The Wikileaks revelations unleashed the usual media furor of partially verified fact, unreflective opinion, speculation based on rumor, all ad nauseam through the twenty-four hour news cycle, and then, nothing. It went away, replaced by the startling news of an upcoming royal wedding and snow on the East Coast, in winter no less.
Now that some calm has returned, it’s time to consider a few things. I have no idea what motivates wikileakers, but the public reason is to broaden public engagement in the business of government by making public as much private government correspondence as possible. It raises serious questions about the limits of privacy, candor and truth telling.
If truth telling is a moral imperative, does it have any limits or mitigating conditions? Of course it is the old Kantian question that has been answered in many ways, but I guess it’s worth wading into once more because it never has been resolved to universal satisfaction.
I’m reminded of a flip remark I made just a few days ago that caused my sister-in-law to ask, “Don’t you have any filters on what you say?” Filters? Apparently it is important to sometimes filter what one says in order to maintain a semblance of harmony. Filtering implies that what might be unnecessarily hurtful not be made public, even if it is a truth, because making it public will do no one good and may do harm. The letter to the Ephesians enjoins us to speak truth in love for the purpose of building up, not tearing down. We all know people who use words, even truthful words, as weapons of intimidation and malicious hurt. On the other hand, we also know people who, out of fear or an obsession with maintaining harmony, ignore, withhold and deny essential truths that need to be recognized. Where is the boundary and what does it look like?
If this is true about our personal lives and relationships, might it also be true about the ebb and flow of communications between agents of government? Are there conditions under which communications ought to be privileged? If filtering is the right thing to do under particular conditions, what are those conditions?
A common text word is TMI, too much information. What you are telling me is more than I need or want to know given the status of our relationship. Perhaps there are people who need and want to know the details of your love life, physical ailments, tidbits of juicy gossip, or breadth and depth of your knowledge, but I am not one of them. TMI can also occur when someone who knows a truth about another makes it public to the harm of the other. TMI at the personal level can have disastrous effects. Lives can be ruined. That’s one reason why the law recognizes certain rights to privacy as in doctor-patient, lawyer-client and pastor-penitent.
Is the same true in the public arena of international relations and public policy? Do agents of government need the ability to communicate truthfully with each other but withhold it from the public to protect truth telling? What might be the appropriate limits?
The corporate world is adamant about its right to privacy, secrecy and privileged communication. Patents, copyrights, trade secrets and the complex negotiations surrounding buyouts and mergers are the stuff of civil lawsuits and criminal investigations. Is there any parallel between what is legal for the corporate world and what is necessary in the realm of public policy?
These are not easy questions. We do not want to be lied to by our government, especially when lives are at stake. We are angered by stonewalled secrecy that prevents us from knowing who has been invited to influence important public policies. On the other hand, we recognize the need for secrecy (call it confidentiality) in everything from weapons development to matters that, if made public, could jeopardize the public welfare.
As for wikileakers, they seem to me to be no more than common gossips about whom scripture has much to say:
Prov. 11:13 A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.
Prov. 20:19 A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler.
Sir. 19:6 ...but one who hates gossip has less evil.
Sir. 19:12 Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh, so is gossip inside a fool.
2Cor. 12:20 For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.