Category Archives: whistleblowing

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

Conspiracies are everywhere!

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophers have a look

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

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

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

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

Whistleblowers

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

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

Police conspiracies

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

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

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

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


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

Developer conspiracies

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


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

Corporate conspiracies

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

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

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

Surveillance conspiracies

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

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

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

And more

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

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

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

Conspiracy and social theory

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


Jaron Harambam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why discredit conspiracy theories?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kurtis Hagen and Jaron Harambam for valuable comments.

Be confident — but not too confident

Do you lack confidence? Are you afraid to set up a new business, embark on a new career, commit to a relationship or take up hang gliding?

Don’t worry too much about it. You might be making the right decisions. Being too confident can be worse than not being confident enough.

But how can you tell? Turn to Don A. Moore’s new book Perfectly Confident. It’s about making the best decisions.

            Moore says most popular treatments assume that more confidence is better. People just need to overcome their fears and jump in. This is true for some people and some decisions. But it can also be disastrous.

When you see a sports star making a seemingly brash prediction of winning, you might imagine that being really confident is necessary for success. After all, if you’re not confident, how can you do your best? Not so quick, says Moore. There’s actually little evidence that super-confidence improves performance. Those sports stars have worked hard and long, and may be making reasonable judgements about their chances of victory.

Overconfidence is potentially dangerous and can lead you to take unwarranted risks. If you’ve never tried base jumping, it’s better to be very cautious and prepare carefully before your first jump. Most new small businesses fail within the first year. Perhaps their owners were overconfident.

            There is evidence that most people overestimate how good they are at things. In a classic survey, 93% of US drivers said they ranked in the top half. Most young people think they are more honest than average and better than average at relationships. The reason is that people think, “I’m honest most of the time, so I’m better than average” but don’t stop to think that most other people may think the same way. Moore says the way to fix your perception of superiority is to be more specific. For example, if being a good driver is specified as never having had an accident or a ticket, then fewer people will overestimate their abilities.

There’s another side to people’s thinking about their own capabilities. When it comes to an uncommon skill, like riding a unicycle or subtracting large numbers in your head, most people underestimate their abilities. You might think, “I wouldn’t last three seconds on a unicycle” and forget to think that most other people might have the same difficulty.


Could you unicycle across China?

            One of the methods Moore recommends is to think probabilistically. Consider all possible outcomes of your decision. Consider the new business. You might guess that there’s a 10% chance of making a lot of money, 40% of making a little, 30% of losing a little and 20% of losing a lot. Just writing down the possibilities can be sobering. Overconfident people never stop to think of failure and hence can make unwise decisions. Assigning probabilities also helps in overcoming the tendency to think in terms of yes or no, success or no success.

You also need to weigh up the benefits against the costs. In setting up the business, you might be working 90-hour weeks. This can be exhilarating but it might also be exhausting. You should factor these possibilities into your decision. Vital here is the idea of opportunity cost. All that money and those hours of effort might be invested in some other activity. Thinking in terms of different possible outcomes and opportunity costs can help counter overconfidence.

A confident scholar?

Many times in my career as an academic I’ve had to make decisions about whether to write an article or a book and then, after writing it, where to submit it. When I was first starting out, I’d write an article and then try to figure out where to submit it. Before long, I learned this was not a good strategy, because sometimes there was no suitable outlet. Moore would say I was overconfident and needed to consider the possibility of wasting effort, at least for the purpose of publication, which is crucial for aspiring academics.

These days, before writing an article, I think about where I plan to send it, and the likelihood of it being accepted. Sometimes there is a high-prestige journal that I think could be worth trying. I might estimate the chance of acceptance as 5 percent, one out of twenty. I have to weigh up the effort of tailoring the article to this journal and going through the admission process, along with associated delays, against the 95% chance of rejection.

In many cases, I decide not to bother with the high-status journal and go straight to one where the odds are better. This points to another factor to consider when writing an article: are there fall-back options should my first-choice outlet reject my submission?

Another decision is whether to undertake a PhD. When I did my own PhD, aeons ago, I didn’t think about failure. I took a risk without considering the full range of outcomes. Now, as a potential PhD supervisor, I regularly talk to prospective students. They need to make several decisions: whether to pursue a PhD, what university to attend, what topic and what supervisor. It’s a big decision because writing a PhD thesis requires years of effort. Although about three quarters of students who’ve started with me as their supervisor have graduated, the cost for those who don’t finish can be large: they could have been doing something else with their time and energy. On the other hand, a student can acquire skills and obtain satisfactions along the way, a sort of consolation prize for non-finishers.

            Therefore, in advising prospective students, I point to the large and sustained commitment required and note that most PhD graduates do not obtain academic posts. After reading Moore’s book, in future I’ll recommend that prospective students assign probabilities to different outcomes. That will help counter overconfidence.

For students who are part way through their theses, a more common problem is under confidence. The challenge seems enormous. It can be helpful to have the courage to continue, knowing that most students, including most of those who finish, go through periods of self-doubt.

A confident whistleblower?

Another area where Moore’s recommendations are relevant is whistleblowing. Thinking from the point of view of managers in organisations, he says that being results-oriented is not necessarily a good thing. Being results-oriented often means rewarding employees for success and penalising them for failure.

