Published, with minor subediting, in Secrecy and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 2016, Article 4, pp. 1-22.
pdf of published article
This paper was prepared for a symposium on 17 May 2016 honouring the work of Sue Curry Jansen.
Suppression of dissent website
Brian Martin's publications
Brian Martin's website
Sue Curry Jansen’s book Censorship: The Knot that Binds Knowledge and Power was published in 1988. I only discovered it several years later, and was immediately impressed. Normally, censorship is thought of as a government restriction on information, for example in dictatorships or during wartime. Therefore, most of the concerns expressed about censorship - including condemnations, justifications and discussions - are about governments.
Sue took a broader view, seeing corporate power as a key driver of censorship: keeping some sorts of information confidential can serve the interests of corporations, and likewise certain sorts of knowledge claims are threatening to them. Corporate leaders want to control narratives about themselves and their products.
A classic example involves tobacco corporations: through massive sales and profits sustained through addiction to nicotine, the companies had enormous power. This was threatened by claims that smoking causes cancer and other diseases. The companies carried out their own research on health and smoking, and hid the damaging findings. Outsiders carried out research too - that was the genesis of the challenge - so the companies tried to discredit the research, discredit the researchers and to recruit sympathetic researchers, meanwhile fighting efforts to restrict smoking.
Censorship in this case is closely tied up with public relations. The companies sold cigarettes based on a lie. They used images associating cigarettes with manhood (the Marlboro man), freshness (the cigarette named Kool), nature (portrayed as wholesome), transgression (to capture rebellious teenagers), and sexual allure. In these and other advertising messages, there were no lies in the usual sense of telling falsehoods. Rather, the messages were misleading in the connotations conveyed; meanwhile, censorship ensured that information about cigarettes being linked to disease and impaired sexual performance remained under wraps.
In the next section, I provide an overview of some of the arguments in Sue’s book Censorship. Then I describe some of my own areas of interest connecting with censorship: suppression of dissent, power and scientific knowledge, and whistleblowing. The connections with censorship in these areas are compatible with Sue’s framework, while also suggesting avenues for broadening its application.
Censorship, the book
Censorship is an impressive piece of engaged scholarship, presenting arguments about power and knowledge with erudition and eloquent language. Sue demonstrates a deep understanding of theory from a range of areas. Among her main points are:
Reflexive power-talk is a method for identifying and criticizing the socially structured silences which make arbitrary forms of censorship possible. It is also a strategy for democratizing dialogic opportunities and outcomes. It offers a recipe for conducting legitimating discourses according to egalitarian rules: rules based upon principles of rationality, consistency, and equity. (p. 9)
In chapter 2, titled "The censor’s new clothes," Sue makes these points:
Neither Liberal nor Marxist critiques of censorship adequately explain, or provide recipes for resisting, the new system of market censorship that operates under information-capitalism. New models are needed. These models must be able to identify, explain, and critique the following: (1) the mechanisms whereby public knowledge is privatized; (2) the new structures of inequality produced by stratification of the global economy into information-rich and information-poor countries, regions, groups, classes, genders, or races; (3) the implications of the strategic placement of knowledge workers in information-capitalism; (4) the structural position of communications as an arena of ideological and social conflict; and (5) the epistemological foundations of the system of power-knowledge created by information-capitalism including the socially structured silences it secures. (p. 172)
When I first read this passage, it highlighted for me the need for those pursuing an egalitarian ideal to deal with capitalism and communications. I thought it would be worthwhile to investigate strategies along the lines of nonviolent action.
Part II of Sue’s book is titled "Artful dodges." Chapter 8 addresses epistemological issues. Sue favors relativism (and gives reference to key writers such as Karl Mannheim and Michael Polanyi) but is concerned to maintain a commitment to emancipation. Interests - things that people or groups have at stake - may be intrusions on knowledge, but also make it possible: "They [interests] provide the groundings for and auspices for knowledge." (p. 183). Confrontations with power determine knowledge, which is not created independently of power and then convenient to or against it. (p. 184)
In chapter 9, "The semantics of censorship and resistance," Sue says art can be subversive because there are always double meanings that can be used to get around censors (though doing this too much can make the meanings obscure). Censorship assumes single meanings. Opponents write between the lines, use parables and irony, etc.
