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Truth is not enough

I haven’t posted anything about Wikileaks because it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of commentary. Also, I am deeply conflicted about it, for predictable reasons: I’m happy to see some nasty government programs exposed, but I also believe governments and the people who work for them need to have conversations that are frank, honest, private, and even regrettable.

I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.” He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.”

Truth can be noise. Truth can be used to distract us. Truth can be wicked violence. It is not enough, therefore, to justify your blurtings by saying, “But it’s the truth!” Truth’s value comes from its role in the complex social fabric — network — within which we live. That network contains many other human values, purposes, and fallibilities. The truth matters because it helps us act in our world, together.

So, I don’t think Wikileaks’ actions can be justified simply by saying, “But the site is just saying the truth!” It’s far more complex than that. What effect will this exposure have? How might it have been a more effective exposure? What do we gain and what to we lose. With this round of Wikileaks, we both gain and lose, imo.

Here, by the way, I think Assange’s interests diverge from many of us who believe in the power of transparency. I find persuasive Zungzungu’s argument, based on a 2006 writings attributed to Assange [pdf], that Wikileaks is not about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine: It is aiming at rendering “authoritarian conspiracies” ineffective. I am glad that the site has exposed some of my government’s wickedness; I am unhappy that it is going to render it less effective in the good that it does. And I am unhapy with my government’s response to the leak.

Here are links to some Berkman posts about Wikileaks. And here’s a discussion initiated by Jay Rosen about Assange’s non-answer to a question like the one this post raises.

17 Responses to “Truth is not enough”

  1. Agree with everything you say in this post.

    However, being intelligently and politely conversational is not always effective and practical.

    What Assange is doing – in terms of scale, technology, and potential impact – is new, rough, and aggressive.

    But it is a glimpse of what’s coming – info hacking of institutions. Beyond Assange’s agenda, Wikileaks is a warning shot to institutions – and that is a good thing. Our institutions need to worry a bit more about their own morality and mortality. It’s healthy.

    The last time American institutions were quickly changing for the better was under the Soviet threat of communist world domination. Not so paradoxical though – America simply needed to prove to the world that it offered a better social and moral model. And it succeeded – for its own good too – thanks, in part, to the Soviets.

  2. […] street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.” (from Truth is Not Enough) AKPC_IDS += "3346,";Popularity: unranked [?] Share and […]

  3. But how is it “going to render [the government] less effective in the good that it does”? I have seen this argument a few times and don’t feel myself competent to dismiss it hastily, but would love to see it discussed as more than a hunch. By which mecanisms would forced government transparency (not to be confused with wholesale surveillance, govt efforts for which apparently a part of what is being exposed) hinder efforts for Good internally and abroad?

    I agree that truth can be distractful noise. And views expressed in cables are sometimes confused with (or even deliberately exploited as) undisputable and complete portraits of the most relevant facts
    But how far should the state go to ‘protect’ citizens from risks of poor critical thinking and third-party manipulation of ‘excessively transparent’ data? Is it clear that the risk for this would be significantly higher in a ‘wikileaked’ society than before? Some anticipated counter-intuitive side effects on accountability, for instance?

  4. Right now, I believe the onus of responsibility is on the existing governments of the US, UK etc. to prove that they are using secrecy for good as opposed to their demonstrable recent uses of it for ill.

    Until then, they’ve forfeited any right they have to secrecy. Certainly they don’t deserve the benefit of our doubt when they claim to need “frank, honest, private, and even regrettable” conversations to further their policy aims.

    Yes, some people need this, and some people can be trusted to have privacy and not abuse it by concocting fake reasons to go to war, dragging off innocent people to be tortured, and pressurizing other governments into co-operating with them. Our governments, unfortunately, don’t fall into that category. They can’t be trusted with secret communication and it’s better to disrupt and prevent that capacity to the fullest extent possible.