This sounds logical but it misses an important consideration: sometimes it is wise to take risks even though some of them don’t pan out. If developing a new app costs $1 million and has only a 10% chance of success, it’s still a good bet if success means a return of $100 million. But when employees are penalised for failure, they won’t take risks like this. Apple never would have developed spectacularly profitable devices if it hadn’t supported risk-taking with positive expected returns.

Imagine being a manager and one of your employees reports possibly fraudulent activities in the organisation. You investigate and discover your employee is wrong. Does this warrant a penalty? Moore would say that this whistleblower should be encouraged even if the report was wrong, at least if there’s a reasonable chance it might have been right.

In practice, employees who make allegations of wrongdoing are often penalised even when they’re right, especially when the wrongdoing implicates higher management for being involved or for tolerating it. That’s another story.

            The whistleblower, treated badly, then turns to a watchdog agency such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption agency or court. A good idea? Moore’s advice would be to consider all possible outcomes and assign them probabilities, and also to consider other options. Few whistleblowers do this. They want vindication and assume that some higher authority will provide it. They do not investigate the success rate of previous whistleblowers, which can be abysmal. Because they know they are right, they do not consider the possibility that justice will not be done, and that many previous whistleblowers also knew they were right but failed in their efforts to be vindicated.

Moore recommends learning from experience. When you have a decision to make, assign probabilities to potential outcomes and consider alternative courses of action. When you learn the outcome, go back to your probabilities and figure out whether you may have been too confident or not confident enough. Gradually, over time, you can improve your skill in predicting outcomes.


Don’t just jump in! Learn to predict outcomes.

            This is good advice for many purposes. However, when you’re faced with a decision that is likely to be made just once in a lifetime — like doing a PhD or blowing the whistle — then it’s sensible to learn as much as possible about what others have done in the same situation. Why make your own mistakes when you can learn from others’ mistakes? By undertaking this sort of investigation, you minimise the risk of making a wrong decision. And when things don’t work out, remember that you still might have made the right decision. If you are successful in everything you try, you probably aren’t taking enough risks!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

 

A disastrous quest for justice

On 1 June this year, I received an email from Hildie Spautz. She wrote that her father, Michael E. Spautz, had died the previous day.


Michael Spautz, 1970s

I had only met Michael once, in 1981, and had not corresponded with him for a decade. But I knew a lot about his story.

Hildie was writing to me because she had found articles I had written about Michael’s difficulties at the University of Newcastle. I was one of the few who showed any sympathy for Michael’s concerns.

Hildie and her sister Laura, who each live in the US, were going through Michael’s belongings. He had vast numbers of paper files. Would I like to have them, or did I know anyone who would? My immediate response to both questions was no.

Michael’s death made me reflect on the events that derailed much of his life. Be prepared. This story does not have a happy ending. It is a story of wasted effort and dysfunction. There are, though, some useful lessons. I for one learned a lot from it.

The Spautz case

Spautz was originally from the US. He took a job in Australia at the University of Newcastle, where he was a senior lecturer in the Commerce Department. There were no particular dramas until 1978, after the appointment of a second professor in the department, Alan Williams.

Alan J Williams

In Australia at the time, the main academic ranks were lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, and professor. Relatively few academics reach the rank of professor, and decades ago it often came along with the role of the head of a department. To be a professor usually meant having an outstanding record in research or sometimes administration.

Williams, though, had far less than an outstanding record. He had recently received his PhD and had published two articles in management journals. Even though commerce was not then as research-intensive as disciplines like chemistry or sociology, nevertheless Williams’ record was decidedly lightweight for a professorial appointment. The back story was that the department was having trouble finding a suitable candidate and, it was suggested, made an inferior appointment rather than lose funding for the position.

Spautz had not been an applicant for the position when Williams applied, but had applied for it in earlier rounds when no appointment was made. Initially, there were no tensions between Spautz and Williams. However, after Williams was made head of a section within the department, Spautz began raising concerns. Alerted by two colleagues to problems with Williams’ research, Spautz started digging further.

Williams, in his PhD thesis, had studied the owners of small businesses, in particular their psychological problems. His argument was that such problems made the businesses more likely to fail. Spautz – who had a background in psychology – argued that the reverse process could have been responsible: when businesses struggle and fail, their owners are more likely to suffer psychologically. Spautz therefore claimed that Williams’ research was flawed due to “inverted causality”: he had mixed up cause and effect. Spautz also questioned some of the statistical methods used by Williams.

It is nothing special that scholarly research has shortcomings. Many academics exert great efforts in trying to find flaws in previous studies. This is part of the process of testing data and theory that is supposed to lead to reliable knowledge. In this context, Spautz’ critique of Williams’ research was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, it is uncommon for an academic to undertake a detailed critique of the work of an immediate colleague and then to do something about it. Academics often gripe about the weaknesses, irrelevance or unwarranted recognition of their colleagues’ research, especially colleagues who are arrogant or who seem to have gained unfair preferment. But griping is usually the extent of it. To openly criticise the work of an immediate colleague can be seen as disloyal. In some cases in which an academic speaks out about a colleague’s scientific fraud, it is the whistleblower who comes under attack by administrators.

