

* Failure to carry out relevant research or collect relevant data, such as amounts and locations of pesticides used.

The presence of these tell-tale signs does not prove that a pesticide, or some other product or practice, is dangerous, but it does point to areas where extra scrutiny is warranted.

If you start investigating the likelihood that corporations and regulators are not serving the public interest, be prepared to be ignored or, if you start having an impact, being the target of dirty tactics.

Carey Gillam

“Monsanto Company and many leading chemical industry experts tell us that we should trust them and that more research is not needed. The safety of glyphosate and Roundup is proven, they say. But trust is hard to come by when the government does not require robust long-term safety data for a finished product such as Roundup, only for the active ingredient. There have long been concerns that the end product is more dangerous than glyphosate alone, and scientists say it is well-known that extra ingredients in pesticide products not only may themselves be toxic but also may enhance or supplement the toxic effects of the active ingredient. Extra ingredients in pesticides commonly include surfactants that help chemicals stick to the leaves of plants, antifoam compounds, and more. Yet the bulk of industry-sponsored toxicology tests are done using only the active ingredient. As well, there is very little long-term epidemiology data on glyphosate exposure, and there is no established base of information about just how much of the pesticide is in the products we eat and drink because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have so steadfastly avoided including glyphosate in their testing regimes. And despite industry assurances of safety, there is an international body of published research that contradicts those claims.” (pp. 79-80)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au