Opponents of suppression

Chapter 9 of Suppression Stories by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pages 134-148.

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In my years opposing suppression, I've met a variety of individuals engaged in the same cause. Most of them are concerned only about their own case. This is understandable. Even a seemingly trivial case - a minor matter as perceived by outsiders - can shape the entire perspective of the person concerned.

A few survivors of major suppression cases then go on to support others. Ann Baker and Clyde Manwell are good examples. While it was Clyde who was the focus of attention during the years his position as professor of zoology was under threat, Ann was closely involved. Like Clyde, she was a talented and productive scientist. In terms of merit she might have expected a job far better than her position as casual tutor in the Zoology Department at the University of Adelaide.

Ann was also the target of attack. The university tendered in court a carbon copy of her job contract, referring to a clause at the bottom and arguing that she had worked too many hours. Ann was able to produce the original letter, which didn't have the added clause. In other words, someone had altered a document in an attempt to discredit her. This was only one example of the tactics used against Ann and Clyde.

Their intense experiences of suppression from 1971 to 1975 had a deep impact on them. Unlike many, they survived, and even more remarkably, they then began taking up the causes of others. Because of the prominence of their case, they were contacted by dozens of other people, and this helped them gain a wider perspective on suppression. They collected an enormous file of clippings from newspapers and journals with information on a variety of cases. They wrote letters of support to individuals and on their behalf. They wrote articles for journals.

I benefited enormously from Ann and Clyde's wisdom. They weren't always the most prompt of correspondents, but the quality of their letters made up for the wait. Many of them were like miniature essays, filled with insights, information and references.

In 1985 Clyde came under a new sort of attack. The new professor and head of the Department of Zoology, W. D. Williams, claimed that Clyde's teaching load was "by far the lightest" in the department. This was the first complaint about his teaching. It so happened that it came shortly after Clyde obtained a letter from his doctor saying that he was suffering from hypertension and should have his teaching rescheduled (not reduced) to avoid stress. Williams's complaint did nothing to reduce the stress on Clyde, who was able to produce figures that suggested he had one of the highest teaching loads in the department.

Clyde decided to negotiate early retirement in 1986. He and Ann sold their property and moved to Selby, England, where I visited them in 1990. Since leaving Australia their letters have become less frequent.

Like all of us, Ann and Clyde saw the world in the light of their own experiences. The traumatic years when they were under fierce attack made them focus especially on dismissals, on organised attacks, on trumped up charges, and on the importance of proving one's case through documenting research productivity and the like. They were extremely good at these sorts of cases, but tended to interpret other sorts of cases in the same light.

Jean Lennane is another opponent of suppression who became involved after her own experience of being dismissed from the Health Department for speaking out. As a psychiatrist, Jean came in contact with many other whistleblowers, some of whom were referred to her. This gave her a broader picture of suppression than just her own experiences. In particular, she became aware of the severe health consequences for many whistleblowers. As president of Whistleblowers Australia, she became an effective public voice, making submissions and public statements, while also providing invaluable personal support to numerous individual whistleblowers.

While some people become opponents of suppression as a result of their own experiences, others take up the cause without any personal experience of being suppressed. Isla MacGregor is one of these. I came in contact with her in 1991. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania and had become involved in a new group, United Scientists for Environmental Responsibility and Protection (USERP), which had been set up by some scientists and citizens who protested about environmental aspects of development proposals in Tasmania. Isla is not a scientist. She could better be described as a community organiser. She scrapes by on a supporting parent's benefit - for single unemployed parents with small children - and devotes every spare moment to organising on free speech and public interest issues. Indeed, she is one of the most efficient organisers I've ever met. She plans itineraries for visiting speakers and organises public meetings, media briefings and conferences.

Isla has taken a special interest in laws, found in every Australian state as well as federally, that make it an offence for government employees to speak out in public about matters relating to their work or agency. Although these laws are almost never invoked, they do a wonderful job of inhibiting free speech because workers fear that the law might be used to victimise them.

