This morning on twitter I launched in to a couple of conversations on the most recent Wikileaks reports, which focused on the publication of confidential communications between world leaders and their staff. The conversations I pursued were on the characteristation of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange as a morally bankrupt individual or as a bloke with a death wish.
I think it’s quite clear Assange is an anarchist in the true sense of the word. Most people picture anarchists as thugs from political demonstrations who attack the police and property. Even some self-described anarchists who pursue such activity and/or get caught up in violent demonstrations, find the idea of challenging authority in direct and often aggressive confrontation appealing. But these people are not true anarchists. Or at least their behaviour is not anarchic, because they impose their own law on others, which is in itself against the anarchist philosophy of participatory economics and free will. So such people are really just thugs. And they use individualist anarchy as an excuse for their behaviour.
Assange appears to be a social anarchist because he is using wikileaks as a means of exposing hypocrisy among states, and revealing the true (as opposed to publicly espoused) opinions and intentions of world leaders. This would seem to indicate that he has little to no trust in governance generally, and believes the people should make decisions about their governing officials based on actual conversations rather than PR spin. All this would appear to be consistent with social anarchist philosophy.
The problem I have is that Assange and the Wikileaks site are being painted in media and by commentators as immoral. Morality, in the strictest sense, is a set of rules that bar certain behaviours and encourage others on the basis of benefits or harm caused to society. Moral behaviour is either personal or cultural, but is most commonly associated with religious doctrine and is fairly black and white about good versus evil. The trouble is that what is moral is not necessarily consistent across all cultures or indeed, all individuals. Further, moral behaviour has a direct impact on others’ lives and wellbeing, not an indirect or cascade effect on lives.
If anything, Assange and his Wikileaks may be unethical rather than immoral. Ethics are guidelines (rather than hard-and-fast rules) for the wellbeing of society, and they take in to account the wider implications of actions. This is why ethics is a much more ‘grey’ discipline; a movable feast of collectively determined values, rather than imposed rules. That’s not to say that Codes of Ethics are not proscriptive, but rather that they are proscriptive for signatories to a Code, based on collective belief in the negative impact of inappropriate behaviours.
Of course this still means that Assange and Wikileaks are only ‘unethical’ if the Wikileaks collective agree that exploitation of an ambitious or disgruntled army private is inappropriate behaviour for an investigative pseudo-journalism, whistleblowing website. And that’s still a bit of a stretch. You could argue that the revelation of the financial connection between those who broke in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 and the US Government of the period, was an exploitation of disgruntled staffers at the White House by the Washington Post reporters. It did, after all, bring the US economy and the public reputation of a world leader into question. It changed international opinions about the democratic credentials of the US, and it could well have been a contributing factor to declarations of war, as well as cessation of military conflict.
The truth of the matter is that Wikileaks publication of confidential communication is at most, ethically questionable. There’s no clear direct impact arising from these revelations, except embarrassment of a few world leaders and a few rather embarrassing characterisations of whole economies (including the fact that Australia is a rock solid ally of the US but ultimately it is “not influential”). It might lead to further outrage among US enemies, but there’s no certainty that this will have a direct impact on further acts of terrorism, or an escalation of conflict in areas of war. Indeed, if anything, it may put pressure on governing leaders and their staff to represent public opinion more closely, and to be more transparent in their communications. It’s certainly just as likely to impact positively as it is negatively. And in ethical terms, if the long term effect of Wikileaks publications is to reduce illegal, corrupt or hypocritical behaviour among governing bodies and officials of democratic societies, the benefits may well outweigh the harm of publication. ‘May’ is of course, the operative word here.
I’m not going to take sides on this issue, but rather remain an interested observer. I’m just keen to ensure that media profiling and public conversations on the subject matter do not decline into hyperbole. I should also note here that I am neither an anarchist, nor do I necessarily support the publication of confidential communications. However, I do feel there are valuable lessons to be learned about the global drive for transparency of business and government practice in the age of the internet. Rather than focusing on the moral or ethical dimension of publication, I rather wish people would focus on honest business practice and clear articulation of grounds for confidentiality.