Oh dear Wikileaks. I hope you realise what you’ve done.
There’s a lot of comments on the internet about “this is what the internet should be about” or “this is what openness and transparency should mean” or “this should be acceptable in a democracy“.
I couldn’t disagree more.
I’m going to try to look at what on Twitter is tagged #cablegate from a slightly different perspective.
Here’s four bits of private thought or private discussion to think about:
#1 “Um, is your mum really going out wearing that top? It’s not her colour, I mean, seriously. It brings out the red in her nose and makes it look like she’s been drinking. The fabric clings to her sides and the pattern shows off the rolls of spare tyre fat. She looks like a bulgy, drunken -thing- squeezed into your t-shirt, except she bought it for herself. So embarrassing”.
#2 “She smells. Again. She’s our best friend – it’s always been all three of us together. We’re going to have to stage an intervention. You’re going to have to say something, I mean. It’s for her own good really – if we notice, presumably everyone does. It’s not like she doesn’t wear deodorant, but ergh, she needs a stronger one or something. Foul”.
#3 “He hit me. It was just once, really hard, on the back and he grabbed my wrists so I couldn’t hit him back so they hurt too. He got too angry and just turned into some kind of monster. A one-off strike. He’s never done it before. He’s never hit our daughter. I don’t think he would. But I never thought he’d actually hit me. Should I walk out?”
#4 “He’s boring. But Milly says if you want something from him just smile. He probably doesn’t get many girls anywhere near him, I mean would you even talk to him if you didn’t have to? Yuck, he’d probably want to date you or something. Gross. But he does ‘get’ maths and I don’t want another D”.
No one ever said that humans are nice.
And knowing what to say publicly and what to say privately or not to say at all is part of the process of growing up.
Things have changed a bit even in my lifetime.
Two generations before me it was all stiff upper lips and keeping mum – well, it was a time of world war. Then things loosened up a bit with the babyboomer generation, the not-at-all-threatening-nowadays Beatles and Rolling Stones, letting it all hang out Woodstock-style and talking about sex became the norm. The yuppies made it less necessary to be discreet about money.
And now, so much of the time, anything goes.
The issue becomes how much of your life to live in public – with Facebook, Twitter and blogging, what do you say and what do you keep to yourself?
This is accompanied by increasingly candid celebrities – the Kerry Katona/ Katie Price self as a commodity measuring self-worth in column inches. Katie Price is of course also a very canny business woman and extracts a high price for this exposure.
The risk with such instant and compulsive access to broadcasting that we say it without thinking. That can be a big mistake – your job can depend on you not saying the wrong thing. Just because you can say something publicly, doesn’t mean it should be said publicly.
Take my (let’s be absolutely clear about this) fictional examples above. In those situations:
- would the speaker be better off if the content was said publicly?
- would the subject of the discussion, in the terms discussed?
- would the world be a better place for it being said out loud in full hearing of the subject?
I don’t think that there’s a single example above where either party or the wider world would’ve derived benefit from those thoughts or private discussions being put out in the public domain. I’d be interested to know what you think.
Clearly thinking horrible thoughts about your friend’s mum’s dress sense and actually saying it to your friend in those terms would be stupid – at the end of the day, “c’mon, she’s my mum, dude“. Even if the critique is true.
With the boyfriend that hit out in anger, the call is much harder.
Let’s be absolutely clear, one adult hitting another or a child is utterly, utterly unacceptable and should never, ever happen.
As ever life is a bit more complicated than that. The problem here is what’s at stake for the parties involved. It has clearly happened – but is it a one-off, or a slippery slope? Should it ever be spoken about, apart from to each other? Is there counselling needed as a couple or anger management? What about praying together? Would raising it in public cause more problems than it solves? Or does no never mean that this violence should signal the end of the relationship? Would walking out at this point be sensible, or a serious overreaction?
Sometimes you need to be able to have a candid conversation in order to be able to handle a situation well. Take the smelly friend – to me, it is clearly in her interests in the long run to know, but definitely in her interests that her friends get together in the short term to work out how to do so so that no hurtful language is used. Even if it feels a bit like talking behind her back – which of course is what they are doing even if they don’t mean it badly.
It is ok to think uncomplimentary things about friends sometimes – I’m particularly bad at washing up, and remembering birthdays and to phone people. I’d expect others to say this about me. But not necessarily to me, thanks guys, behind my back but privately is just fine.
But what about getting the maths help from the geek you’d never go near unless you needed his help?
Leave aside that quite often the maths geek turns out in the long run to be the better sort of husband and the good looking, popular boys usually start to believe their own publicity and are less good to be around- no teenage girl really believes that, even with Glee on TV.
The reality of life is that often you do things that you might not otherwise do to advantage yourself because its expedient to do so. You might even talk about it with your mates. It doesn’t make it the morally right thing to do. But that often doesn’t stop you. And you can usually find a way to justify it to yourself.
Everyone has a nasty part of their mind.
(Oh yes, even Christians).
And sometimes we just go with it.
(It’s not hypocritical to acknowledge that, the whole point about being Christian is recognising your sin, knowing you’re flawed and seeking to overcome it, not do it again and be forgiven).
So how does this link to the Wikileaks release?
According to the Guardian:
Clinton led a frantic damage limitation exercise this weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations, contacting leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and Afghanistan.
The point about diplomacy is that, in order for positions to be informed ones, the type of thing that for an individual might be an inner monologue, or at a push a private conversation, needs to be discretely shared with others within an administration so that agreed internal positions can be found.
Then the right language can be found to achieve the right outcome.
For that reason, I am slightly amused by comments like “the next G20 is going to be soooo awkward“. If so I guess that would be choice not necessity. The point is that diplomacy is the art of moving from the raw approach to the smooth interface. Seeing the furiously paddling legs of the swan may belie the graceful beast above the water but it is merely exposing the workings, not invalidating the whole bird.
Who gains from the Wikileaks cables release?
People who want to exploit divisions between friends, or those who wish to synthesise outrage in order to justify an action of their own.
Some will be genuinely offended, feel let down or angry.
Some will just be curious about the weird world of diplomatic communication.
Some in IT security will no doubt be expecting a call to beef up information protection.
But those that lose are the diplomatic and security personnel who have been compromised, the people who were discussed or quoted, the people who might now face personal danger as others “respond”, and the people who genuinely believe in more governmental openness and see this as a nail in its coffin because it so clearly shows that with great IT power appears to come great irresponsibility.
And if the middle east is destabilised, we all lose.
Are Wikileaks villains, misguided, or heroes of openness? It’s up to you.
But for me, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.