Archives For The Deceptive Activist

Author Information: Steve Breyman, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, breyms@rpi.edu

Breyman, Steve. “The Superior Lie: A Review of The Deceptive Activist.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 36-38.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Ox

Please refer to:

Image credit: Irene Publishing

Brian Martin’s work is unique among scholars in Science and Technology Studies. He is not bashful about the sort of world he prefers, and steers his inquiries directly into hotly contested public controversies. From scientific struggles over the cause of HIV/AIDS to the theoretical best form of democracy, Martin weighed in. Sure, many of us wear our hearts on our sleeves; his scholarship—spread over sixteen books and hundreds of articles—has a practical, applied bent exceedingly rare among academics in any field.

The Deceptive Activist—Martin’s latest—is scrupulously documented, and an excellent example of his signature easy style. The book is highly readable, and flows smoothly. Sensibly constructed, Martin’s arguments and evidence are complex and sophisticated; there are no easy answers to be found here.

Civically Relevant Dissembling

This is not Brian Martin’s first foray into political lying (the subject of a 2014 article; access his work here). His aim this time around: “to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty” (3). The stuff of the book is a veritable primer on all manner of civically relevant dissembling. Chapters 2 and 3 provide a typology of lies, from the everyday to the official. He discusses the difference between openness and honesty, and includes lies of omission. Withholding the truth may in some cases be as damaging as a bald-faced lie. I was once bound by a strictly enforced “honor code” and it carved out space for ‘socially acceptable’ lies. Martin naturally includes those “little white lies” too.

The stakes matter. Official deception is worse than individual deception because officials have more power. This includes lying by police (expressly permitted by criminal courts in United States). While generally preferring openness and honesty, it’s OK to lie to save human lives. Martin includes a timely discussion of “sock puppets” (people pretending they’re someone else on line) given a young Swede’s infiltration of fascist groups in Europe and the US.

While Martin does not directly address “fake news,” he provides an interesting and useful typology of propaganda. Martin dissects the varieties of government propaganda, explaining how politicians employ public relations specialists to twist and manipulate information conveyed to voters. The book includes a road map for uncovering official deception—devised to reduce outrage—using the notorious Nazi T4 euthanasia program as example. We learn to be cautious about public scandals given that some are manufactured by the political enemies of the politician in question. This may be a variety of “fake news” after all. Along the way, we learn never to trust authorities when they claim not to be influenced by social movements working hard to pressure them.

We’re introduced to various sorts of self-deception, including the collective sort Martin assigns to scientists who still push the public perception of their profession as value-free, objective and dispassionate. Martin understands that his thorough cataloging of the universe of lies could easily lead some to become cynical and reject everything that comes out of the mouths of corporate chieftains and politicians. To guard against over-skepticism, he provides a manual for lie detection in Chapter 4.

It’s virtually impossible for most of us to use visual cues to detect lies (US Secret Service agents appear reasonably good at it); Martin has us instead look at a speaker’s record, and a number of other clues summarized in Table 4.1 (64). It’s a helpful list that I wish American journalists had to hand during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq when official mendacity ran amok.

Donald Trump’s brazen disregard for truth requires no guide to expose. One need only unearth an earlier tweet or previous statement that directly contradicts the current claim, an easy task. Americans may yet again have cause to use Martin’s clues in the future should we ever return to the normal regime of lies tougher to detect. The dawning of the post-truth era in a growing number of country’s politics does not excuse us from seriously grappling with the issues raised in the book.

Martin would have us view truth-telling as one virtue among others, and he shows how it sometimes clashes with the others. But there are times when telling the truth gets one in trouble as Martin shows with several examples where Gandhi’s truth-telling was exploited first by the British, then the Japanese (97-100). Martin conjures several scenarios where lying is superior to the truth and counsels against an absolutist position. He believes a relativist position morally superior to absolutism as it can prevent violence and other harms. His case studies (Chapter 6) end up making a good case for situational ethics and contingent morality.

Honesty and Lies

Activists ought to discuss honesty within their groups thinks Martin. Interestingly, he compares the features for effective nonviolent action he identified in an earlier work to lying, and suggests that one may lie “nonviolently.” His examples range from the satire and provocation of The Yes Men, to the classic case of sheltering a refugee from the Nazis.