In chapter 10, "Dialogue and democracy," she addresses how to move toward a more egalitarian future: avoid vanguards, use nonviolent methods, use critical discourse. The first step is reflexive power-talk, based on the rules of rationality, consistency and reflexivity (or neutrality, or fairness, or egalitarian interaction) (pp. 209-210). Sue gives five reasons why this approach may appeal to party and corporate elites (pp. 206-207). My preference, however, would have been to set aside the appeal-to-elites approach and work on developing a strategy that doesn’t rely on elites.
Sue says it is worth consider these ideas: (1) movements need to develop communication strategies, confronting the role of the mass media in information-capitalism; (2) information technology appears stamped by its origins, and movements need to have strategies taking account of the politics embedded in technologies; (3) challengers must produce epistemologies to back up their constructions of reality, since the establishment normally specifies the criteria; (4) challengers must set up systems of communication; (5) social movement experiences must be used to learn lessons about communication (pp. 212-214).
Re point (5), Sue refers to Marc Raboy’s book Movements and Messages, saying it
concludes that democratic communicative strategies should: (a) create feelings of solidarity, feelings of belonging to a common culture; (b) challenge mainstream media by offering audiences alternative interpretations of reality; (c) embody democratic principles in their own organizational structures; (d) be independent of both business interests and the state; and (e) have links with popular, political and union movements without being organically tied to them. (p. 214).
She adds to this list:
(a) capture the public imagination by rewiring or reprogramming new technologies so that they can serve as tools of popular resistance; (b) cultivate alliances with information workers but be wary of signs of incipient vanguardism; (c) create outreach projects to bring technological expertise and equipment to groups denied access to these resources. (p. 215)
At the time I read Sue’s book, I had been studying what I called suppression of dissent for about 15 years. A typical case would involve a scientist who did research or spoke out on a topic, challenging orthodoxy or some vested interest, for example on nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation or forestry. After speaking out, the scientist would come under attack, for example reprimands, denial of research grants, public denunciations, punitive transfer, demotion and dismissal. I had collected information about dozens of such cases involving scientists, but it wasn’t just scientists who were targeted this way. It could be technicians, engineers, dentists, or, occasionally, members of the public. However, when there is a scientific controversy, dissident scientists are prime targets because their expertise can change what seems like unanimity of expert opinion to a situation where experts disagree.
Suppression of dissent is closely related to whistleblowing: whistleblowers - people who speak out in the public interest - are often subject to reprisals, or in other words to suppression tactics. However, suppression of dissent applies not just to whistleblowers but to others who do not speak out in the usual sense, for example scientists who publish their findings in scientific journals. When the findings are threatening to vested interests, the scientists may come under attack.
One of the methods used to suppress dissent is censorship. I read about cases in which government scientists were refused permission to give talks about their research at conferences, in which scientists were barred from access to forests to undertake fieldwork, in which text in scientific articles was deleted or altered, and in which submissions to journals were rejected without even being examined. In short, censorship is a key tool in the suppression of dissent. At the same time, other methods, such as reprimands, public denunciations and dismissal, serve as indirect methods of censorship. The targeted individual sometimes is prevented from carrying out research. Even more significantly, other scientists see the way their dissident colleague is treated and are reluctant to enter into the same research area for fear of coming under attack themselves.
Scientific elites often claim the mantle of freedom of inquiry, invoking the courage of Giordano Bruno and Galileo. During the cold war, US scientific leaders condemned the harsh treatment of dissidents in the Soviet Union, of whom nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov was most prominent. Yet at the same time, numerous dissident scientists in the West were being given no support at all. The difference was that it was quite safe to criticize the Soviet government, which had little leverage over Western scientists, and much more risky to criticize Western governments and corporations, which provided most of the salaries and facilities for researchers.