    Slightly longer version of this responses to JAnthony here :

  5. I broadly concur with the main article. The WikiLeaks cables demonstrate the “partial truth” problem on multiple levels:

    First, a system of transparency that is based on idiosyncratic leaks provides, almost by definition, an incomplete and skewed portrayal of fact. A truly transparent system for disclosures would be lawfully enacted and transparently administered by a representative democracy, rather than by self-appointed, practically stateless (citizens of cyberspace?), freedom-of-information vigilantes. It would endeavor to provide _complete_ information or access thereto, without bias, and it would strive to inform the public without attempting to persuade it. In other words, it would be journalistic, as we idealize journalism.

    Second, as you state in your assessment, the cables are mere fragments of truth — not only in the sense of addressing narrow aspects of government policy, but also in the sense that many (but not all) of them represent the contentions of individual analysts and ambassadors, mixing objective fact and subjective opinion into raw material which is, at most, a tiny slice of the INPUT to the intelligence system and policy-making process, not the OUTPUT of intelligence (truth) or policy.

    Finally, WikiLeaks does not publish all of the information which it receives, and not only in the sense that it feebly attempts to redact information which, in its limited capacity to assess the complexities of the world, it deems too sensitive to publish — effectively “classified.” In a most forgiving interpretation, WikiLeaks, for lack of institutional bandwidth, merely ‘prioritizes’ certain documents over others. That is to say, it selectively releases document in small batches and in such a manner as to cause them to have the greatest impact on public opinion and public policy, while withholding other documents that might be less sensational and/or useful to WikiLeaks’ private interest in upsetting the global status quo. Thus, even if you take the US government’s diplomatic secrecy to be inherently unjust (I do not), WikiLeaks is nothing more than a new system of secrecy and opacity — one that is further controlled by private interests and which lacks even the backing of any legitimate democracy.

  6. “Wikileaks is our Amsterdam” – says Clay Shirky – – and that’s what I meant with my first comment above.

  7. Nice words. But misleading about WikiLeaks.

    The current leaks are dripping, they are not noisily dumped.
    They were redacted by newspapers/magazines, they were even shown to government beforehand. If you had bothered to read them yourself, you would have seen ample XXXXXXXX and cut outs.

    Try again, without BS.

  8. […] government.  Thus, as opposed to espousing a philosophy of radical transparency, Assange is not “about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine.”  For further analysis, check out  Aaron Brady‘s original blog […]

  9. As long as we have groups and entire nations interested in destroying others, or, at least, interested in controlling the others — I cannot find any good in WikiLeaks.

    Wikileaks is a fantastic fruit of “open society” enhanced by the Web. But it forgets about “its enemies” and their intentions.

  10. In my opinion, the future will see this in much the same way as the impact of the printing press on the Catholic/Regal governance systems in Europe.

    Assange is the messenger, and it is worrying that the Land of the Free and Brave is trying to shoot him with every gun at its disposal.

    It’s even sadder to see how few supposed supporters of Freedom in that Land are not very Brave….

  11. > Frank, honest, private, […] regrettable

    And in public, as part of the social contract between government and the governed. That is what people are asking for at this point in history.

  12. Alan – Assange would be a messanger, if we could have more “Assanges” in China, N. Korea, Iran or even Russia…

    Unilateral openness is not braveness Alan …

  13. […] Thus, as opposed to espousing a philosophy of radical transparency, Assange is not “about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine.”  For further analysis, check out  Aaron Bady‘s original blog […]

  14. You can’t have it both ways. Either our diplomacy is frank and honest both public and private, or you are encouraging schoolyard recess trash talking sessions, which the bulk of these ‘disclosures’ are.

    Not the best way to run foreign policy.

  15. […] Thus, as opposed to espousing a philosophy of radical transparency, Assange is not “about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine.” For further analysis, check out Aaron Bady‘s original blog […]

  16. […] Wolf’s article is hilariously for many reasons. And David Weinberger’s nuanced position worth to reconsider. The lines are drawn by others anyway.  While Weinberger’s sees the […]

  17. […] Por tanto, en lugar de abrazar una filosofía de transparencia radical, Assange no trata de "dejar pasar la luz del sol a la habitación sino de tirar arena a la máquina". Para un mayor análisis, consulte el blog original de Aaron […]

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