On the weekend of 27-28 March 1993, the first national conference on intellectual suppression and whistleblowing was held in Canberra. Sunday, the second day of the conference, was organised by Whistleblowers Australia. Saturday, the first day, was organised by Shirley Phillips, Isla and me. None of us lived in Canberra. Isla was in Hobart, I was in Wollongong and Shirley lived in Bendigo, Victoria, where she was fighting the administration of the local campus of La Trobe University. Isla took the lead in much of the planning for the conference. She also coordinated collection and production of a set of brief case studies which were circulated before the conference to all participants. Generally speaking, I'm a highly organised person, but with Isla looking after things I learned how tempting it can be to leave things to someone else.

As a result of the conference, Shirley, Isla and I set up the Network for Intellectual Dissent in Australia. There is no official organisation - it really is a network. We have a list of names of people willing to offer support to dissidents, talk to the media, write articles, etc. Isla, with help from me, handles the bulk of the administrative load concerning the list. We also produced a leaflet: I wrote it and Isla distributes it. Isla periodically circulates "Media watch," a collection of articles from newspapers and magazines relating to suppression.

Some people might say just a few people like Jean Lennane and Isla MacGregor must be enough to handle all the cases of suppression around the place. If suppression was restricted to only a few prominent cases, that might be true. Unfortunately it's much more pervasive than that.

William De Maria teaches in the Social Work Department at the University of Queensland. He became interested in whistleblowing. He managed to obtain $23,000 in funding for a three-year study. He set out to study whistleblowing, not to solve the problems of individual whistleblowers. His team produced leaflets and published advertisements asking for whistleblowers to contact them so that they could collect statistics. They were inundated with phone calls. Just as I and others had been saying for years, the publicised cases are just the tip of an iceberg of suppression.

De Maria wasn't interested in whistleblowing for purely academic reasons. He wanted to do something about it. Even just studying it was important, because it provided academic legitimacy to the phenomenon. As a result of the enthusiastic response of whistleblowers to the project, the Whistleblowers Action Group was set up. Soon they were swamped by people with stories to tell. There seemed to be a social movement waiting to burst out, a movement against the pervasive corruption and service to vested interests that is found in government and corporate bureaucracies.

Adding together the number of whistleblowers known to key people such as Bill De Maria and Jean Lennane gives, by extrapolation to all of Australia, a total of perhaps one thousand. This underestimates the total number, since some whistleblowers do not make themselves known, and is undoubtedly far less than the number of people subject to suppression, many of whom are not whistleblowers in the formal sense.

Bill notes that public interest activism cannot be built solely on whistleblowers, since so many of them are traumatised by their experiences. Others need to be involved too. Bill thinks that lawyers and journalists together with whistleblowers would pose a very powerful challenge to corrupt government bodies.


Selective opposition

There are many people who will say they believe in free speech but who are only willing to defend the speech of people with whom they agree. Unfortunately this applies to opposition to suppression.

One day I was describing the harassment of Patrick O'Brien, a right-leaning political scientist from Perth, to a left-leaning colleague, also a political scientist and a person I respect greatly. My colleague had been subject to fierce and relentless character assassination because of his own political views. But he disappointed me when he said words to the effect, "You shouldn't be defending O'Brien. He's a ratbag and deserves everything he gets."

There is plenty of evidence that for many decades in capitalist countries, left-wingers have been subject to far more suppression than right-wingers, and not just during the McCarthy era in the US. Left-wing trade unionists are prime targets of employers, and left-wing newspaper columnists are few and far between. But just because they have been victims of suppression does not mean that left-wingers are any more tolerant. Every indication is that most of them would welcome the opportunity to suppress their critics, if only they had the power to do so.

The same applies to many other issues. Antifluoridationists have been subject to fierce attack, but I've seen little evidence that they would be any more tolerant of profluoridationists. Most of the partisans on each side believe wholeheartedly in their own cause. What they want most of all is to have their views reign without opposition. A free and open discussion in which people make up their own minds may be a means to this goal, but it is not the goal itself. The side in any debate that doesn't engage in suppression is usually the side without the power to do so. My view on this was confirmed when I read a book by Nat Hentoff with the self-explanatory title Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other.