Sue’s analysis of censorship emphasized the role of corporate power in liberal democratic societies. This was totally understandable in its own terms. As well, I could relate it to a different treatment of knowledge-power within my adopted field of science and technology studies (STS). Science can be thought of as a system for producing knowledge: scientists are the producers, the scientific method is the production system, and scientific knowledge is the outcome. The standard mythology of science is that this system is based on a search for truth, in which scientists are dispassionate investigators, the scientific method is a rigorous, systematic approach, and scientific knowledge is a pristine edifice that is built fact by fact, with theories being validated by their correspondence with the facts.
STS researchers challenged this storybook picture of science. Psychologists of science showed that scientists are passionate, committed to their ideas, hostile to competitors and often ruthless in their dealings: they are human beings and subject to all the usual human foibles. Historians and sociologists of science argued that the so-called scientific method is a myth, and that scientists actually use a variety of rules of thumb, which differ between disciplines. Karl Popper argued that scientists should try to falsify existing theories, and many scientists claim this is what they do, but in practice falsification is seldom used, as shown by Thomas Kuhn and many others. Sociologists of scientific knowledge argued that scientific knowledge is shaped by a range of social factors, in particular the interests of powerful groups.
Despite this powerful critique of the conventional storybook image of science, few STS researchers have looked at censorship in science. Part of the reason has been the relativist or constructivist orientation dominant in the field: to talk of censorship is to make a judgment about actions, and constructivists would rather analyze the actions and narratives of players on both sides, or multiple sides, of an issue. If power is enmeshed with knowledge, and knowledge is constructed through interactive processes, such as discussions between scientists in the lab, then talking of censorship is to revert to a more positivist and judgmental approach, just what constructivists had been subjecting to critique.
As well, my view of the field is that only some STS researchers were overtly questioning the ways that establishment science exerted its power. To be sure, STS was subversive of standard accounts of science, but as long as STS critique remained restricted to scholarly forums, it was mostly left alone. The result was that processes of censorship within science were not a central theme in STS.
Sue’s analysis of censorship is entirely compatible with constructivist STS studies of knowledge and power in science. As well, her treatment of the role of information technology as a tool shaped by power aligns with STS perspectives.
In studying suppression of dissent, I came across writings about whistleblowing, namely speaking out in the public interest. The earliest books I came across using the word whistleblowing were from the 1970s, and dealt with cases in the US, where attention to whistleblowing and the introduction of whistleblower protections laws predated similar developments elsewhere by a decade or more.
Personally, I preferred talking about suppression of dissent, because it highlights the actions against dissent, whereas the concept of whistleblowing directs attention toward the person who speaks out. One of the advantages of referring to suppression is that censorship fits in neatly: it is one type or component of suppression. Furthermore, dissent doesn’t have to involve speaking out, as in cases where teachers include challenging ideas in their syllabi. However, the momentum behind the term whistleblowing was huge and eventually I gave up promoting the concept of suppression and did much of my writing referring to whistleblowing and whistleblowers.
In the early 1990s, the group Whistleblowers Australia was set up; it was primarily composed of whistleblowers, and aimed at providing support and advice, with a little campaigning too. In 1996 I became the president and was soon inundated with people wanting my advice and support. Talking to dozens and eventually hundreds of whistleblowers was illuminating. The standard pattern soon became obvious. A worker would speak out about some problem, in many cases just thinking it was a routine matter. Reprisals would then begin: rumors, ostracism, petty harassment, threats, reprimands, denunciations, referrals to psychiatrists, demotions, punitive transfer, and dismissal. In the 1990s, quite a few of these workers did not think of themselves as whistleblowers, and disliked the word, which had mostly negative connotations of being a traitor or a "dobber," an Australian word meaning a snitch or informer.
Many whistleblowers, after suffering reprisals, then would go on a search for justice through the system. Their boss had turned on them, so they went to higher management, a human resources unit, a grievance committee, or an outside body such as an ombudsman, auditor-general, anti-corruption agency, parliamentarian, or court. The striking story told to me over and over was that these agencies hardly ever provided any relief. In some cases, whistleblowers were worse off than before, as when an agency would consult with the whistleblower’s employer, revealing their identity and enabling greater reprisals. This pattern was pretty standard across a wide range of occupations. I talked to government employees, private sector employees, teachers, police, military, members of churches, and others.