Spautz, though, seemed to have few inhibitions in challenging the quality of Williams’ research. Spautz began his challenge in a conventional, scholarly way. He took his criticisms directly to Williams and to others in the Commerce Department, but obtained no support. He wrote a rebuttal of Williams’ published papers and sent it to the journals where those papers had been published. However, the editor was not interested. This should not have been surprising. If an article has had no particular impact, few editors would be keen on publishing a detailed rebuttal years later. This might be considered a shortcoming of the system of journal publication. It is far easier to publish an original study, with new data and findings, than a replication of a previous study, whether or not the replication supports the original study.

Williams had recently received his PhD from the University of Western Australia. Later on, Spautz wrote to UWA raising his concerns about shortcomings in Williams’ thesis. The Vice-Chancellor replied saying that this was a matter for the examiners of the thesis. Neither the identity of the examiners nor their reports were publicly available, as is usual in Australian universities. There is no standard institutional process for questioning the work in a thesis.

Spautz was stymied. He had tried the official channels for questioning Williams’ work and been blocked. This was long before the Internet, otherwise he could have posted his criticisms online.

There was one other institutional channel to be tried: the University of Newcastle itself. But Spautz’ complaints led nowhere.

Plagiarism, a scholarly sin

Along the way, Spautz added another claim to his allegations about Williams’ thesis: that it involved plagiarism, namely the use of other people’s words or ideas without appropriate acknowledgement. In the eyes of many academics, plagiarism is a cardinal sin, deserving the most severe condemnation. When undergraduate students are detected plagiarising in their assignments, they may be given a mark of zero or even referred to a student misconduct committee. (On the other hand, some teachers treat much undergraduate student plagiarism not as cheating but as a matter of not understanding proper citation practices.)

The plagiarism in Williams’ thesis is a subtle type, which can be called plagiarism of secondary sources. Williams gave references to a range of articles and books. Spautz was able to deduce that in quite a few cases Williams apparently had not actually looked at these articles and books himself, but had instead copied the references from a later publication, a “secondary source.” This sort of plagiarism basically involves copying references used by another author but not citing that author. It’s a common sort of plagiarism in many academic works. It is hard to prove, but in this instance Spautz was a super-sleuth, finding secondary sources and subtle clues that Williams had relied on these secondary sources, as I verified for myself.

Personally, having studied plagiarism, I don’t think this should be a hanging offence. However, because plagiarism has such a terrible reputation, especially plagiarism by academics, it would have been embarrassing for a university inquiry into Williams’ thesis to acknowledge any sort of plagiarism at all.

The snowflake campaign

Spautz started writing memos, in the form of typed or handwritten statements, mimeographed or photocopied. He put them in the mailboxes of academics on campus. This was his “campaign for justice.” It is accurately described as a campaign, because Spautz produced memo after memo, sometimes every day. He also called his efforts the “snowflake campaign” because there were so many white memos that they could be likened to flakes of snow landing on (or littering) the campus.

Spautz’s efforts drew the attention of the administration, and an inquiry was set up. Spautz’s aim was for his allegations about Williams’ research to be investigated. However, the inquiry instead focused on Spautz’s behaviour. Basically, he was told to shut up.

Spautz was not deterred by the admonitions from the inquiry, and continued his campaign. There was a second inquiry. Then in May 1980 the Council, the university’s governing body, dismissed Spautz. This was news: in Australia it is quite rare for a tenured academic to be fired. Furthermore, the circumstances in Spautz’s case were quite unusual.

From Spautz’s point of view, he had concerns about Williams’ research, had tried to raise them with Williams, journal editors and university administrators, and had been fobbed off, told to shut up and then dismissed. He wasn’t going to shut up, and dismissal just made him more determined to expose what he saw as injustice.

From the point of view of university administrators, Spautz was an annoyance. The solution was to go through some formal processes and then, when Spautz didn’t cooperate, to take the ultimate step of dismissing him. If administrators thought that this would be the end of the matter, they were wrong. Most dismissed academics are humiliated and go quietly. Others take legal action for dismissal, hoping to receive some compensation. (Reinstatement is exceedingly rare.)


Spautz never hired a plane to distribute his memos

Spautz was not like most other academics. He continued his campaign, and greatly expanded it. He continued production of memos, distributed to people on campus and numerous others beyond, including journalists. He heard about my work on suppression of dissent and contacted me in June 1980. I was henceforth on his mailing list.

Spautz expanded his allegations, claiming that various individuals were involved in a criminal conspiracy. He launched court cases, and more court cases. In the following years, at one point he was unable to pay court costs and was sent to prison. After 56 days, a judge found he had been falsely imprisoned. This was grist for more legal actions, and he later obtained compensation. Eventually he was declared a vexatious litigant. This was the only thing that stopped his decades of legal cases against various individuals he accused of wrong actions.


Michael Spautz, 1980s

The verdict: what a waste!

There are no winners in this story. From the time of his dismissal in 1980 until his death this year, he devoted most of his effort to his self-styled campaign for justice. For four decades he was obsessed, initially with the shortcomings of Williams’ research and then with the aftermath of his dismissal. Prior to this quest, Spautz had been a productive scholar, teaching undergraduates and authoring quite a few publications.

When I met him in 1981, I told him it would be better to put effort into writing up his story, and that pursuing action through the courts was likely to be futile. Others told him similar things. But he didn’t listen. He was convinced his course of action was the right one.