Suppression can also occur within social movements, which is ironic since social movements are so often subject to suppression themselves. I'm not talking about suppression of the other side, but of people within the movement - heretics. I've heard first-hand about liberal feminists who have been harassed and slandered because radical feminism was the dominant version at a particular workplace. I've heard about environmentalists who have lost jobs at environmental organisations because they didn't follow the right line. Within movements, though, it's not popular to reveal internal strife, since this is thought to provide ammunition to the opposition.

One of those who overcame the inhibitions is Tim Doyle, an environmentalist and academic researcher who studied the role of powerful figures in the Australian environmental movement, especially in relation to the campaign over the wet tropical forests of north Queensland and the national election in 1987. He named key individuals who he said were the "professional elites" in the movement and described their actions and interactions. He told about connections with the Australian Labor Party, about large corporate donations to environmental organisations, and about the alienation felt by many grassroots activists in the movement.

This critique of the movement could have provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on goals and organisational structures. Instead, Tim's analysis triggered fierce attacks on him that persisted for many years. Eventually he was able to write an article cataloguing the many different arguments used to say why he shouldn't have published his critique. Needless to say, the ideas of freedom of speech and tolerance for dissent did not play a big role in these arguments.

Tim did not work for an environmental organisation, but his prospects would not have been good if he had. His critique was not a great asset in getting an academic job in environmental studies either. Nevertheless, he thinks it was helpful in getting Australian environmentalists talking and to some extent altering their practices.

I played a small role in this debate. Dhirendra Sharma invited me to be guest editor for several issues of his journal Philosophy and Social Action. In one of them, I collected together Tim's article "Environmental movement power brokers," an article by Lorna Salzman about the centralisation of power in the US branch of Friends of the Earth, and a critique of Greenpeace by an environmental activist who adopted the pseudonym Hazel Notion. Later, Chain Reaction, the magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia - a much more radical organisation than the US branch - drew on material from this issue of Philosophy and Social Action for a special issue of its own. This led to a predictable set of attacks, especially on "Hazel Notion."

I've been an active supporter of environmental causes since the mid 1970s and know and respect a great number of environmental activists. The environmental movement is, I believe, one of the great inspirations of recent decades. Yet in any list of its virtues, tolerance is not high. Many leading environmentalists, I'm convinced, believe in democracy and popular participation only if they help environmental causes. If they were running the show, critics wouldn't stand a chance. This is speculative, of course, since environmentalists have seldom had much real power to organise society, in spite of complaints made by captains of industry.

My editorial in the special issue of Philosophy and Social Action was titled "Power tends to corrupt," taken from Lord Acton's famous aphorism, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This, in essence, is the root of the problem. Those who have power find it enormously tempting to use it against dissidents. David Kipnis, a psychologist, has provided empirical support for Lord Acton. In numerous ingenious experiments, Kipnis has shown the mechanisms by which power affects the beliefs and behaviours of those who exercise it. It does indeed tend to corrupt.


Defending their right to speak

It is a classic statement of tolerance to say, "I disagree with your statements but I defend your right to make them." In my studies of suppression I've made some attempts to provide balance, but it's impossible to be perfect in this. As just mentioned, I've drawn attention to suppression in social movements with whose goals I sympathise. But what about suppression of people or views with which I disagree? That's more difficult.

In all my studies of suppression of nuclear experts, it was almost always critics of nuclear power who were suppressed. The nuclear establishment had most of the power, after all. I know of only one case to the contrary. Bob Phelps of the Campaign Against Nuclear Power in Brisbane wrote in July 1979 to the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, arguing that Professor Sir Ernest Titterton's pronuclear writings contained errors and should not be distributed by the ANU. (Many of Sir Ernest's articles, which later appeared as newspaper articles, were first published as working papers in the Department of Nuclear Physics.) It's characteristic of attempts at suppression for complaints to be made to a person's boss, not directly to the person.

