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Backfire

In 2001 I came up with the idea of backfire and tactics against injustice. Gene Sharp, the world’s leading researcher into nonviolent action, developed the idea of political jiujitsu: if peaceful protesters are brutally assaulted, lots of people will see this as terrible and turn against the attackers.13 This occurred in Russia in 1905, when hundreds of people, protesting to the czar, were slaughtered by government troops. The result was a dramatic loss of support for the czar, undermining the credibility of the entire system and laying the foundation for the 1917 revolution. In 1960, white South African police opened fire on peaceful black protesters in Sharpeville, killing perhaps one hundred of them. News of the massacre punctured the South African government’s reputation, at that time, as a legitimate democracy. Sharp also had examples from Gandhi’s campaigns in India, especially the 1930 salt march, during which police beatings of nonviolent protesters undermined the credibility of British rule over India. I knew of a later example, the shooting of peaceful protesters in Dili, East Timor, by Indonesian troops. Photos and video of the massacre catalyzed the international movement for East Timor’s independence. In cases like this, the violent assaults rebounded against the attackers, analogous to the sport of jiujitsu in which the attacker’s energy and momentum can be used against them—hence Sharp’s expression “political jiujitsu.”

In every one of these examples, a key to the process was communication: people had to find out about the atrocity. For example, there had been other massacres in East Timor but because there were no Western journalists present, no photos, and no videos, news leaked out slowly and had little impact because of Indonesian government denials and censorship.

My brainwave went like this: just like massacres in East Timor, lots of terrible things happen in the world, but only a very few of them generate outrage. So what about all the rest? Perhaps the attacker is doing something to reduce outrage. I eventually came up with five main methods: (1) cover-up, (2) devaluation of the target, (3) reinterpretation of the events, (4) official channels that give an appearance of justice, and (5) intimidation and bribery.

How to apply this model of tactics? It would help to have lots of case material, so I thought of collaborating, finding someone who knew a lot about an area involving an injustice and who was interested in the theory and practice of challenging this injustice.

I thought of Steve Wright, one of the world’s leading researchers on technology used for repression—for example, the manufacture and trade in shackles, thumb screws, electroshock batons and many other horrible tools used in torture and control. I had met Steve just once, in Manchester in 1990, but had kept in regular touch. Steve was receptive to my approach and before long we had completed an article titled “Countershock: Mobilizing Resistance to Electroshock Weapons.”14

I also thought of Sue Curry Jansen, whose book Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge I had read and with whom I had exchanged a couple of letters over a decade earlier.15 Sue was also interested in collaborating and we soon produced a paper, “Making Censorship Backfire.”16 I met Sue for the first time after we had finished the paper.

One of our censorship case studies was the so-called McLibel case, in which McDonald’s sued two London anarchists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who had helped produce a leaflet titled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s?” The legal action ended up being the longest court case in British history and was a public relations disaster for McDonald’s, triggering a massive grassroots campaign in defense of Steel and Morris and disseminating the offending leaflet to millions of people. Sue and I treated this as a case of censorship backfire: the attempt by McDonald’s to censor the leaflet using a legal action was seen as unfair and ended up being counterproductive for McDonald’s even though the corporation used all the five methods for inhibiting outrage.

The McLibel case can also be seen as a defamation backfire because McDonald’s sued on the grounds of defamation. Later I collaborated with Truda Gray on studies of defamation backfire, using the McLibel case and several others to illustrate the tactics typically used by those who sued and what tactics in response were most likely to deter actions or make them counterproductive.17

So what should you do if you are threatened with a defamation suit? My advice goes along these lines: don’t panic—don’t be intimidated. Consider your options. Sometimes it is best to make an apology or to withdraw your statement and, like Michael Wynne with his health care documents, prepare a stronger, more documented version. Other times you may want to make a stand, like Helen Steel and Dave Morris. If so, don’t rely on the courts for defense; instead, go public. Let people know about the defamation threat and about the important issue that is threatened with silencing.

For most people, defamation actions are frightening. The backfire model offers a different perspective: being attacked is an opportunity to generate greater attention to your concerns. You may or may not want to take up the opportunity, but it is there.

 
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