maanantaina, helmikuuta 04, 2013

Re: Trial by Media

In response to "Trial by Media" on Professors Blog.

As a background, I have been reading de Noli's blog for quite some time with great interest and I both sympathize with Julian Assange and support the cause of Wikileaks. However, I have become increasingly disturbed by the "barking-at-the-forest" approach of de Noli, as a contrast to 1) trying to improve things and 2) trying to understanding the causes of the problems.

In general, I do not think any one person is evil, save for some extremely rare criminally insane individuals. No, I think all people try their best to do what ever they perceive as best for themselves and best for their community. More specifically, I do not think that Swedish journalists, police and politicians that de Noli writes about are evil. To the eyes of an outside observer, yes, their actions do seem deplorable, incomprehensible and outright evil, but that is a difference in perspective. I am as sure as I can be of anything, that each and every one of the journalists, police and politicians de Noli writes about are doing whatever they can for the best of their country and themselves.

For one, I do not think that framing these people as madmen, will do any good. When people are subjected to an outburst, when they are called idiots or when they are screamed at, usually they either respond the same way with an outburst, calling you the idiot or scream at you, or then they completely ignore you. I think I have observed both responses in conjunction to Professors Blogg and quite frequently at that. What I have not observed so frequently, are calm and objective arguments. I do however appreciate de Noli's efforts towards objectivity.

More importantly, how can it then be that these inherently good people act in ways that seem like idiocy or pure evil to us? That is the real question! How is it possible that these good people do things that seem abominable?

What I call for is to look at the thing from the perspective of your opponent. There must be some reason that makes the good people act in a way that looks bad to us. My first suggestion would be their frame of reference. Think of a journalist who has done his job conscientiously for the past 30 years. He has dug stories, he has written articles and he has learned to know a lot of people. It is not a conspiracy, nor an organized mafia, it is his friends and colleagues, the people he has known for all those years. He is the god-father of some of their children and after his good friend had died, he walked his daughter to the altar in his place. They live in Sweden, the doll-house of Europe, where everything is a bit prettier and nicer than anywhere else. They know that and they are kind of proud of that, even if they lull themselves into a bit of an illusion. Every system degenerates over time, so did Rome, so did the Inca, ancient Egypt and USA, and so did also Sweden.

When you are in that system, it is hard to see that you are in the system. Because of such a long time of stability, all your friends and colleagues think more or less the same way as you. It is not that they would try to make consensus, or to force unity. It is just that if there are no immediate big problems, then the easiest way is to not rock the boat and just follow the stream.

Enter Assange. You cannot but admit, initially, there were some legitimate concerns both with regard to Wikileaks as also with regard to his personal affairs. As far as I know, the personal affair concerns turned out to be widely exaggerated, but with regard to Wikileaks some legitimate ethical questions remain that deserve to be discussed. It is not necessarily that Wikileaks would be bad, but questions such as "What responsibilities should the media take for their publications?" are important questions. The media itself does not seem to be capable of asking that question, perhaps because it is not a good way to sell ads, but someone should be asking those questions.

In any case, these initial, legitimate concerns rocked the Swedish boat. As Wikileaks did not fit any existing category on any level, it was easier to either ignore it or dismiss it by pointing out the potential problems with it. It was then that Julian, by either an ill-timed accident, or due to overly protective US foreign services (according to who you want to believe), ran into his personal troubles and the whole case escalated.

I have to repeat, I do not think that any party operated with conscious evil intentions. Even if you choose to believe that CIA organized Julian's predicament, I do think that their intentions are highly patriotic and that the operatives themselves think they have done nothing wrong. Likewise, I think that the Swedish government did what they saw best. Their first reaction was not to get involved, since they trust the Swedish police. In the beginning, it was not an act of submission towards USA, because they honestly (still) believe that the Swedish system works. As time went by, the political cost of changing positions grew. Acting for Wikileaks would naturally be an action against USA, and since the politicians have long good relations with their US allies, that would be difficult not only a political level, but on a personal level. Much worse, changing positions now would break the illusion that Sweden is somehow better than others, an illusion in which the politicians and journalists still live. Say, if Marianne Ny would suddenly drop her efforts against Assange, then she would be the one who is rocking the boat in Sweden. She would be the one who says, "Yes, we shouldn't have done that.". She is in a catch-22 situation. She can't win whatever she does - either she has to admit failure or enters a fight she cannot win - so she does the lesser evil, "do what we've always done".

What I am trying to say is that it is not the people who we should blame and it is not an organized mafia that we should blame. The problem is systemic. The people are caught in a self-supporting and self-reinforcing system, which limits their perspective and causes them to act in ways that we cannot comprehend. Attacking the individuals in the system forces them on their defense and makes them cling on to the system more desperately. Our attacks thus reinforce the system - exactly the opposite of our intention!

The question remains, what is the most efficient way to solve the problem? Name calling obviously will not help, since people become defensive or they ignore you. Framing somebody as an evil person also does not help, if you would ever again want the help of that person. What goes around comes around. You call that journalist an idiot today, she'll call you an idiot tomorrow, with the only difference that she has a larger audience.

My first suggestion is to give "the bad guys" an easy way out. It is not often possible, but when you can give someone the option of disappearing from the scene without loosing his or her face, let them disappear. It could be, for example, that the Swedish police suddenly "discovers" a rule which causes any open cases regarding Assange to expire. That would give Marianne Ny a way out. She would not have to admit error. She would, while lamenting the outcome, be "forced" to drop the case.

The second approach, which is close to what de Noli has been trying to do, is to report facts consistently and passionately. Professors blogg does not lack in either, but where I have to disagree, is the tone. Pointing out absurdities does not require framing people as evil persons. Passion does not equal or warrant emotional reactions to attacks. I am afraid it is a very Swedish attitude, but I would call for a "lagom" (well-proportioned) intensity approach. Our objective, if we are to succeed, must be to understand our opponent. Only by understanding the people in the system, can we help them understand. Our objective should not be to win, because that requires that someone loses, but to find steps which improve upon the current.

Finally, I must admit that I have not done my homework by far as well as de Noli does. My comments do not reflect any specific incident or writing on Professors Blogg, but rather the general tone and impression I have.

I hope this helps us forward.

- Tom Bäckström

The writer is professor at University of Erlangen, Germany, but does not claim any academic expertise in any area related to this text. This text also does not in any way reflect the opinions of his current, former or future employers, but only his personal opinions. You are free to redistribute the text as-is, without modification, as long as reference to the original and this disclaimer are retained.

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