speak out if you dare

Free speech and democracy: Dissenting, objecting, exposing or simply not looking

In a democratic society you might think you are are free to speak out to expose unsavoury practices and that you are free to criticise what society is doing. But think again. It is far more complicated than that.  There are risks.

We also feel that we should be protected when people make slanderous or harmful comments about us and there are many laws that restrict what we can say.  Unfortunately, to expose wrongdoing or to analyse and criticise social systems that are harming people, you cannot avoid criticising what people in those social systems are saying and doing.  They can be unwittingly harmed.  You may have to make tough decisions in pursuing the greater good and accept that some will not be happy to change what they are doing.

Summary of this page

The first slider looks at the critical importance of free speech and the way it is currently being eroded across the world. Free speech will always challenge some who will be angry at what is being said.

Those who decide to speak out face difficult decisions and have to walk a fine line between the public good that they wish to achieve - and the harm that speaking out can do to some. Criticisms can be very unwelcome and there can be serious consequences for those who do so.

The laws about what you can or cannot say publicly are a complex minefield, even the lawyers get it wrong and don’t know what the courts might decide.

It is hazardous to speak out about aged care. Those who have done so have lost their jobs, been attacked, or been threatened with defamation actions.

I look at what I have called “culturopathy”, a culture where often well meaning people do things that are harmful and respond indignantly when this is exposed. I look at how blind they can be about what they are doing and why they respond aggressively to criticism.

The implications of all this for a criticism of the current aged care system and for the proposed community aged care hub are examined.

The last two sliders look at two interesting phenomena. The first is the psychology behind our tendency to put our heads in the sand and disengage when we feel threatened. We will will sometimes even support those who are harming us.

The final slider describes the industry that has developed to help people hide their past if they can afford to do so. An organisation, which sought to counter this by tracking down material that politicians had deleted and then made this material public again, was closed down. Those who helped them hide their pasts were not.

The argument for free speech

The University of Cape Town where I trained many years ago strongly apposed and criticised the introduction of apartheid.  Students protested and marched over the years.  In 1986, several years before apartheid was abolished the university teaching hospital did what was still unthinkable.  It openly defied government threats and abolished all forms of apartheid within the hospital.

Over the long years of apartheid students raised large sums each year and the student body used the money to build and to run health and other social services in the disadvantaged communities.  They were staffed by students supervised by staff. The important role that universities played and should still play in the community, and in political debate exposing failures and challenging beliefs are stressed and kept alive in a series of lectures in honour of those who spoke out

These include memorial lectures in honour of the black leader Steve Biko who was killed by white police during interrogation.  He had been very active in students movements and he considered university staff and students to be "the vanguards of change".  It was "the particular role of universities to produce public intellectuals and to intervene in the political arena".  It is interesting to look at what universities in Western Societies including Australia are doing today. Are they criticising and dissenting?  Canadian John Ralston Saul in his Massey lecture "The Unconscious Civilisation" was critical of the way universities in Western Democracies had disengaged from their important role in society.

TB Davie was Vice Chancellor of the university during the early years when I was a student and at the time when government banned black students at white universities. He led the way while at the same time channeling student rebellion into peaceful and symbolic protests that did not result in violence from the police. He was followed as vice chancellor by a student colleague of mine. After the abolition of apartheid he was in turn succeeded by the first black vice-chancellor, a close associate of Biko and before his death a junior doctor at our hospital.  For a time she worked on my unit - a remarkable  young woman. So I have role models when I criticise!

Free speech and dissent are still highly valued at UCT although most dissenting views are now critical of the current black government. The 2015 TB Davies Memorial lecture was given by Kenan Malik a distinguished social analyst, journalist and author. Malik spoke about the suppression of free speech across the world over recent years. Democratic societies had increasingly found ways to justify limiting free speech - or more correctly censoring it. He was particularly concerned that the “organisations accross the world that had led struggles for freedom from colonialism, or the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, have become senile or corrupted”. 

It is interesting that, while Malik did not mention it, in the 1960s, sociologist Peter Berger suggested a historical cycle of oppressor being replaced by oppressed, who then in turn become oppressor. The apartheid movement developed when the Dutch Africaners, who had been oppressed by the British gained power.