Alan Williams was another victim. He was unlucky to become the target of Spautz’s campaign. In another way, Williams was unlucky to have been appointed as a professor at the University of Newcastle on a thin research record, which made him vulnerable.

The University of Newcastle paid a severe penalty too. Spautz’s campaign brought it unwelcome attention, and several senior figures at the university had to spend considerable time dealing with Spautz’s charges against them. There were occasional news reports about Spautz’s legal cases. For a university administration, this is not a desired sort of media coverage.


University of Newcastle campus: a desired image

More damaging was the effect of the dismissal on the academic culture at the university. Although many staff found Spautz’s behaviour objectionable, many also were disturbed by his dismissal. The executive of staff association produced an informative report.

When I visited the campus in 1981, a year after Spautz had been dismissed, I could sense fear. Some staff did not want even to discuss Spautz, as if that would taint them and make them vulnerable. Openly expressing disagreement with the dismissal was felt to be risky, perhaps because they might be next. Spautz was unbowed by his dismissal, but it frightened many others.


A less desired image (http://stop-b-uon.blogspot.com/)

Social, academic and legal systems are not designed to address cases such as this. When Spautz started raising concerns about Williams’ research, there was no one in a position of authority who was able or willing to step in and cut to the core issues he raised. At the University of Newcastle, all that administrators did was set up committees of inquiry that focused on Spautz’s behaviour. In many cases, such committees work well for their purposes, but they were manifestly inadequate to address Spautz and his campaign. The individuals involved in all these arenas were well meaning and following typical protocols. It was not a failure by individuals so much as a failure of the system.


Another saga at the University of Newcastle: Don Parkes tells how fraudulent candidatures, a scholarship and doctoral level examinations were handled by university, state and federal officials (http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Parkes11.pdf).

Similarly, the legal system was not a good place to address Spautz’s concerns. It’s possible to imagine a more flexible system that would refer Spautz to a wise intervener who would look at the original grievance, namely the one not addressed by the university, and deal with it at the source. But of course the legal system is about applying the law, not about finding creative solutions to problems. As a result, the legal system suffered, with lawyers, judges and others spending a huge amount of time and money dealing with Spautz’s unending cases and appeals.


Would mediation have helped?

If systems are ill designed, then even the most well-meaning individuals can be caught up in them. Most people are likely to blame Spautz, but blame doesn’t provide any answers, just a feeling of superiority.

Occasionally in any society, there will be individuals who become obsessed about particular things. There is still much to be learned about how to find ways to channel obsessions into productive channels.

What I learned

Though the saga of Spautz’s ill-fated campaign for justice had no winners, I learned a lot from it. I studied Spautz’s allegations about Williams’ plagiarism, and to put them in context I read a lot about plagiarism more generally. I wrote a paper titled “Plagiarism, incompetence and responsibility” (and have now added links to numerous relevant documents). That paper was rejected by the first nine journals to which I submitted it. The tenth journal accepted a drastically revised version. From this experience, I learned how difficult it is to publish, in a scholarly journal, a discussion of an actual case involving allegations of incompetence and plagiarism. I talked with one journal editor on the phone. He told me that he would have liked to publish my article but the editorial committee, taking into account legal advice, decided not to proceed. They were worried about being sued.

I wrote a different (and less felicitous) article about the way Spautz’s actions were dealt with at the University of Newcastle. This was published in Vestes, the journal of the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations, FAUSA (which later became a union, the National Tertiary Education Union). It was delayed for a year due to concerns about legal action. It seems that writing about actual cases can be worrisome.

Most of all I learned about the failure of official channels. Spautz tried quite a few: journals, university administrations, courts. None of them worked well, certainly not for him. This was my first immersion in a case that showed clearly the shortcomings of formal procedures. This stood me in good stead when, over a decade later, I became involved in Whistleblowers Australia and talked to numerous whistleblowers. They told the same story: when they took their concerns to bosses, boards of management, ombudsmen and courts, they were regularly disappointed.

Official channels work fine in many circumstances, and most of the people on appeal committees and working in agencies are concerned and hard-working. But when a person with less power tries to challenge one with more power, or challenge the entire system, it is usually a hopeless cause. So that’s what for many years I have told whistleblowers and what I’ve written in my book giving advice to whistleblowers. Yes, you might be very lucky and find justice in official channels, but don’t count on it. Indeed, you should assume they won’t provide the justice you’re looking for. Although Spautz never learned that lesson, he taught it to me, and for that I am thankful.


Michael Spautz, 2011

Michael’s daughters Hildie and Laura had the unwelcome and overwhelming task of clearing his belongings from his unit, including  accumulated files about his campaign that filled seven book cases (that’s cases, not shelves). Perhaps, whimsically, the files could have been placed as a display in a museum as a testament to the futility of spending years seeking justice through formal channels, with the message for those who might follow his path, “If at first you don’t succeed, then try something else.”

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

See also The Subversion of Australian Universitieswith a chapter by John Biggs about the University of Newcastle.

‘Doing Time’

Don Parkes in his book Doctored!mentioned above, made the following comments (page 12).