I’ve not confronted most of these same tensions around (dis)honesty in my own activism, and I don’t think many of us have. Why bother lying? The truth—defined as the overwhelming majority of the genuine, as opposed to “alternative,” facts—is on our side. This imbalance explains why we devote our time, energy and resources to civic engagement. It also explains why activists are big fans of sunshine laws and freedom of information statutes.

Martin asks whether direct action advocates should share their plans with the police, wondering whether failing to do so constitutes a lie of omission. He realizes at the same time that to do so might compromise the action in advance. The dilemma is generally not difficult to resolve. The activists have a specific goal in mind (to urge climate action, or stop a natural gas pipeline) and do not believe any means is justified to reach their end. And as with other forms of civil disobedience, participants are prepared to face the legal consequences of their action. Activists thus face the wrath of the state in either scenario, whether they divulge their plans or not. Should there be a “lie” here, it hurt no one and those who were party to it are held responsible for it.

Martin is concerned that corporations and the state are not alone in their efforts to manage and interpret information to serve their own purposes. Exaggeration and hype are certainly issues for progressive organizations. I receive communications from social movement organizations on a daily basis that could be said to be one-sided or overblown. Activists too engage in spin doctoring. They are, after all, advocates for a cause. This does not, of course, grant them a license to lie, and they likely should sometimes tone down their “messaging.” But these normal exaggerations are about tone or still uncertain consequences (of, for example, climate change) not about the science, the “truth,” underlying the initial worry. Nevertheless, in certain relatively rare circumstances—some of special concern to Martin who has written and acted broadly and deeply on whistleblowing—veritas is at stake.

Should whistleblowers see themselves as akin to those engaged in nonviolent direct action, where the latter courageously face the fallout from their actions? Such a stance would result in dire personal and professional consequences, despite the protections in place in several countries. Whistleblowers prefer their complaints be handled through formal channels, but will go to the news media should that fail or not be a realistic option (as in the case of Chelsea Manning). Martin joins many of the rest of us in seeing the Daniel Ellsbergs and Edward Snowdens not as deceptive activists but rather as heroes for taking such grave personal risks.

The book closes with a lessons learned chapter. Martin summarizes his lessons regarding honesty and openness. He’s never preachy, looks at all sides, and is cautious in his advice. His sound advice, however, overlooked an inescapable fact all activists must face: the truth matters in public life but who wins and who loses is determined not by right but by might.

References

Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

Author Information: Gregory Nelson, Northern Arizona University, nelsong@vt.edu

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Oe

Please refer to:

Image credit: Irene Publishing

The Deceptive Activist
Brian Martin
Irene Publishing (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
168 pp.
http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/17da/index.html

Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist begins a critical and timely commentary on the role and use of lying and deception in the realm of politics. According to Martin, lying and deception are as mutually constitutive of social interactions as technologies of truth-telling. Lying and truth-telling are two sides of the same coin of communication. Instead of depreciating lying and deception as things to avoid on Kantian moral grounds Martin makes the case that lying and deceit are quotidian and fundamental and natural to human communication.

Martin wants readers to strategically think about the role of lying and deception using context dependent analysis of how deception can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Martin “…aims in this book to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty.”[1] The central argument of the book is that lying and deception are critical and routinely deployed tools that activists use to pursue social change. Instead of debating the moral status of deception in a zero-sum game he asks readers to think of role of deception by strategically analyzing the use of the means of lying and deceit vis à vis an end goal of effecting political change through non-violence and harm reduction.

A Proper Forum

In Brian Rappert’s review of Brain Martin’s The Deceptive Activist Rappert raises the critical question of the proper forum for having a discussion on a book about deception and the use of deception in society. Rappert’s call for a forum for this discussion cannot be overstated. The use of deception is a slippery slope as its use requires an evaluation of the means deployed and the ends desired. History is rife with examples of noble attempts to pursue noble ends using means that in the end become revealed as ethically compromised and corrupting of the whole project. Rappert’s review of The Deceptive Activist lays the ground for the emergence of a discussion. Certainly a book review cannot begin to address all of the careful, meticulous, and robust debate and discussion needed to begin to formulate an emergent discussion on lying and deception in more neutral and strategic ways, however, we can begin to use Martin’s work as an opportunity to acknowledge the pervasive role of deception even in the circles of activists who promote justice, peace, compassion, and empathy.

It would be beneficial to develop an edited volume on lying and deception in society. Science and Technology Studies offers us the ability to conceptualize lying and deception as social and political technologies deployed in the wielding of power. The nuance that Martin’s account brings is the readiness to discuss these technologies as useful tools in activist endeavors to pursue their ideals of change and justice. Martin gives readers frequent examples of how powerful actors use deception to control narratives of their activities in order to positively influence the perception of their image. For Martin the crucial work “…should be to work out when deception is necessary or valuable.”[2] He proposes a criteria of evaluation to evaluate when deception should be deployed based on “harm, fairness, participation, and prefiguration.”[3] His criteria is applicable to activist decisions of when to keep a secret, leak information, plan an action, communicate confidentially, infiltrate the opposition, deploying masks at a protest, or circulating disinformation about a political opponent.

However, in a world in which deception is normalized, his criteria runs the risk of ignoring how deceit, when mobilized by powerful actors, can threaten the less powerful. Developing a means to evaluate deploying deception should be organized by small groups of activists without a way to condemn the use of deceit by the powerful to harm the less powerful leaves the reader wanting more. Martin’s criteria were developed specifically to evaluate when deception might be justified by activist groups who have asymmetrical power relations to the wielders of state and corporate power. The tension that emerges from Martin’s book is between the use of deception by small groups in contrast to large and highly centralized powerful state authorities. Martin explains, “By being at the apex of a bureaucratic organization or prestige system, authorities have more power and a greater ability to prevent any adverse reactions due to deceptions that serve their interests.”[4]

Deception and Defactualization

Martin attempts to negotiate around this problem of recognizing deception as an important tool in activist struggles while also condemning history’s greatest abuses of deception by defining an assessment criteria to evaluate the context and nuance of when deception should be used in according to an ethic of minimal harm. Martin suggests “… assessments are dependent on the context. Still, there are considerable differences in the possible harms involved.” The way out of the ethical tensions that arise when those seeking to do good use the means of deception is to turn to assessing “situations according to the features of effective nonviolent action.”[5] I am not convinced that this enough to effectively deal with the dilemmas that arise when the power of deception is harnessed even in search of what are seemingly good and just ends. After all do we want to live in a world in which the ends justify the means, or the means become the ends in themselves? I can think of plenty examples in which this type of thinking bleeds.

Martin’s work calls us to reconsider the critiques of deception developed by Hannah Arendt in the Crisis of the Republic. Ardent writes, “In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”[6] The dangerous step in the use of the means and power of deception in the pursuit of just ends lies in the corruption of those ends through defactualization.

Defactualization is a term used by Arendt in which the self-deceived loses the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. The defactualization of the world, created by the self-deceiver, engulfs them because no longer can the self-deceiver see reality as it stands. The self-deceiver accommodates the facts to suit his or her assumptions: the process of defactualization. The actor becomes blind through his lies and can no longer distinguish truth and false. Martin does not leave a critique of self-deception by the way side, but his brief treatment of it at the end of his work forces us to find the space in which we can have a more robust and developed conversation per Rappert’s concern.

In the post-truth world, The Deceptive Activist is an immensely powerful work that helps to propel us to critically and strategically examine deception, in our own practices, in the era of the grand master of deception: Trump. Daily we are bombarded by various deceptions through the President’s Twitter. Exposing the number of Trump’s lies from inauguration crowd size to healthcare to climate change to taxes is a tiresome and arduous task. When one lie is exposed another is already communicated. The extensive amount of lies leveraged on a daily basis deflates the power of activists to expose and reveal the lies.

In the post-truth era the spectacle of exposing lies and deceptions has become so routine it loses meaning and becomes part of the static of public discourse on contemporary events. There is no more shock value in the exposure of lies. Lying is normalized to the point of meaninglessness. While Martin’s work demonstrates crucial analysis into the how lying and deception are fundamental to everyday interactions, the acceptance of this reality should be constantly questioned and critically analyzed. The Deceptive Activist carefully paints a spectrum of how lying is used in everyday human relationships to reflect on the need for activists to practice critical self-analysis of the methods of deception they often deploy in their agendas to pursue change in society. Martin concludes by discussing what so concerned Hannah Arendt over 50 years ago: self-deception. This even more dangerous form of deception should be questioned. In the Trumpian age we must find the space to have discussions on deception, lying, and defactualization while resisting the temptation to self-deceive.

References

Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution. 1st ed. ed.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

[1] Brian Martin, The Deceptive Activist (Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017), 3.

[2] Ibid., 156.

[3] Ibid., 153.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution, 1st ed. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 36.

Author Information: Brian Rappert, University of Exeter, B.Rappert@exeter.ac.uk

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Ml

Image credit: Irene Publishing

The Deceptive Activist
Brian Martin
Irene Publishing (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
168 pp.
http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/17da/index.html

Saying things we don’t really mean. Omitting relevant considerations. Leaking. Making the best impression. Spinning. Just adding that little tail to the story that gets the laugh. Feigning. In The Deceptive Activist, Brian Martin extends an invitation to open to the myriad of ways in which dishonesty figures within day-to-day interactions and political life. The reasons for deception are presented as manifold as its manifestations. Higher purposes. Convenience. Loyalties. Face saving. Ideologies that mark what Noam Chomsky called ‘the bounds of thinkable thought’.

Being completely frank and with no reason to do otherwise, my judgement of The Deceptive Activist is that … well … more on this later.

The kind of invitation extended by this book is one that is as sobering as it is destabilising. Its core claims are two-fold: (1) deception is commonplace and (2) this applies to you too (admit it…). As such, ‘rather than sweeping the tensions under the carpet’, Martin argues, ‘it may be better to start talking about deception and about when it can serve worthwhile purposes’.[1]

Through use of case studies and other examples, The Deceptive Activist reasons through the pros and cons of not presenting it like it is, with particular reference to political activism. As elsewhere in his work, Martin’s goal is not trying to definitely specify appropriate conduct. Instead, he takes it as one of skilling up readers to think through possible courses of action. Towards this end, he recounts different frameworks for helping to determine when deception might be warranted. The framework accorded with most traction is one Martin previously developed for assessing nonviolent action. Dissimulation of various kinds might be appropriate depending on whether it is standard, limited in harm, voluntary, fair, what it prefigures (do means and ends align?), whether it opens up participation, and whether it is skilfully done.

For my part, I can recall few books that explicitly encouraged readers to think about when dishonesty may be the best policy. In this the argument is bold. It is not that talk of dissimulation is rare though, even with scholarly traditions. It has a long history in the canons of Western thought. Socrates’ enthusiasm for a ‘noble lie’ in The Republic is one well-known instance. Yet, as with so many other examples in political thought, this message of dishonesty was one aimed at elites of the day, not those seeking to challenge them.[2] To note this is to signal the way the pervasiveness of deception also comes accompanied by a sense of its boundaries. It has an endpoint or an end-person to which it is pursued. It is not hard to see why. Deception unbound provides no place for anyone to stand. For this reason, talk of being deceptive often entails appeals to truth.

As The Deceptive Activist elaborates, appeals to truth can entail deception too. Take the domain of scholarship. As Martin contends with reference to biomedical research, ‘even domains where truth-telling is vital can be plagued by passions, biases and the presence of vested interests. Whenever an area develops a reputation for honesty, it is predictable that interlopers will try to benefit from a false impression that they too are honest.’[3]

Taken together though, the pervasiveness of deception, its subtleness, and the potential for it to be present where it should be least prompt a question back to The Deceptive Activist: namely, is Martin trying to, well, beguile readers himself? To put it more bluntly, perhaps too bluntly, does The Deceptive Activist entail deception?

