Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Don't Take Sides, Take Issues (How To Think About Wikileaks)

I've been following the Wikileaks saga with increasing interest, because it embodies a principle in which I firmly believe:

Don't take sides, take issues.

People have asked if I'm pro-Wikileaks or anti-Wikileaks. One of my friends said she was anti-anti-Wikileaks.

The problem with taking sides is that its rare that sides are drawn up based on a single issue. And Wikileaks is decidedly *not* a single issue. Here's my own list, just off the top of my head:

1) Freedom of speech

Wikileaks is founded on this principle, which I have always strongly supported. It is far too easy for wrongdoers, be they nation states or other actors, to suppress damaging secrets. Wikileaks is a useful tool for increasing transparency. For example, previous leaks included footage of American military forces accidentally killing friendlies and reporters--footage that the military had tried to suppress. Surely this sort of information should be available to the public.

2) Responsible foreign policy

On the other hand, diplomacy between nation-states relies on privacy and confidentiality. Perhaps it would be nice if nations were honest about their motivations and actions, but a little privacy is the social lubricant that helps the world run more smoothly.

Your family holiday party would probably be a bit more awkward if everyone knew that you said your uncle was a boring loser who was probably a pedophile, just as the Middle East is a bit tenser because Wikileaks leaked that various Arab states urged the United States to bomb Iran.

Everyone knows what everyone thinks, but not saying out loud allows us to preserve the social niceties...useful for your dinner party, essential in the case of preventing war and conflict.

3) Corporate responsibility

In response to recent developments, a number of corporations such as Amazon and PayPal cut off service to Wikileaks. Was this a responsible response to a high-risk customer that endangered shareholder value? Or a craven cave-in to government pressure? Or both?

4) Vigilante justice

In response to the corporate boycott of Wikileaks, online communities such as Anon launched DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks on the companies involved. Is this activism? Vandalism? Terrorism?

5) Crime and punishment

The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has been charged by Swedish authorities with rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion, and was arrested in the UK. Those who commit crimes should be tried, and if found guilty, punished, regardless of their other deeds (good or ill).

6) Political persecution

On the other hand, what most headlines do not report is that the charges against Assange are that while engaged in consensual sex, his condom broke, and that he either failed to disclose this to his partner, or (more damagingly) continued the intercourse after being asked to stop. The former is clearly boorish and dangerous, the latter criminal. But the details don't match the headlines, which clearly imply that Assange is the perpetrator of violent sexual assault.

Is Sweden's decision to charge Assange justice at work? Or an attempt to punish him via whatever means are convenient?

The point of this is that simply saying you are pro- or anti-Wikileaks is insufficient. For example, if you are pro-Wikileaks, you are implying that you are pro-freedom of speech, but also that freedom of speech takes precedence over diplomatic concerns.

Instead, you should make clear your stance on the issues, and avoid blanket judgment.

Wikileaks should be commended when its leaks bring clarity, and reprimanded when they do nothing but harm diplomacy.

Companies should be shamed for giving into pressures, but we should understand that their duty is first and foremost to their shareholders and employees, and that they are not required to risk their livelihood just to satisfy our consciences.

Those who want to protest others' actions should do so, but legally.

We should recognize that someone like Julian Assange can be both a positive and negative force, and that just because we agree with some of his principles doesn't mean we have to support him in everything he does.

Nor should this advice be limited to Wikileaks--taking issue rather than taking sides is good advice for all of life.


Jose Corella said...

Thanks Chris, finally some sense arises from the vitriol and spin. Reminds me of a recent Ben entry (http://tinyurl.com/25acwew) regarding the need to remain “identity small”; i.e. focus on the wall versus what side you think you're standing on.

FORJ said...

Nice article Chris...

I am writing a post on the topic myself after back and forthing with various people over Twitter on the topic. The thing I've found most frustrating, as with most issues that become news nowadays, is that most of the debate is actually about a caricature of what has actually happened, not what has ACTUALLY happened. Ebert just tweeted a nice article on that front today: http://j.mp/fQH1Se

Nice breakdown of the many complex issues involved.

I also like your underlying message of Don't Take Sides. I wrote on this topic far less eloquently recently after getting frustrated by the constant push to take sides in the tech world: arrington vs calacanis, angels vs vcs, conway vs mcclure etc.

I stole the line from William Burroughs to cover my thoughts - never interfere in a boy-girl fight. http://richardjordan.tumblr.com

Chris said...


I didn't draw the connection until now, but yes, this does fit very well with Ben's post on identity. We take sides to simplify our lives (something that is difficult to avoid), but we have to bear in mind that it is a heuristic that can do more harm than good.


I do get very frustrated with how little people bother to research the truth. Assange is being villainized as a rapist when the true story is far more complicated. The Salon article is a great one.

acgourley said...

Well said. Funny how blogs (or "essays") seem to be the only format capable of expressing this nuance.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how the press and blogs might change if "decompose story into issues" (I'm not sure "issues" is a great name for this concept - what might be another?) became a recognized "thing" one writes about. And argues about.

And how might it be encouraged?

About 2), I note this is a variant of the issue of "lies", with largely bimodal opinion. "Only a child indiscriminately blurts harm" vs "the costs of silence cannot be managed, even unto horror".

Paul King said...

Chris, without taking sides (though as an America loving conservative I think you know where I stand) I think your point #1 " Freedom of speech - Wikileaks is founded on this principle ..." is fatally flawed - and it's from this point that all others flow.

I don't believe Wikileaks was founded on the principle of Freedom of Speech - though that sounds good, it's meant to marginalize anyone who may argue against them - after all, who's against 'freedom of speech'? It's like arguing against clean water ... who doesn't want that?

In fact, I believe it was founded with the idea of bringing down or bringing harm to its perceived enemies (mostly America it seems) and USES the argument of freedom of speech against them in the same way Hitler used the Reichstrafgesetzbuch statute to punish his enemies.

Right now the real fight seems to be the press themselves arguing the difference between "investigative journalism" and "releasing classified documents" -- depending on how badly you want to harm or protect the country (and take that how you will - if you're on the left you think these releases are strengthening and not harming, and if you're on the right like me you're certain all these traitors should forever be thrown in prison or better, Guantanamo, and after burn in a lake of fire for all eternity).