During the mid 1980s and through the 1990s, if one had an academic problem that required administrative attention, then at the University of Newcastle NSW, too often, one became ‘the problem’. As a serious enough problem one could end up in gaol, as was the case for Dr. Michael Spautz. Vice Chancellors and others will not give much attention to you, will not treat you as a colleague, or pay much real attention to the problem that you have raised: you become the problem and that is how they relate to you. Nevertheless, it is really quite easy to overcome the predicament: cooperate; just leave it to the powers that be: promotion and positive references await for such cooperation.

At about the time that our story was kicking in, Dr. Michael Spautz was sent to prison for 76 days in the high security, 150-year-old Maitland NSW gaol. He was an American, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Commerce. Spautz fought the University all the way to the High Court of Australia because he was not satisfied that due process had been followed in the handling of reports of alleged plagiarism in the work of a newly appointed professor. Spautz was required to undergo psychiatric assessment and was eventually dismissed. He continued the fight.

Maitland gaol was a nasty place, high security prisons are nasty places, usually for nasty people. Dr. Spautz was not a nasty person. I knew him for many years and have often looked back, with some shame at my ‘bystander role’: though he was always openly welcome in my office; we met where and as we wished and together with my good friend Richard Dear from the university’s computer centre, we gave him many sheets of computer print-out paper on which to ‘roneo’ copy his ‘in vita veritas’ letters distributed to hundreds of staff and students. The reason for his imprisonment was clamed to be non-payment of an account. That’s believable? Technically probably ‘yes’, it is believable: but it was draconian, a ‘teach him a lesson’ sort of punishment. The university was well connected.

Fourteen years later, in 1996, he received a paltry sum of $75,000 for wrongful imprisonment; he was never reinstated in the University.

http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Parkes11.pdf

Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals — and more

Academics who dissent from orthodoxies or who challenge powerful groups need to be prepared for the tactics used against them.

When Ivor van Heerden worked as a hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University, he was good at predicting hurricane impacts. But he may not have anticipated all the methods his detractors would use.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, van Heerden presented his views forcefully to the media. In particular, he blamed the collapse of the levees on the Army Corps of Engineers. Top figures at LSU were not pleased, and tried to gag him and then to dismiss him.

Because his views were unwelcome, he was a target for reprisals. Is there any way he could have known what was likely to come next?


Ivor van Heerden

When you speak out and offend those with power, you’re at risk of adverse actions. This is true for anyone, including academics. Scholarly dissent is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, and sometimes it is, but in too many cases it is not, as shown in numerous case studies in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

Suppression of dissent

There is a regular pattern in cases of academic dissent. A scholar does something threatening to others, for example criticising scientific orthodoxy, doing research that threatens groups with vested interests, or teaching in an unconventional way. The most common trigger for suppression of dissent is challenging senior management within one’s own institution.

Then come reprisals, for example ostracism, damaging rumours, reprimands, censorship and dismissal. Sometimes the reprisals are subtle and hard to prove. Petty harassment can involve delays in processing forms, inconvenient teaching times, failure to be notified of meetings, and denial of requests for funding or leave.

The question is what to do. Sometimes it’s better to leave or to put up with the bad treatment. However, if you want to resist, what’s the best strategy? To better understand options, it’s useful to look at what happens with other sorts of injustices.

Outrage management techniques

When powerful individuals or groups do something that might be perceived as unfair, there is a risk of triggering public outrage. To reduce this outrage, powerful perpetrators regularly use five sorts of methods: (1) cover up the action; (2) devalue the target; (3) reinterpret the events by lying, minimizing, blaming, and framing; (4) use official channels that give only an appearance of justice; and (5) intimidate or reward people involved.

For a stark example, consider torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (1) The prison guards and the US government hid the torture. (2) The tortured prisoners were called criminals or terrorists. (3) The torture was labeled “abuse.” Prison guards were blamed, with no responsibility taken by senior US officials. (4) Legal action against prison guards involved took many months, led to limited penalties, and allowed higher level officials to avoid responsibility. (5) Whistleblowers suffered reprisals.

Abu Ghraib was the exception, in that the exposure of graphic photos forced the US government to respond. In other torture centers around the world, cover-up and official denials prevent information getting out and limit public awareness and concern.

It may seem a large jump from torture to suppression of academic dissent. The commonality lies in the methods of outrage management. The same five methods of reducing outrage are found in a wide range of injustices, including sexual harassment, bullying, police beatings, massacres and genocide.

This means that when administrators take reprisals against academic dissent, with the risk of generating outrage from their actions, it is predictable that they will cover up their actions, devalue the dissident academic, provide plausible-sounding explanations for their actions, rely on formal processes to give credibility, and use threats and promises to thwart critics. In some cases, only one or a few of these techniques are used; in others, all of them are involved.

Techniques used against van Heerden

In July 2011, the AAUP issued a report on the van Heerden case. The report documents the intent of LSU officials to gag and eliminate him, because his public statements threatened their aim of gaining funds from the Army Corps of Engineers. The AAUP report provides evidence of all five types of techniques. (See also  van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s 2006 book The Storm.)

When the dean made the decision not to reappoint van Heerden, he did not give any reasons. Similarly, no reason was given for removing him as deputy director of the Hurricane Center. This was a type of cover-up. If reasons had been given, they could have been countered.

