I’ve been disagreeing with a lot of people about transparency recently, and even though it’s kind of going out of fashion on the edge of my community, I’m still going to stand up for the principle. Transparency, real and true, is a good thing for many reasons. It’s not magic fairy pixie dust that makes the world a wonderful place, and anyone who sold it as such needs to do their historical homework. What is does it complex, important, but not sexy enough for many activists.
What a lot of people commenting on the debate about government transparency don’t get is that it’s not just about the information. Action always has an inherent politics to it; publishing data about itself is as much about telling government how it’s supposed to behave as it is about the data. Even if you’re wildly juking the stats, you’re at least communicating to yourself how different things should be. The action involved in transparency is the action of telling on yourself. No matter how subverted, two things remain true: you know that you should be doing better, and you’re going to accidentally expose incidental truths.
My least favorite argument about transparency is that it breeds complacency. This is an argument from a position of tremendous privilege that comes from forgetting why we fight corruption in the first place. It is always the case that corruption costs; right now it is taking a terrible price on a real and growing segment of the population which the corrupt entity is meant to serve. You can only forget the proximate hurt if you’re someone in a position to forget it, someone with money, health insurance, the right travel options. Someone with good schools, and probably, it’s easiest to forget the day to day cost of corruption in America as someone with white skin. Without transparency threatened populations have to take up common myths about why they are in the situation they are in. In short, they blame themselves. Not only are they the victims of corruption, but when it’s not discussed, they’re the victims of believing they’ve brought the situation on themselves. If you want a complacent population, ruining their lives and then getting them to believe they did it themselves is a pretty good way to start.
But this is a post at least partly about Wikileaks, and how what they do isn’t transparency. People keep bandying that word around and mixing up the two, and I want to disentangle them. Because it’s not only incorrect, it’s harmful. What they do is akin to whistle blowing, which serves a wholly different function. Leaks and whistle blowing are about arresting a malignantly broken institution. They are about appealing to a higher authority to step in and by force change the behavior of an organization so dangerously off the rails that it’s incapable of self-correction. It’s a place beyond where the gentler tool of transparency can help. This is the problem with leaking government secrets as well– there’s no higher authority to step in. (And no, the electorate doesn’t count. Sorry, but if it did, things we wanted might get done a bit more often.)
When we call for transparency we’re calling for a mindset. We’re calling on the government that ostensibly serves us to trust us, to treat us like adults. We’re calling on them to engage in an act of self reflection on a cultural level. Stealing their diary and putting it on a website might be needed sometimes, but it’s no substitute for the kind of cultural change we’re after. Leaks are not transparency. They are haphazard and adversarial, they do something completely different. They can often undermine the cultural conversations about transparency.
Transparency is about institutions talking to themselves by talking to the world. The changes it makes are slow, tiny, and not very rewarding, especially next to the wild splash of leaks. Transparency is a frustrating battle, but in the end it has much more ability to change a culture than whistle blowing, at least without a ultra-cop to step in. Government transparency is about telling ourselves who we’re supposed to be, and in the frustratingly long run, that will do more to shape who we become.