I agreed that Sir Ernest's writings were filled with dubious claims, but I didn't want their publication blocked. That wouldn't be a good precedent for me, since I was writing further outside my official field of employment than was Sir Ernest. So I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor saying I defended Sir Ernest's freedom to publish his work without censorship. I expected, correctly as it turned out, that the Vice-Chancellor would defend Sir Ernest, but I wanted my views to be on record. A policy of tolerance is most helpful to those who have the least power.

Similarly, when researching the fluoridation issue I looked for cases of suppression of profluoridationists, but found only one case: a health magazine had rejected a profluoride response to an antifluoride article. For the book Intellectual Suppression, I compiled a chapter called "Archives of suppression" which contained thumbnail sketches of various suppression cases, mostly based on accounts in articles and books. Very few of those subject to attack could be said to be conservatives. Most of them were radicals in one sense or another. In the Australian section, I was able to document three cases that went against the usual pattern. One involved Patrick O'Brien, who I already mentioned. O'Brien made biting attacks on left-wing thought and action, in both print and on radio. An attack was mounted on him, including a court case over his behaviour at a social event, concerning some trivial matters.

Another case was that of Frank Knopfelmacher, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne who was well known for his commentary on social issues and his opposition to Soviet communism. In 1964 he applied for a position in philosophy at the University of Sydney. The selection committee unanimously recommended Knopfelmacher but, after much organising by left-wing opponents, the appointment was blocked by the Professorial Board in an unprecedented move.

The third case was that of Professor Arthur Burns, a political scientist at the ANU and a prominent anticommunist. The ANU Council terminated his appointment in 1981 on medical grounds, but never gave an official reason. Burns went to court to seek the reason, and won. The ANU appealed and won - so it didn't have to give a reason. Burns battled on and eventually his case was settled out of court, so in a sense he won. In a fitting epilogue, the ANU administration's intransigence came back to haunt it. In 1994 ANU students occupied administration offices to protest against introduction of high fees for certain graduate courses. Burns joined the students and stiffened their resolve by telling them of his own experiences. Burns died the next year.

For each of these three cases, I spent many hours collecting documents - I visited O'Brien in Perth in 1984 - writing accounts and checking them with the individuals concerned. The end product was a few paragraphs about each case, all for the sake of "balance." But it was useful to be able to show that anyone can be subject to suppression, and that the same sorts of processes are used whatever the view suppressed.

It would be an illusion to imagine that it is possible to defend dissent in a completely balanced way. I certainly haven't done this. I've looked especially at suppression of environmental scientists, and of scientists and academics generally. I haven't paid as much attention to suppression of critics of psychiatric orthodoxy, suppression of dissent within churches, or attacks on lesbians, though there is evidence in each of these areas, as well as many others. I'm reluctant to put lots of energy into certain types of cases, such as defending researchers who come under attack for investigating racial differences in intelligence. What I do try to do is emphasise that suppression is a general problem, that it affects a wide range of issues and individuals and that it is likely to occur whenever groups have the power to carry it out.

Some critics of suppression are much more selective in their outrage. The case of PC illustrates this well. The term "political correctness" was originally used as a humorous and gentle reminder within the left to beware of becoming too self-righteous about stands on issues such as sexist language or views on certain issues. "PC" has now become a term by which to attack policies aimed at reducing sexual or ethnic inequalities, among others.

The anti-PC bandwagon has not had much influence in Australia, and therefore there are no prominent cases of alleged PC-inspired suppression for me to investigate at first hand. From what I read about North American cases, there seem to be a few excesses, but relatively little in the way of what I call suppression. There are cases of university professors being criticised for their use of language. But criticism is not suppression. There are cases of official investigations of professors for statements they've made in class, and some of these seem to fit the usual pattern of suppression. But I haven't heard about many being demoted or losing their jobs.

Certainly I oppose the squelching of dissent by "PC police." But the concern seems one-sided. There have been headline stories in major newspapers and magazines about the great danger of PC. What about all the documented cases of left-wing activists losing their jobs? What about all the lesbians who are harassed out of their positions? What about the environmental activists who are physically attacked and in some cases killed? What about the US government surveillance and harassment of the Central American solidarity movement? What about the attacks on those who try to expose government corruption? Like I said, I oppose suppression under the guise of PC, but it is wise to keep this in perspective. This example shows, if there were any doubt, that "suppression" is a category that is constructed by the people who are concerned about it. To take action against suppression does not automatically serve the cause of those who need help the most.