To devalue van Heerden, LSU officials emphasised that he had no credentials in civil engineering (relevant to design of the levees). In 2006 and 2007, van Heerden’s supporters asked the Chancellor to endorse their nomination of van Heerden for the 2007 National Wetlands Award. The Chancellor received advice from the Vice Chancellor, who wrote, “We would not want this award to justify his potentially misguided view of science/service.” (p. 10 of the AAUP report). By preventing the nomination, they denied van Heerden the possibility of significant validation of his contribution. Meanwhile, “a concerted media campaign arose defending the Corps of Engineers and attacking its critics, notably Professor van Heerden, in the New Orleans press” (p. 11). What seemed to be letters from members of the public were traced to “government computers inside the Corps offices in New Orleans.”

Van Heerden’s ouster was enabled by a reinterpretation of his job description. He had been employed for over a decade as an associate professor–research. His supervisor insisted that, “The formal job description is 100 percent research” (p. 11). This claim helped justify dismissing him on the grounds of not publishing enough papers in scholarly journals. Actually, van Heerden’s job description did not specify 100% research.

To challenge the decisions made against him, van Heerden appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee. However, the committee copped out of its responsibility, declining to carry out an investigation. This is an example of the failure of official channels. The Grievance Committee provided the appearance of providing justice, but in practice none was forthcoming.

Van Heerden sued the university over wrongful termination. This provided the administration a pretext not to respond to other initiatives on his behalf. After the AAUP became involved, authorising an investigation, lawyers for LSU said, “the pendency of litigation prevented the administration from cooperating with the investigation” (pp. 13–14). This is an example of how using an official channel — legal action — can stymie other types of action. The administration refused to cooperate with the AAUP’s investigation, another example of cover-up.

When senior academics in van Heerden’s department met to consider his case, the dean was present at the meeting. “His attendance was widely (and unsurprisingly) perceived as intimidating.” (p. 17) More generally, the administration’s actions against van Heerden sent a signal to other academics about the risks of running foul of the administration’s agendas generally, as well as in supporting van Heerden.

These examples give a taste of the many facets of the van Heerden case. They show that the administration used all five types of methods to reduce outrage: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation.

The same patterns are found repeatedly in cases of suppression of academic dissent. The more prominent the case, the more likely it is that the full range of methods will be used. It is wise to be prepared.

Counter-techniques

Each of the five methods can be countered. The counter to cover-up is exposure. Van Heerden’s supporters publicized his case; thousands of members of the local community signed a petition in his support. When wider audiences become aware of an injustice, some of them may be willing to act.

However, many academic dissidents avoid publicity, out of embarrassment, unfamiliarity with campaigning, or a trust in official channels. Anyone thinking of questioning or challenging orthodoxy should consider taking the issue to wider audiences.

The counter to devaluation is validation. Van Heerden had his impressive record of warnings concerning hurricane preparation and had allies in the university and local community willing to speak on his behalf. Dissidents can collect statements about their good performance and find people with credibility willing to vouch for them. Administrations will go through a dissident’s record, going back many years, searching for some transgression as a means to discredit them. Dissidents need to be prepared.

The counter to reinterpretation is to emphasize the unfairness involved. Van Heerden’s supporters pointed out the administrative contradictions involved in dismissing him: they cut through the false statements by those who wanted to get rid of him.

Dissidents can expect lies, blaming, and framing. Their opponents will try to explain reprisals in all sorts of ways — except as reprisals. Dissidents and their supporters need to be able to counter misleading accounts and insist on the unfairness of targeting a scholar for expressing unwelcome viewpoints.

The alternative to official channels is mobilizing support. Van Heerden’s supporters did this on his behalf. However, he put considerable trust and energy into official channels such as the Faculty Grievance Committee, which took energy away from a mobilization strategy.

Academics often assume that official processes, like grievance committees and courts, are set up to fairly adjudicate issues. Unfortunately, more often they give only an appearance of justice. Typically they are slow, focus on procedures rather than the core issues at stake, and rely on experts such as lawyers. As such, they are perfect for sapping energy from a campaign. Sometimes it is necessary to use formal processes, but relying on them is risky, and usually reduces wider concern about taking action.

The counter to intimidation is resistance. Van Heerden did not give up and walk away quietly: he and his supporters put up a powerful resistance to the administration’s attack.

For some individuals and circumstances, acquiescence is the wisest strategy. But if administrations are to be prevented from exerting too much power, some dissidents need to resist. Those who take their case to wider audiences, expose the injustice and refuse to accept it provide an example to others.

In resisting attacks on dissent, there are no guarantees. Van Heerden and his supporters mounted a major campaign but could not save his career at LSU. Others can learn some lessons from his story, in particular not to put too much trust in official channels.

The wider lesson is to be prepared for the likely tactics taken by administrations or by outside attackers. The methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation are predictable. By being prepared to counter each of these methods, dissidents can better defend. It is wise to be prepared for hurricanes — and for reprisals against dissent.


Ivor van Heerden

Postscript

In early 2013, van Heerden settled his case against LSU, receiving a payout of $435,000. Even considering that his career was destroyed, compared to other dissidents he was one of the lucky ones.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Nicola Marks and Ken Westhues for helpful comments on drafts.

Assassination, Inc.

predator-firing-missile4

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

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

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

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJeremy Scahill

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

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

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Double standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outrage management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance

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

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

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

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

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Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Online and objectionable?

