On Whistleblowing, MLK, Jr., and the Politics of Resistance in the Digital Age

In a press conference this morning, President Obama spoke of the need to ask “tough questions” about surveillance and civil liberties—even as he doubled down on the importance of cyber-scrutiny to national security.

Appropriately, this call to tough questioning, offered in the context of this generation’s challenge to defend democratic freedoms, arrives on the eve of MLK, Jr. Day.

We live in an era when the “catechism” of capitalist ideology holds that markets can do no wrong; that technologies are inevitably progressive and democratizing; and that political or social intervention in the booming tech industry is tantamount to sin.

In this environment, corporate and military interests have appropriated the democratic potential of digital technologies for the purposes of surveillance. Laws protecting intellectual property and copyright abound, while laws against revenge porn, consumer privacy violations, and illegal surveillance are meager at best.

Digital technologies have generated a crisis in the ethics of disclosure—and positioned us at an ethical crossroads between love and vengeance. In the effort to restore a semblance of balance to the digital economy, activists struggle for moral ground.

In sketching this struggle, I will summon the voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., theologian Walter Brueggemann, and composer John Cage. And I’ll argue that the digital economy calls for a queer ethics, politics, and spirituality: one that is “tenderhearted,” as King put it, while “Cagey” in its ability to resist cultural oppression, without giving into what Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness” of mainstream culture—that impulse to retaliation and revenge.

A Lost Counterculture

For the sake of context, remember that the early days of the internet were driven by counterculture figures who indulged in psychedelic drugs and saw computer technology as a mind-expanding, salvific force. They valued cooperation, sharing, liberation from governments and corporations. Information sharing and openness were built into the protocols of the internet.

But they rejected commercialism and profit motives.

In their early days, the CEOs of Google and Facebook rejected advertising and commercialism. This didn’t last long, however. The counter-cultural movement was bumped aside by savvy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who kept hold of techno-utopianism but infused it with an Ayn Randian spirit of capitalist individualism. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had both used LSD. Jobs claimed to be a Buddhist. But they accepted the logic of corporate capital. Digital networks would bring both wealth and liberation. Critics call this view the “Californian ideology.”

Today, Silicon Valley is driven by advertising, and the disclosure and collection of personal data is the backbone of the tech industry. To this end, CEOs often make radical, self-serving pronouncements that redefine basic social norms about privacy and consent. In 1999, Sun Microsystems’ CEO Scott McNealy stated: “You have zero privacy anyway… Get over it.”

When Facebook changed its privacy settings so users’ actions defaulted to “public,” Mark Zuckerberg said that people had become comfortable with openness and sharing, and Facebook had simply “decided that these would be the social norms now.” Confusing privacy policies, and rhetoric extolling the benefits of data disclosure amount to a form of coercion that undermines the basic principle of consent.

The Sexual Politics of Disclosure

Let’s focus on a key statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Schmidt remarked in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

A year later, Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, surreptitiously used a webcam to view Clementi’s romantic encounter with another man. Using Twitter, Ravi had invited friends to view a second encounter either in his room or via iChat. Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge before Ravi could hold his viewing party.

Though his antiquated gender stereotyping is enough to make Catholic women cry, with regard to the attitudes of straight men and women toward their gay brothers and sisters, Pope Francis nevertheless expresses a simple truth that appears to have eluded Ravi: “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.” Indeed, to willfully humiliate another violates the most basic norms of human dignity and non-violence.

Unfortunately, pro-corporate rhetoric about information disclosure encourages and dismisses malicious violations of privacy, propping up what Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness” of the status-quo— worldview premised not on hospitality but on exclusion, ostracization, maliciousness, and vengeance.

Tyler, of course, was not alone. Headlines are filled with the names of young women who have committed suicide after their ex-boyfriends or acquaintances maliciously distributed explicit images against their will—victims of so-called “revenge porn.” Operators of such sites have defended their business with arguments that are remarkably similar to those that issue from the highest levels of mainstream social media sites. As journalist Natasha Lennard has argued, such cases reveal that profit-driven rhetoric about sharing and openness is “underpinned by an immense privilege”—since those who boast of having nothing to hide rarely identify as racial, political, gender, or sexual minorities.

The Loving Counter-Obedience of Whistleblowing

At the same time, we know that graphic photos and videos, distributed widely through electronic media, can call us instead to reconsider and reject oppressive social norms. The televised images of civil rights marchers attacked by dogs and fire hoses made the kind of gut-level impact that an op-ed could not have matched. Such images can call us away from vengeance. In these moments we see how, as Brueggemann explains, the “three summons of hospitality, generosity, and no vengeance, are as radical as you can get in Pharoah’s world or in Caesar’s world.”

They are in fact “formulations for a counter-obedience.”

Through WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning released videos purporting to show U.S. forces gunning down two Reuters journalists in Baghdad; in cooperation with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, Snowden released PowerPoint slides showing how the NSA harnessed the data collection powers of tech companies like Google and Apple.

In their statements, Manning and Snowden each defend their disclosures by appealing to basic notions of integrity and love. Snowden said:

You have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. If living unfreely but comfortably is something you can accept… But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create… to extend this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk.

In her appeal for a Presidential pardon, Manning explained that she disclosed the information “out of a love for my country and sense of duty to others.”

As philosopher Peter Ludlow explains, supporters recognize that hacker activists and whistleblowers are helping to “lift the hood that is periodically pulled over our eyes to blind us from the truth.” They are, in fact, drawing from the activist legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in a sermon titled “The Strength to Love” argued, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to co-operate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

It is fitting, then, that both Snowden and Manning have been awarded the Sam Adams Prize for Integrity in Intelligence.