Suppression of opponents of suppression

Opposing suppression can be a risky business. You could come under attack yourself. Those who have independent means are in the best position to take up the cause. Jean Lennane, once she set up a private psychiatric practice, was in a good position to take a prominent role in Whistleblowers Australia. Similarly, Isla MacGregor, though as hard a worker as anyone, is not in paid employment and thus is relatively invulnerable to attack.

But there is no ultimate protection. John McNicol set up the organisation that became Whistleblowers Australia and worked tirelessly on many cases. He also earned a few enemies. John organised a media conference in Canberra for 26 March 1993, the day before our national conference in Canberra on intellectual suppression and whistleblowing. There were several of us there before the cameras. Most of the journalists were quite sympathetic. But one wasn't: Norman Abjorensen from the Canberra Times. Out of the blue, he asked a series of hostile questions about John's credentials and business affairs, and then promptly exited. The next day there was a damaging article about John in the Canberra Times, entitled "Campaigner coy at the sound of the whistle." It cast a shadow over the intellectual suppression conference. There are still a lot of people who believe that if something is in the newspaper, there must be some truth in it. The main point, though, was that John's credentials and business affairs were largely irrelevant to his activities in defence of whistleblowers. I'm told that the Canberra Times did not publish John's reply, but it did publish a letter from Jean Lennane about the general issues.

There are several lessons in this. No one is invulnerable. An attack may come at the most unexpected time and from an unexpected source. Anything about your life can potentially be used to attack your reputation, and of course false allegations or insinuations may be used as well. In these circumstances, it is best to be open and honest in advance rather than keep dirty secrets. Best of all is not to have dirty secrets at all! But this is unrealistic. Defenders of dissent are no closer to perfection than anyone else, although people seem to expect them to be.

Fortunately, attacks such as by Norman Abjorensen are rare. No other journalists took up this story, and privately several people told me their opinion of him. Attacks like this can easily backfire, causing sympathy for the person attacked.

People occasionally comment to me, "Surely you must come under attack, considering the stands you take." In my present job I've had no problems. My colleagues have been supportive and there have been no murmurs from the administration. That's the way it should be! Of course there might be some complaints that no one's told me about.

Things were different when I was a research assistant in applied mathematics at the ANU. As described in chapter 7, in September 1980 my talk to the National Science Forum was featured on television that night. Later that week, Archie Brown, head of my department, called me in. He said that he had received a call that same night from another academic in the department, complaining about my comments. Later I was told by someone in the ANU's publicity office that this same colleague had also called the Vice-Chancellor that night to complain, saying I shouldn't be allowed to say such things. However, he never made the same comments to me then or in the years following. I never told him that I knew about his calls.

A more serious issue arose a few years later. I was finally in a position to apply for tenure as a research assistant. The Dean of Science rejected my application. It so happened that the Dean at the time was Eric Bachelard, the Professor of Forestry who had written to me via the Vice-Chancellor claiming he could find no evidence that Richard Routley had been barred from the Forestry Department library. Bachelard knew about my critical remarks about forestry. In my view at the time, there seemed to be a conflict of interest for him to judge my application for tenure. But from his point of view - as stated in a letter to me in response to a draft of this chapter - he had to act with the approval of the Resources Committee, which was axing all internally funded research assistant positions. So it didn't matter who was the dean of science, especially since I didn't have sufficient support from my department. Archie Brown has retired and the pure and applied mathematics departments had been merged. I think the real source of my problems was that I was an applied mathematician and hence not wanted by the pure mathematicians who were in charge. There had been a long period of animosity between some members of the two groups.