While Malik is talking about a different history, Malik’s defence of free speech and dissenting views is particularly relevant for what is happening in Australia today.  It is summarised in the university news.

Free speech should not be suppressed in the name of tolerance or respect, in fact in plural societies "the fullest extension possible of free speech" is required in order to challenge power.

"In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities," he explained.

Malik maintained that while past generations considered free speech the "very foundation of liberty" the idea of free speech "as an intrinsic good" has been increasingly eroded over the last few decades. And in its place a notion that censorship is good has arisen.

"Free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield [while] censorship has come to be seen as more than the norm. For many, censorship has come to be a progressive act, a means of protecting people [and] challenging power."

This statement is underscored by his assertion that in the current age, threats to free speech do not present themselves as such, instead "contemporary hazards to free speech are often signposted as defences of freedom".

Source: University Daily Press write up of “Diverse societies should not curtail free speech” Kenan Malik 50th TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom Univ. of Cape Town 14 August 2015.

But there is more in his actual speech:

To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’

This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

Source: 'Diverse societies should not curtail free speech' Kenan Malik 50th TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom Transcript of Original Speech

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Difficult decisions

At times the problem you feel you must address is so important, that you must speak even though there will be collateral damage. This is particularly difficult when you have to criticise people or organisations that genuinely believe they are doing the right thing.  Clearly we all have a responsibility to expose failures, fraud and other wrongdoings and criticise policies and practices that are harmful when we encounter them. There are ethical decisions we have to make and what we do may come at a cost to us.  We may become collateral damage ourselves. These problems exist whether you are criticising politicians, government, market or individuals.

This overlap of the responsibility to speak out for society on the one hand and a desire not to harm others on the other creates a complex minefield to navigate and there are no clear guidelines. This is particularly difficult when those whom you need to expose or criticise are in positions of power or pillars of society. As big a problem is when those you are criticising don’t think they have done anything wrong or believe strongly in what they are doing. They can get very angry and many, even the courts can feel that what they are doing is acceptable. While you may see that something is wrong, it may be difficult to get evidence. It might only be found after you have exposed the problem.

The risks are that you will be attacked, your credibility destroyed, be isolated, lose your job and possibly be threatened or actually sued for defamation, which can be very costly even if you win.

The consequences

Politicians and governments will not protect you. Look at what happened to Edward Snowden (sheltering from the USA government in Russia), Chelsea Manning (in prison in the USA) and Julian Assuage (founder of Wikileaks confined in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to protect him from UK police who want to extradite him to Sweden, which he believes is likely to send him on to the USA who will put him in prison). All of these people took enormous risks to expose what they considered was government wrongdoing. Whatever we may think about these issues, these people felt so strongly about what they knew was happening that they took the risk and suffered the consequences.

The Australian government is so sensitive about leaks that they have used the terrorism issue as justification for laws preserving email and telephone metadata and then accessing it when they need it. This enables them to track your movements and identify all those you have communicated with. Exposing government’s misdemeanours anonymously is now extremely difficult if not almost impossible. Many feel that while terrorism is real, the response has been excessive and this is not justified.  Those who are interested in the issues of government access and their security might like to look at this:

In addition, a new law prohibits anyone from exposing the mistreatment of asylum seekers in detention.  There is a vast amount of information indicating that people who have escaped violence and terrorism and who have come to our shores seeking help have been kept in conditions and treated in ways that are harmful to their physical and mental health.  There are many articles in the medical literature.  There is now a wall of silence so that we do not know what is being done in our name. 

I am particularly sensitised (a sense of deja vu) to this because I experienced the wall of silence that prevented white South Africans from fully understanding the consequences of what their government was doing to the majority of citizens during the apartheid years. In that instance it was not terrorism but communisim that was beaten up out of all proportion to the actual threat it posed in order to justify censorship.

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Speaking out in Aged Care

What happened to Snowden, Manning and Assuage created headlines across the world and others like Andrew Wilkie attracted local attention. But these are only red flags to what happens.  There are many others in government departments, working in companies, in community projects and even the churches who are targeted and lose their jobs. Nurses who speak out about failures in aged care lose their jobs and no one else will employ them.