The Internet enables people to operate online, anonymously. When this capacity is used for damaging activities, what should be done?

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I’m a fan of being able to communicate online without revealing your identity. This is because I’ve known so many whistleblowers who are subject to serious reprisals. As soon as they go public, they are cut off from further information, and the reprisals divert attention from the issue they spoke out about. Leaking anonymously is usually a better option, reducing or eliminating reprisals, while the leaker can remain on the job and, if necessary, leak again.

Leaking can be done in various ways. The Internet makes it easier. Setting up a Yahoo email account at a public library is one option. Another is using encryption, including the Tor browser to hide web activity.

Then there are dissidents in countries where speaking out against the government can lead to dismissal, arrest, imprisonment and torture. Encrypted communication can be a vital tool for campaigners who are up against a repressive regime.

However, online anonymity can be used for other, less noble purposes. I was reminded of this by reading Jamie Bartlett’s book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. Bartlett, a researcher at the think tank Demos, knew about nefarious activities on the Internet and decided to investigate further. He pursued unfamiliar corners online, tracked down individuals who are involved, met them face-to-face and learned about how they operate.

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The Dark Net is a fascinating account. It is engagingly written and addresses a series of important topics, including trolling, racist organising, child pornography and illegal drug sales. Bartlett doesn’t try to force his views on the reader, but rather encourages thinking about the pros and cons of online anonymity.

Trolling

Trolling involves entering online discussions and seeking to cause trouble, upsetting people by making rude comments or trying to disrupt an entire discussion. Trolls may see success, from their viewpoint, as provoking an angry response.

Bartlett, as well as telling about cases of trolls who were exposed and prosecuted, was able to meet with a self-identified troll and discuss his motives and methods. Trolls may be quite ordinary people offline, but online they morph into nasty personas, sometimes taking numerous identities. They may pretend to adopt views contrary to their own and infiltrate forums in order to discredit them, for example pretending to be a racist making really objectionable comments.

Internet troll

Trolling has been around ever since the early days of computer-to-computer interaction, the precursors of the Internet. It is fostered by what’s called the online disinhibition effect, which means that when you are separated from people in time and space, you are more likely to behave without the usual restraints that apply when talking to someone face-to-face.

Bartlett entered the notorious /b/ board of the image-sharing website 4chan, where participants, almost all anonymous, vie with each other in making ingenious insults and outrageous statements. When a teenage girl entered for the first time, she was seen as a legitimate target. She was encouraged to post revealing photos of herself. Board regulars managed to determine her offline identity (“dox” her) by using cues in the background of her photos, and proceeded to send her photos to her parents, her classmates and friends.

This was what /b/ calls a “life ruin”: cyberbullying intended, as its name suggests, to result in long-term, sustained distress. It’s not the first time that /b/ has doxed camgirls. One elated participant celebrated the victory by creating another thread to share stories and screen grabs of dozens of other “classic” life ruins, posting photographs of a girl whose Facebook account had been hacked, her password changed, and the explicit pictures she’d posted on /b/ shared on her timeline. (p. 20)

Alarmingly, these trolls see nothing wrong with harming people. She deserved it, they think, because she was so foolish. But, as Bartlett notes, trolls can cause severe damage to a person’s life, even causing them to commit suicide. And it’s all done anonymously. Only very seldom is a troll held to account.

Porn

Another use of the Internet is for circulating pornography, for which there seems to be an unending demand, with porn sites constituting a good proportion of what’s on the web. However, the traditional porn industry is not thriving. The reason is the availability of webcams, enabling a huge increase in self-made sex displays.

Bartlett made contact with a successful online performer, Vex, met her in real life and attended one of her shows, watching her (and, on this occasion, two other women) perform using the site Chaturbate. Watchers can sign in for the show and express their appreciation through payment of Chaturbate tokens. Bartlett watched a particularly lucrative show.

I ask Vex why she thinks she is so popular. “Traditional porn tends to be standardized and unrealistic,” she replies. “I guess I’m a real person in a real room.” This view is one put forward by Feona Attwood, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University: “It’s a better kind of porn: somehow more real, raw, and innovative than the products of the mainstream porn industry.” (p. 171)

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Something more disturbing is the availability of child porn on the Internet. It is hidden well, using encryption, but there is lots of it. Bartlett tells how child porn was in decline in the 1980s, seen by law enforcement as a low priority. The Internet provided a huge boost to the availability of child porn, with interest piqued by “gateway” images of older teenagers, gradually leading to interest in images of younger children. This in turn stimulated greater supply, itself made easier for dark-side entrepreneurs.

Bartlett met “Michael”, a seemingly ordinary middle-class man, who started watching more pornography in his 40s, with an interest in youthful bodies, and gradually moved from legal to illegal pornography. Then he was caught, and his life upended.

Bartlett provides a lot of context, quoting various sources and authorities, for example noting that the perpetrators of most sexual abuse continue to be family members and that evidence about the connection between watching child porn and becoming an offender is “inconclusive”. He also met with British police who specialise in tracking down online child porn so it can be shut down and the producers and users prosecuted. The British teams have been fairly successful in closing down British operations, but there are numerous offenders in other countries, and in many of them the police don’t care or are bribed not to interfere.