Sue in her book Censorship looked especially at corporate power, countering the usual preoccupation with government power. In talking with whistleblowers, the most obvious power was that of employers vis-à-vis workers, with bosses or superiors being the main antagonists. In a high school, for example, attacks on outspoken teachers were most likely to come from principals.
Censorship was involved in all sorts of ways. Most obviously, whistleblowers speak out about something that others want to keep secret, typically corruption, abuse, or dangers to the public. In essence, something is going on that people in positions of authority want to hide; whistleblowers threaten to expose it, so the whistleblowers come under attack.
Corruption can take many forms, for example fiddling of accounts to hide theft or bribery. A famous Australian case involved the Australian Wheat Board, a government authority with a monopoly on marketing Australian wheat. During the period between 1991 and 2003, when Iraq was under UN sanctions, the AWB paid some $250 million in bribes to sell wheat to Iraq, in violation of the sanctions; the bribes ended up going to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Naturally enough, AWB managers wanted to keep this secret, and they were aided by the Australian government.
Abuse also can take many forms. It is now well known that leading figures in the Catholic Church, and some other churches, for decades hid information about pedophilia by priests, something that was hidden. Sexual abuse in Australian religious bodies is currently being exposed by a royal commission, a government-appointed short-term investigatory body with extraordinary powers to obtain information, which has been holding revelatory hearings across the country. Secrecy was central to two other systems of abuse in Australia, the "stolen generation," an institutionalized practice in which Aboriginal children were taken from their mothers and given to white families for upbringing, and the "forgotten generation," in which white children were taken from young mothers and put in foster homes or institutions, and often subject to abuse. Secrecy is also involved in the treatment of animals. Animal liberationists covertly take photographs of abuse; those responsible sometimes use defamation law to harass and deter animal activists.
Hazards to the public that are kept secret include illegal dumping of chemicals and research showing potential cancer risks. The most famous instance is the tobacco industry’s cover-up of its own research on the health effects of smoking. Fred Gulson was a tobacco company employee - less well known than Jeffrey Wigand, portrayed by Russell Crowe in the Hollywood film The Insider - who exposed the "document retention" policy of a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, a policy which involved destroying documents so they would not be available to plaintiffs suing the company.
Whistleblowers are crucial to challenging secrecy that serves those with power and authority. Attacks on whistleblowers serve several functions. Harassment, ostracism, threats, and dismissals can discourage whistleblowers from continuing their efforts. Spreading of rumors and referral to psychiatrists serve to discredit whistleblowers, so the credibility of their message can be undermined to outside audiences. The two basic processes are cover-up and devaluing the messenger. These are combined when employers demand that an employee see a psychiatrist. This is a process of humiliation, damaging the employee’s credibility with co-workers. Employers often choose "hired-gun" psychiatrists who certify the employee as insane, enabling dismissal. This use of psychiatry as a tool involves both harassment and discrediting.
Probably the most important function of reprisals against whistleblowers is sending a warning to other workers that they too could suffer should they also buck the system and try to expose problems. Reprisals thus serve as a tool of ensuring secrecy.
One other method of cover-up is worth mentioning: gagging or silencing clauses in settlements. In many cases, whistleblowers who lose their jobs go to court claiming unfair dismissal. Employers often agree to pay the whistleblower a sum, small or large, as long as they sign an agreement not to reveal anything about the settlement, and sometimes to say nothing about the original issue. This can be construed as bribery to maintain secrecy.
Whistleblower cases thus demonstrate Sue’s argument that censorship is at the core of the exercise of power to constrain or manipulate knowledge.
The usual idea of censorship is that there is some information or knowledge, known to a restricted number of people, and that outsiders are prevented from gaining access to it. This certainly applies in many situations, but there are other possible ways for knowledge to be contained.
Psychological resistance to the truth occurs in many situations. Information is readily available but people don’t want to know about it. This can occur through indoctrination or through general assumptions that become widely accepted. An example is the finding by criminologists that imprisonment does little to reduce crime. Many politicians and media try to exploit fears about crime, so much so that many members of the public demand harsher prison sentences. Many of those involved in the promotion and consumption of the tough-on-crime mantra simply refuse to look at the research. Their minds are made up. Related to this is the pervasiveness of self-deception, in which one part of a person’s mind refuses to recognize or accept what is known to another.
