Thought for the Day - Vishvapani - 02/03/2013
Imagine you are Bradley Manning in 2009: a low-ranking US intelligence officer stationed in Iraq with access to vast amounts of diplomatic and military data. You discover much that you consider unethical. So do you keep quiet, or do you leak the information, risking the prospect of decades in military prison?
How each of us responds probably says much about our values and beliefs. For some, Manning is a hero: a whistleblower and truth-teller, a persecuted political prisoner whose crime was to break ranks. For prosecutors he is guilty of ‘aiding the enemy’, threatening American security and harming US interests. Our response to that probably depends on whether we regard those interests as oil-hungry imperialism, or a principled struggle for freedom, or perhaps some combination of the two.
My own instinctive response is to admire Manning for speaking the truth and standing up to power. But I acknowledge the element of fantasy in this –imagining myself sending that data-stick to Wiki-leaks and to hell with the consequences. But experience tells me that sentiment muddles our ethics and communication is perhaps the trickiest area of life, ethically speaking.
Buddhism proposes not one but four guidelines that need to be held in balance in practising ethical communication. The first is avoiding false speech and practicing truthfulness. Training ourselves to be honest checks the tendency to ease our path by distorting or concealing the facts. That’s as true for states and organisations as it is for individuals and it’s an argument for transparency. But truth alone can be cruel, so next we have the principle of speaking kindly, not harshly. Truth can also be destructive, and the third guideline is practising helpful or constructive speech, which means reflecting on the consequences of what we say. Finally, there’s the principle of avoiding speech that drives people apart, and speaking in ways that support mutual understanding.
Communicating ethically isn’t simply a matter of telling the truth and openness isn’t always the supreme good. We also need to reflect on the likely consequences of what we say, and there’s no shortcut to the right conclusion. But having a moral framework also shows how self-interest can obscure our principles. Imagining myself in Manning’s situation, I wonder if I would act as he did. The good reason is that I am unsure that he found was the best way to expose what troubled him. But I also wonder if I could match his courage or pay the same price, even if my principles told me I should.