Resisting the Temptation to Vengeance

Martin Luther King famously insisted that “our quest for freedom” must embrace

non-violent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.

But hacker activists who support Manning and Snowden have too often succumbed to the temptation toward vengeance afforded by technologies of digital disclosure. When the hacker group Anonymous learned that the security firm HBGary Federal was planning to retaliate against WikiLeaks and reporter Glenn Greenwald, the group hacked into CEO Aaron Barr’s accounts, releasing his private e-mails online and publicizing its actions on Twitter.

When critics like former Anonymous member Jennifer Emick accused the group of hypocrisy for violating people’s privacy rights, members of the group sent her highly misogynistic and sexualized threats. In these ways, vigilante groups like Anonymous run the risk of undermining the type of civil disobedience that springs from love of one’s country, in favor of vengeful attacks that are the political equivalent of revenge porn.

Drawing from the book of Psalms, Brueggemann suggests we have three possible responses to our own temptations toward vengeance: We can act it out; We can deny it—although it “usually comes out elsewhere”; or we can “hand off” our anger to God, just as a when an angry child seeks guidance, and a “wise parent” tells him, “I’ll handle it, give it over to me.”

Civil discourse likewise requires a structure that allows room for political dissent but which exercises prudent judgment over what documents or images are disclosed in service of that dissent, and provides context for their meaning and interpretation.

That is the charge of journalism.

Indeed Glenn Greenwald points out that that if Snowden had wanted to harm the U.S., he could have easily passed on or sold his information to U.S. state enemies or terrorists. Instead he sought the editorial judgment of The Guardian.

Yet commercial pressures have undermined journalism’s watchdog role. Coverage in the U.S. often focused on Snowden’s personal saga, avoiding substantive debate while adhering closely to U.S. officials’ narrative of national security and espionage. Greenwald found himself singled out, virtually alone in defending the charge of journalists to challenge the powerful. Bearing the brunt of criticism, without a community of supportive journalists to whom he could give over his anger, the temptation toward vengeance became palpable.

When Greenwald’s partner was detained by British authorities and questioned for nine hours, Greenwald responded defiantly:

If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further.

Jon Scott of Fox News characterized Greenwald’s comments as a personal threat, asking rhetorically, “Now, is that what a journalist is supposed to do?”

Reckless disclosure, no; but aggressive investigation and judicious disclosure? Yes, that is the duty of the journalist. And we need more, rather than fewer of such journalists, so that the charge of investigative reporting might be spread across an ethically and professionally astute community.

As media ethicist Cliff Christians reminds us, the aim of the press in not simply the distribution of information but “morally literate citizens.” Having bought into the myth of objectivity, however, and under pressure from corporate and government officials, commercial journalism has abandoned its role as a “catalyst for moral agency” and has acted instead as a catalyst for the consolidation of power and the swift silencing of dissent.

The crisis of journalism is both institutional and moral: without policies supporting rigorous investigative journalism as a public good, the moral charge of journalism to enable non-violent resistance too easily gives way to unaccountable, technologically-enabled vigilantism. As a result, a danger looms that the revolutionary potential of WikiLeaks and other platforms will dissipate before establishing their institutional footing. If that happens, it is not powerful corporate CEOs or political leaders who will suffer the consequences, but those among us who are most vulnerable.

The Cagey Politics of Whistleblowing

In an interview with Out magazine, wherein he reflects on his experience of being in a bi-national same-sex couple, Greenwald connects the dots between sexual politics and the ideological persecution of whistleblowers. Fred Bernstein writes:

Greenwald believes Manning might have been less likely to reveal government secrets if he were straight: Gay people, because they’re already “outside the sphere of comfort,” have a “huge advantage in being willing to challenge authority,” he says, speaking from experience.

Yet we have seen the difficulty in escaping the cycle of vengeance that characterizes royal consciousness. In the heat of political passion, how then do we embrace non-violent civil disobedience, while avoiding the temptation to vengeance that digital networks afford us? The challenge calls not just for a queer politics but a queer spirituality—that is, a post-conventional worldview that refuses the standard binaries of political fundamentalism and the echoing press.

The composer John Cage, as a closeted homosexual in the 1950s, serves as an ironic mentor. Drawing from the Buddhist teachings of D.T. Suzuki, Cage used silence as a mode of resistance, and understood such resistance as more effective in some ways than direct confrontation. Opposition movements can serve to re-entrench power by providing a clear target point against which to mobilize and exclude, while “silence”—in the sense of non-violent resistance—is more difficult to identify, control, and suppress. Cage himself wrote:

There is in acceptance and non-violence an underestimated revolutionary force. But instead, protest is all too often absorbed into the flow of power, because it limits itself to reaching for the same old mechanisms of power, which is the worst way to challenge authority! We’ll never get away from it that way!

The lesson from Cage is not to literally remain silent, but to escape the cycle of vengeance and oppression by refusing to play by the terms of established institutions.

King would later articulate and embody this argument much more effectively, of course, and its echoes would resound in the willfully misunderstood sermon that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright made shortly after September 11, 2001, where he drew from Psalm 137 to denounce the cycle of violence that would soon be perpetuated by the Bush administration’s belligerent response. It is not a message that plays well in commercial media, yet it is a necessary argument since, as Cage argued, the violent opposition to established power leads us not toward liberation but merely allows us to “change prisons.”

As today’s activists search for a firm moral ground, the most difficult task may be to resist the easy payoff of cybervigilantism in favor of the sustained transformative force of a loving and non-violent counter-obedience. The politics of resistance in the digital era are cagey indeed.