Anonymous commerce

It is now possible to buy and sell goods using anonymous digital currency, of which the best known is bitcoin. Libertarian-oriented programmers pour enormous energy into designing digital currencies that enable anonymity for sellers and purchasers, at the same time providing records of transactions.

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Bartlett purchased some marijuana online using a prominent drug-sale site, Silk Road 2.0, that offers a wide variety of pharmaceutical and illegal drugs. He didn’t use his credit card, of course, but rather bitcoin. He did use his home address, but he could have used some other address. Only after receiving his gram of marijuana through the post did he go online to note this, so the seller could receive the payment, which had been put in escrow. Sellers are rated by buyers, just like on Amazon, providing a trust-based system in which everyone is anonymous. The site takes a small commission, but no taxes are paid. Indeed, as Bartlett discovered, avoidance of taxes or any other government control is a key motivation of the programmers designing anonymous currencies.

Pro-ana

Bartlett also delved into the disturbing world of websites providing support for anorexics. Many of these provide assistance and encouragement to overcome this illness, but some, the so-called “pro-ana” sites, provide a different sort of support: to become ever thinner. The Internet has enabled anorexics to interact with each other, to share pictures of their emaciated physiques (and say how attractive they are), to tell about their diets (how little they eat in a day) and their struggles against eating, and to encourage each other to maintain dietary discipline for the goal of thinness. Although anorexia predated the Internet, the pro-ana sites provide a new source of encouragement for dangerous weight loss and thus a continuation or accentuation of the illness.

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Alternatives?

Bartlett, through his tour through dark parts of the net, highlights negative aspects of online anonymity. He entered this world recognising the positives, especially the capacity to organise against repressive governments. However, even when examining the less positive areas, such as child porn and pro-ana sites, he maintains an admirable suspension of judgement, in part because he is genuinely impressed by the complexity of the issues. None of the areas turned out to be as one-dimensional as he anticipated.

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Jamie Bartlett

Spy agencies do not like online anonymity. In the US and Britain, they have been pushing for encryption systems to have backdoors so the agencies can read anyone’s email. They argue this is necessary for tackling terrorism, with child porn offering a useful supplementary argument. However, the case for backdoors is fundamentally flawed, because terrorists are not going to use an insecure system. What the agencies really want is to maintain surveillance over citizens.

An underlying assumption in the contest between spy agency agendas and their opponents who defend civil liberties is that online anonymity is a key to enabling abuses. However, while it might seem on the surface that online anonymity is central to trolling, racist organising, child porn and the sale of illegal drugs, perhaps this attributes too much to the communications medium. After all, the postal system and the telephone are used by terrorists, criminals and paedophiles, but this does not mean governments should have the capacity to open all letters or listen to all calls, especially because such a capacity will enable more crimes, by the government itself, than it would prevent.

For each questionable use of the Internet, it is worth exploring a range of options for challenging the underlying social problem. Concerning the sale of illegal drugs: instead of trying to shut down online operations, a different approach is to decriminalise drug use and to introduce a range of measures to reduce the harmful effects of drugs. Specialists on challenging racism, anorexia and child pornography also can offer alternative pathways. The problems are in the “real world”, not just online. It is easy to point the finger at the Internet, the medium of communication, but more challenging to go to the roots of the problems.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Ted Mitew comments:

There is a noticeable stratification in access to real anonymity both in terms of the carrying layer and the destination:

[1] most people access the net through a layer of zero anonymity or pseudo anonymity at best, and their destination is not anonymous either;

[2] a small percentage access the net through a layer of high anonymity [VPN] and their destination may be somewhat anonymous (for example, members-only forums);

[3] an even smaller percentage access a completely different and highly anonymous network (for example, I2P) through an anonymous layer (VPN).

Groups 2 and 3 are not going to be affected by any government efforts to regulate anonymity, but ironically it is those two groups who have the know-how and will to defend anonymity.

The story-editing solution

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

Stereotype-threat

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

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

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

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

Redirect

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

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

Scaring kids

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

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

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

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Timothy D Wilson

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

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

Whistleblowing

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

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

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

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?

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

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

War

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

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

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

Vaccination

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 ***

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

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

Military research dilemmas

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

military censorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption in the military

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

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

high-priests-of-waste

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

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

Lincoln-memorial

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

A dilemma for peace activists?

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

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

Baroque-arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

state-of-war

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

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

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

peace-conversion-task-force-cartoon-sized-down-adapted-300x235

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

militarywastetitle2

An alternative research agenda

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

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

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

Back to practicalities

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

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

censored-igor-saktor
Image: Igor Saktor, The Australian

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

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

Jørgen Johansen comments

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

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

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

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

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

Whistleblowing and loyalty

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

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

In-case-of-whistleblower-break-glass

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

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

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

The Righteous Mind

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

Righteous_Mind

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

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

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

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

Elephant and Rider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

loyal_employee

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

Care versus loyalty?

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

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

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

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

Loyalty to what?

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

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

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

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

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

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

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

you-did-right-thing-wb

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

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

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

Red-Queen

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

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

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

More information

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

PS I’ve applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:

Acknowledgements

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

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

Comments from Kim Sawyer

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

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

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

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

Some specific comments from my own experience

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