Knowledge authorities can sway people’s views without the need for censorship. Knowledge authorities can include government officials (for example concerning national security), church leaders, and scientists. If these authorities make assertions, many people accept them regardless of contrary evidence or of counter-claims by other groups. On national security, dissident views can be tolerated because the pronouncements of national security experts, backed by most politicians, carry the day. This is despite the fact that most national security experts are in a conflict of interest - they stand to benefit from the adoption of their views - and counter-experts are not.
Tied knowledge refers to knowledge that is useful to some groups far more than others. When knowledge is suitably tied, there is no need to censor it. A prime example is scientific knowledge. Articles published in scientific journals may not be readily available to people outside universities except through exorbitant fees. Even when openly available (as is increasingly the case due to the open access movement), few members of the public can understand the publications due to the jargon, writing style and specialized understanding required. Even when scientific publications can be understood, few members of the public can make use of the knowledge, because specialized facilities, skilled personnel, and significant investments are required. For example, most research on nuclear physics is only understandable to nuclear physicists and not easily useable except for the purposes of the nuclear industry and the military: the knowledge is tied to researchers, industry, and the military. This means formal censorship is less important.
Undone science refers to research that could be carried out but has not been because powerful groups anticipate that the findings might be unwelcome. There are many chemicals in the environment whose potential adverse effects on health have not been studied because the findings might threaten the profits of chemical companies. There are two similar drugs that can be used to prevent the progression of macular degeneration. One is under patent and has been studied sufficiently so it has been through an official approval process. The other, which probably works just as well, has not been studied in the same depth. It costs one tenth as much, so the company has no incentive to fund the research. Undone science is a type of censorship, but somewhat different from the usual conception that information is being hidden from audiences. In the case of undone science, power is used to prevent the knowledge creation.
Sue’s approach to censorship is quite compatible with psychological resistance to the truth and the role of knowledge authorities - her treatment of the consciousness industry is most relevant - as well as the concepts of tied knowledge and undone science.
1. Sue Curry Jansen, Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
2. Stanton A. Glantz, John Slade, Lisa A. Bero, Peter Hanauer and Deborah E. Barnes, The Cigarette Papers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996); Robert N. Proctor, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).
3. This is not a neutral summary, but rather reflects my own concerns.
4. One outcome: Brian Martin and Wendy Varney, Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating against Repression (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2003).
6. Michael J. Mahoney, Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1976); Ian I. Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1974); David Lindsay Watson, Scientists are Human (London: Watts & Co., 1938).
7. Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (London: New Left Books, 1975).
8. Barry Barnes, Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974); David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976); Michael Mulkay, Science and the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979).
10. Charles Peters and Taylor Branch, Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest (New York: Praeger, 1972); Ralph Nader, Peter J. Petkas, and Kate Blackwell, eds., Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility (New York: Grossman, 1972).
11. My subjective impression about the common failure of official channels to help whistleblowers was backed up by research by William De Maria, Deadly Disclosures: Whistleblowing and the Ethical Meltdown of Australia (Adelaide, SA: Wakefield Press, 1999).
12. Stephen Bartos, Against the Grain: The AWB Scandal and Why It Happened (UNSW Press, 2006); Caroline Overington, Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board Scandal (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2007).
14. Greg Ogle, Gagged: The Gunns 20 and Other Law Suits (Sydney: Envirobook, 2009).
15. Marcus Priest, "Smoking gun in the Big Tobacco case," Australian Financial Review, 22 April 2006, reprinted in The Whistle, #47, July 2006, pp. 3-5, http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/contacts/au_wba/whistle200607.pdf.
16. Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
18. Scott Frickel et al., "Undone science: charting social movement and civil society challenges to research agenda setting," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2010, pp. 444-473; David Hess, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
19. Tommy Cleary, Reconstructing Vision - Undone Science and Anti-VEGF Treatment of Wet Age-related Macular Degeneration, Master of Arts thesis, University of Wollongong, 2012, http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3615/.