Monday, January 14, 2013

Ethics and activism: more than fifty shades

I’ve stayed out of the Jonathan Moylan debate because recent events have left me a little fearful of controversy. More on that later*.

If you came in late, Moylan issued a fake press release that briefly caused the price of a company called Whitehaven Coal to fall. The fall was only temporary, because the hoax was discovered and reversed; but the outcome has been a frenzy of pro- and anti-Moylan moralizing.

Apart from simplistic 140-character attack-defend-change-tack arguments on Twitter, there’s been serious words written by Bob Brown, Christine Milne and others on both sides. Because The Greens decided to endorse Moylan’s activism, they’ve become a secondary target for criticism from the centre and the right.

(Personally, as a strategy I’m not so sure their position will harm The Greens. If their constituency is genuinely “old Reds”, hardline activist positions will help them more than trying to become filthy Fabians!)

I’m not competent to assess the legality of what Moylan did, so I’m happy to leave that question to the courts. If he’s charged and found guilty, it would seem pretty clear that he broke the law; if he’s charged and cleared, it’s pretty clear the other way. It’s only an open question if ASIC decides not to lay charges.

What of the ethics?

Unlike Edward Spence, writing in The Conversation, I don’t see it as a simple ethical question. I don’t regard the “informational environment” with the same awe as Spence, for a start – mostly because I don’t think such a thing exists as a single thing. A cat video on YouTube isn't quite the same as a climate denier blog isn't the same as a stock exchange announcement.

It seems to me that the essence of disobedience and activism is that you must be aware of the possible or likely consequences of your actions, and willing to accept those consequences.

In short: there is no “clean” act of resistance.

There is no way to break a law without creating an ethical quandary.

When Mahatma Ghandi led the Salt March, he was encouraging his followers to break a law (a tax on salt).

It’s easy, 80-plus years later, to endorse his position; but as it happened? When one of the immediate results of the march was 60,000 individuals sent to prison, the ethics must surely have troubled Ghandi’s sleep. He was human.

The ethical example we get from Ghandi is more complex than good-versus-evil. The activist must renounce violence; and the activist must be prepared to accept the consequences of his resistance.

It’s interesting to note that Ghandi did not consider financial harm to be the same as violence, by the way. The Salt March was directed against a particular, oppressive tax, and he wanted all Indians to boycott British textiles.

Institutions are legitimate targets of resistance. They must be: because that’s what resistance is for, to force change upon institutions. An act may be wrong-headed and ineffective (which is where I feel Moylan went wrong), but it’s not evil merely because it’s directed against a particular institution that a particular ethicist feels is sacrosanct.

*I mentioned a fear of giving offence. I’ve found myself subject to a sustained campaign against the business that I run with my wife. In particular, there are those on social media who, if they dislike what I say, bring the business into the argument. There is also a persistent troll on TripAdvisor.

Because the impacts are immediate and devastating, it is an effective threat, and one that I have to work hard to resist.

But people who will hide behind anonymity to attack individuals on the basis of what they say or believe must be resisted. To do otherwise is to cowardly hide from cowards. So I guess the risk I bear is that I will continue to be attacked. Fortunately, I have more than one way to pay the mortgage. For now, we will survive.

No comments: