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Jan 20 2011

I’m not sure how to feel about this

Life isn’t easy or clear-cut. Inevitably, we will find ourselves confronted with a position wherein our beliefs come into conflict with each other. Whether that is something mild, like when I had to choose whether or not to go to church with my relatives at Christmastime, or something more serious like whether or not to marry the love of your life in her/his family’s church – same conflict with far higher stakes.

Today’s story is an example of such a conflict that I’m struggling with right now:

Key websites of the Tunisian government have been taken offline by a group that recently attacked sites and services perceived to be anti-Wikileaks. Sites belonging to the Ministry of Industry and the Tunisian Stock Exchange were amongst seven targeted by the Anonymous group since Monday. Other sites have been defaced for what the group calls “an outrageous level of censorship” in the country.

An erstwhile free speech advocate like myself is driven to support the message of Anonymous, which is that speech should be free everywhere, even (perhaps especially) when it embarrasses governments. The internet is one of the crowning achievements of the human species – bringing information down from the heavens and into the hands of the commons (at least those commons who can read and have access to a computer and a signal). When a sovereign government violates the human rights of its people, there is little that can be done, at least officially. Because of the intricacies, twists and turns of international politics, it may not be possible to issue a trade embargo, withdraw diplomatic ties, or even write a strongly-worded letter of condemnation.

That’s where a group like Anonymous could conceivably come in. While there may be no official punishments possible when governments (or multi-national corporations) step out of bounds, there are a lot of “off the books” things that some group of private individuals can do. Anonymous is illicitly punishing the offending governments by crippling their internet capacity. It is poetic justice at its most awesome.

Of course, on the other hand I am also a believer in the rule of law, that people should not be taking the laws into their own hands. Anonymous is not a group of angels, intent on ensuring that the righteous prevail and the wicked are punished. It just so happens that one (or more) of their goals happens to coincide with my own. If Anonymous was a group that was committed to doing things that I disagreed with (like, oh I don’t know, distributing porn to kids or defacing memorial webpages), I’d think them a group of undisciplined thugs who are abusing the internet to accomplish mean and feeble acts of vandalism and victimization of innocent people. In that circumstance, I’d be among the first looking to find a way to curtail their ability to commit these crimes.

And so while I cannot give my blanket support to the actions of Anonymous, they have not earned my blanket condemnation either. This is problematic for me; not simply because they must be one thing or another, but because their actions both support and defy some close-held principles of mine. I like to think of myself as a ‘principled’ person, so being stuck in limbo in this way is acutely unpleasant. It is made even more unpleasant by the fact that they’re going after my least-favourite dictator:

Those attacks were reportedly in retaliation after the president’s wife Grace Mugabe sued a Zimbabwean newspaper for $15m (£9.6m) over its reporting of a cable released by Wikileaks that claimed she had made “tremendous profits” from the country’s diamond mines.

The attacks, which started in the run up to the New Year, hit the government’s online portal and the official site of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. “We are targeting Mugabe and his regime in the Zanu-PF who have outlawed the free press and threaten to sue anyone publishing Wikileaks,” the group said at the time.

That’s right, our old fart-sniffing Gigli afficionado Robert Mugabe himself! This is a man who has made it a federal crime to insult him (hence the childish barbs in the previous sentence – on behalf of every Zimbabwean who can’t say it her/himself), and has attacked the very heart of free speech in a country that desperately needs better and less evil leadership. How could you not cheer on a group of people who goes after such sleaze with such gusto? By remembering that many members of that group are sleaze themselves?

Sadly, life is not as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my enemy too. Sometimes our principles do clash, and there is no way to resolve the conflict happily. That’s why there’s alcohol.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    Katherine

    If it makes you feel any better, saying something about 4chan is kind of like saying something about atheists or saying something about people with brown hair… it encompasses such a diverse group of people that even as some people are noble and do good things, others are just immature dicks.

  2. 2
    Pat Dixon

    Sometimes there isn’t a simple black-or-white, yes-or-no answer, but rather a spectrum. And eventually you decide, more-or-less, approximately, where you fall on that spectrum, most of the time. You’re doing fine. :-)

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