Wikileaks asserts the value of absolute transparency (a value that they themselves do not abide by).
But there is a danger in talking about the revelations from Wikileaks, at least the current ones.
It’s not that all leaks are bad. It’s just that the importance of the information to the public should outweigh the moral/ethical/legal issues of releasing that information.
I support Edward Snowden and I supported the release of some of what Chelsea Manning leaked. (I do not actually support Wikileaks which until its recent decision to selectively release information for political impact, refused by policy to engage in any editorial oversight.)
But let’s be clear, both Snowden and Manning were motivated by conscience to release information. They saw wrongdoing and because of the systems in which they found themselves, there were not really channels to address the problems they saw (to whom could Snowden have gone about the illegal surveillance of American citizens when the President himself approved that surveillance?). Snowden and Manning were whistleblowers- even though they are legally denied that status.
There were real and important hazards surrounding the release of that information and thoughtful people can and do disagree about whether the dangers outweighed the importance of the release of the information.
But in the case of the current leaks from Wikileaks, there is no ethical individual incensed by wrongdoing, rather the leaks are a result of an illegal hack sponsored by a foreign government with the intent of interfering with the elections of a sovereign state.
But beyond the particulars of the current situation, there is a larger question about what information the public has a right to know and the rights of citizens to privacy.
The famous sociologist Erving Goffman, analyzed human interaction by using the metaphor of the theater. In his famous work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman argued that all human beings engage in performance, with a front stage and a back stage and that each situation with a different audience or different rules, necessitates a different performance. It is important to note that Goffman was not discussing pathology- but rather normal human interaction.
We all engage in this. We speak one way to family and friends and another way to pastors and religious leaders and yet another way to colleagues and another to managers. The person who fails to do this- who does not recognize the differences between audiences is seldom a success (or they end up running for president engaging in very public and very juvenile middle of the night tweet storms filled with the kind of ranting one might better do with a close and sympathetic friend who would hopefully tell them to keep these thoughts backstage).
Speaking in different ways to different audiences is not about deceit. It’s not pathology. It’s human nature. And certainly it can be about deceit- but in the case of Hillary Clinton, what she said at Goldman Sachs was not really different in substance to what she said in other venues, it was mostly different in emphasis, style and tone. In other words, she presented herself differently when the audience was different. She was engaged in the art of the presentation of self in everyday life.
And actually in all negotiations and perhaps especially in diplomacy– she was the Secretary of State at one point- being able to manage front and back stage is important. Letting your allies speak differently in a negotiating room vs. how they speak in their own media, allows them to make important compromises that result in treaties that benefit the world.
The truth is that we all do this. Who can honestly say they have never talked about a friend with another friend or disparaged a competitor to another colleague? It may not be pretty. It may not be polite, but it’s human nature.
In recent email leaks- from Sony to Clinton, most of what was revealed, was embarrassing but not damning. Mostly what happened was that back stage thoughts and comments were placed on the front stage (or comments from one stage with one set of rules were placed on another stage with different rules).
What we saw in the emails was frustration and pettiness. We saw name calling and suggestions that were unseemly and at times unethical. But since those ideas were not actually brought into action, we really shouldn’t care.
To be clear, there are some things that are unethical- Donna Brazile feeding information to the Clinton campaign. But do those revelation warrant the invasion of privacy and the theft of private work product? I don’t think so.
Not only that, I do not think any of us want every email or text we have ever written to be scrutinized. I do not think any of us want everything we have ever said- in anger, in frustration, in jest, to be made public.
We all function with a front stage and a back stage and I fear we are entering an age where the demand for total transparency pathologizes basic human interaction.
You see, you may be OK with hacking Hillary Clinton’s email or Sony’s or Bank of America, but one of these days, someone will hack your company’s server or your personal email and you will find yourself defending a snarky comment or an ill advised suggestion. At that moment, you may decide that perhaps not every piece of information deserves public scrutiny.
Again, I am not saying that information should never be leaked. I’m saying that those who leak should ask themselves whether the benefits of release outweigh the harm. I think Wikileaks is not interested in asking that question and that is harmful in and of itself.