Consider some possible grounds. There are many claims to truth presented, often substantiated through citations to scholarship. Given the argument in The Deceptive Activist, though, these are prime candidates for where we might look for finessing. Charged controversies such as the torture at Abu Ghraib, the intentions of the public relations of firms, and the rationales for the machinations of US statecraft are recounted, and recounted in a language that makes definitive claims to have grasped how authorities attempted to dupe. Have the specific glossings of the topics given, it might be asked, perhaps scarified complexity for the sake of advancing the overall argument of The Deceptive Activist? Have any relevant considerations that might have given a different spin to these matters been excluded? Deliberately or otherwise? Or have considerations been left out that would impact on how definitely scholarship can resolve what counts as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The text of The Deceptive Activist itself suggests some grounds for caution about whether it is providing facts that fit the argument. While at times unpicking factual claims for what is going on behind them, at other times factual claims are taken as a solid bedrock for knowing. While at times questioning how motives are attributed to large organisations, at other times motivations are attributed.

Given the argument in The Deceptive Activist, rather than concentrating on whether deception is taking place in some more or less subtle ways, it would seem more important to ask whether any such dissimulation would be appropriate. How though to evaluate the potential for deception? Four options are:

Martin is not deceiving in the crafting of The Deceptive Activist, and…

… this is problematic because it stands as a refutation to the thesis of the necessity and even desirability of deception.
… this is not problematic because it illustrates the high standards possible for human conduct (even if calling into question a central premise of the book).

Martin is deceiving in the crafting of The Deceptive Activist, and…

… this is not problematic so long as he did so in-line with a framework such as the one for assessing nonviolent action.
… this is problematic because (a) truth-telling is vital in scholarship or (b) he is missing a trick in really getting to grips with the potential for deception.

Writing out of these options prompts a pause. It seems that having a serious debate about the appropriateness of the options would painfully grate against many of the mores projected as central to scholarly and political life – like an open hand scraping along a brick wall. Now, perhaps more so than in recent times, assertions of (self-)deception figure prominently in the arsenals of rhetorical put downs. Fake this, alternative that. Which side are you on? While The Deceptive Activist does not engage with the latest international parlance for fakery, and probably with good reason, many will likely interpret its arguments against this political context. It is time of clashing binaries of right of wrong, not fine lines.

Which institutions then might support a discussion about the place of deception, and too the place of deception in the analysis of deception? This is a weighty matter that cannot be addressed within the limited scope of a review essay. Turning the issues on their head though, we can ask instead whether a book review would be a good place to locate such a serious debate. Reviews such as this one don’t operate in a pristine space free from conventions. Instead, reviews help to define communities (a sense of ‘we’) and communities come to learn how to interpret reviews. Within the expectations of a review, a statement that notionally reads as stinging criticism or high praise might be taken as otherwise by seasoned community members.[4] Audiences may, in fact, bring a good deal of scepticism to what they read in book reviews because they judge them as a form of endorsement genre, or if not this then a place of petty one-upmanship, or a space where reviewers forward their pet ideas instead of dealing with the serious matters they are meant to be minding.[5] Perhaps it may be time too to start talking about dissimulation in reviews genres and when it can serve worthwhile purposes.

Where and how can we have a frank discussion about a book on deception, let alone about deception itself?[6]

References

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Lamberton, Robert. “The απόρρητος θεωρία and the Roles of Secrecy in the History of Platonism.” In Secrecy and Concealment, edited by Hans G. Kippenberg and Guy G. Stroumsa, 139-152. New York: E.J Brill, 1995.

[1] Page 4.

[2] Actually the story was more complicated. Since in his dialogues Socrates admonished the capacity of the written word to discover truth, scholars since have questioned why Plato reduced the dialogues by codifying them into writing. One theory is that Plato may have only written down certain teachings, teachings of lesser value. Whether a ‘Unwritten Doctrine’ of teaching existed and who it was shared with have been topics for conversation since the time, see Lamberton (1995) and Hanegraaff (2012).

[3] Page 58.

[4] So if you aren’t getting the joke, you aren’t getting the joke.

[5] Would it help to decode my writing or just confuse the situation further if I noted Brian Martin has been a stalwart colleague for over twenty years?

[6] My thanks to Claes-Fredrik Helgesson for the wording of this ending and comments on this review. And Brian Martin too.