Early in the 1980s, the ANU changed its regulations and for the first time allowed nonacademic staff to inspect their files held at administration. (Academics still weren't allowed to see their files.) As a research assistant I was a member of "general staff" and so went to look at my file. It contained lots of junk, including job applications, notes requesting holiday leave and so forth. But it also had some interesting bits. I had written an article about academic power structures for the ANU Reporter, a university publication. There was a copy of my published article in my file, with many sentences underlined and with various comments in the margins. There was a copy of a memo from one university bureaucrat to another concerning my claim about the number of people denied tenure before Jeremy Evans. And there was a copy of Eric Bachelard's letter to me with the claims about Richard Routley. (There was no reason for such a letter to be on my file, except that Bachelard gave the letter to the Vice-Chancellor to give to me.) I couldn't get items removed, so I wrote a letter to the Personnel Manager giving my side of the story and asked that it be put on my file. (I doubt that it was put on Bachelard's file too!) This was no trivial matter. In those days the file was used whenever a person applied for a job at ANU.

To check my account of these events, I asked Jo Kamminga to look through my ANU file on my behalf. He sent me copies of several letters on my file. One of them was a reply by the Vice-Chancellor to my letter to the Personnel Manager. This was the first I knew about it. He hadn't bothered to send me a copy.

I recall these minor incidents to illustrate the sort of responses that may be made to opponents of suppression. In my case, I found out a little about the responses. Some people find out a lot, but most learn little or nothing. That, in some ways, is the worst part about it. If direct charges are made, then you can defend against them. It is the behind-the-scenes activity that is hardest to counter. Of course it is behind-the-scenes activity that is most characteristic of suppression.


Where are they?

Studying suppression is not a popular activity. In the hope of finding some others in my field who were or might become involved, I sent out the following message on a computer conference on science and technology studies (STS):

To: sci-tech-studies conference
From: Brian Martin
Date: Mon, Jul 11, 1994 1:36 PM
Subject: sts: analysts needed for suppression studies

For many years I've been studying cases of suppression of intellectual dissent. Due to my writings and through networks in which I'm known, from time to time I'm contacted by individuals about particular cases and issues. Some of these are worthy of a significant STS analysis. For instance, there are cases in which a scientific theory is ignored or dismissed for allegedly "inappropriate" reasons. Three recent instances: a critique of the standard idea that there is a bee "language"; a theory that tooth-grinding behaviour is tooth-sharpening behaviour; a theory that group differences in IQ may be linked to a high load of proviruses among African blacks. I do not have the time to undertake a proper study of all these issues.

If you are potentially interested in studying controversies, dissident ideas and/or cases of suppression of dissent, I would be most happy to put you in touch with people who are looking for someone to investigate and/or document their cases. Please tell me the particular types of issues you are interested in.

Only five people contacted me in response. One of them, Jay Ou, was willing to look into certain types of cases. The other four were too busy to look into cases of suppression, but either wanted information from me or wanted to tell me about situations that they thought I might want to investigate. It was not exactly what I had in mind! Perhaps the most surprising response was from Dick Sclove, who told me about cases of suppression of dissent in the STS field, some of which I already knew about. But the situation in STS is not quite as bleak as it may seem. I have met a few others in the field who have studied suppression in one way or another, especially David Hess who is studying the field of alternative health and Bart Simon who has mirrored my web site on suppression. This is more than in many areas of study.

There's certainly plenty worth studying. There are, of course, numerous cases of suppression, many of which provide a fascinating insight into the dynamics of an area. Few cases sit clearly and obviously in the sun, waiting for somebody to examine them. They have to be sculpted out of the raw materials, just as the Jeremy Evans tenure case was transformed by many people from a routine administrative decision into an indictment of the university's harassment of the Human Sciences Program.



I originally titled this chapter "The making of suppression opponents," but after writing it I realise I don't really know what makes people into such opponents. Many people take up their own cases, and often a few of their friends and colleagues provide support. But few of these people take the step of regularly helping others.

Rather than investigating the supposedly unusual psychology of dissidents and of defenders of dissidents, it may be more useful to study conformists and conformity. Why are most workers afraid to speak out? There are various factors, including bureaucratic structures that stifle criticism, career paths that reward conformists, political structures that discourage genuine popular participation, and the general belief that experts and officials really know best. Looking at all these obstacles, it's a miracle there are any dissidents at all.