There were vast numbers of examples in health care in the USA.  In that country whistleblowers receive 10 to 15% of any moneys recovered making the risk worth while.  The massive frauds in the USA were all exposed this way making some whistleblowers very wealthy.  It has been such a problem in the National Health System (NHS) in the UK that a damning inquiry into intimidation was undertaken.

There have been a large number of press reports and television programs describing problems in aged care. These started in 2000 only 3 years after the system was turned into a marketplace. These reports have exposed failures in care and failures of the accreditation agency to detect substandard facilities. The vast majority of these reports are based on or consequent on tip-offs by whistleblowers, either nurses in the system or the relatives of residents. Staff who tried to complain to their superiors had been ignored or already fired. Others were fired after speaking out or going to the media.  They were seen as trouble makers and struggled to find another job.


One of the main barriers to families complaining is the fear that the resident whose mistreatment was complained about will be targeted as a result of their complaining. There is much to suggest that this sometimes happens. Those who have felt particularly strongly about their experiences have persisted. Some have been threatened with lawsuits and a few of these have refused to buckle.  They fight on but politicans and the public are conveniently deaf.

Nurse academics from university departments have written theses and articles on their findings. They have accepted their responsibility as academics and spoken out about what they have seen and found. Instead of addressing their findings and criticisms, like Gillian Triggs, they have been attacked, their research criticised and their universities asked to discipline them.


My experience is that when there is so much smoke, there is a larger smouldering fire or to put it another way this is only the tip of the iceberg, a red flag to a deeper problem. Most of us have families and responsibilities, lack confidence or are fightened of what will happen to us.  Those who speak out include the ignorant, those without responsibility to dependents, those who have courage and more commonly those whose adverse experiences drive them to act in order to protect others from what happened to them. But too often when whistleblowers are vindicated, true believers claim each example is an exception, or else that it is a media beat up.

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I have coined the term "culturopathy" for a set of beliefs that are so important for the well meaning people who have built their lives using them that they find it almost impossible to find fault or challenge them. These beliefs fail to achieve what is intended and worse still often cause harm in some cases even extensive loss of life.

A key characteristic is reluctance to collect or acknowledge information, tight control of the information that is released and supression of information that challenges these beliefs. When information is exposed or when there is criticism the response is disbelief, anger and ridicule. Often they adopt the strategies described on tghis page and find ways to justify this to themselves.

There is a wide gap in perception. Those who identify with and are leaders see things very differently to those who criticise. They usually find some derogatory term to describe their critics. This is called “labelling” and it absolves the person from the need to consider the evidence and arguments of their critics.  The absence of acurate data allows this to happen. The criticisms usually but not always have some substance.  If accurate information can be collected and proponents can be induced or forced to debate accurate information then this often leads to resolution.

There are reasons why we all respond negatively to criticism.

There are some fundamental problems with negative criticism, regardless of whether we clothe it politely as "constructive." First, Schwartz contends, criticism "challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged." Indeed, psychologists such as Daniel Goleman, contend that threats to self-esteem and sense of self-worth in the form of criticism can feel like threats to our survival.

Part of our resistance to positive reactions to negative feedback is the way our brains work. Neuroscientists have clearly identified that our brains are fundamentally protective, defensive mechanisms. If your ego and sense of self is threatened, your brain unconsciously will act to protect and defend, either actively or passively.

Source: Why Performance Reviews Don't Improve Performance Ray Williams in Psychology Today Nov 7, 2012

It is important to understand that even when people respond to criticism unreasonably they are not evil people and that this is the way we all behave. We defend because its hardwired into our brains. Its simply being human. I call this behaviour “responsive” to contrast it with a “constructive” response, one that addresses the issues and readjusts thinking.  We probably all behave defensively at times in our lives.  I certainly have.

Reflecting on culturopathy: Professor Linda Shields, a nurse became interested in the Euthanasia of children with disabilities by doctors in Nazi Germany.  This was part of the Eugenics program where anyone with a disability was thought to threaten the genetic future of the master race. What Shields found worried her. 

She found that the nurses who participated and helped the doctors kill these children, had no sense that they were doing the wrong thing. None objected. She asks whether we would have done the same thing had we been there and been subjected to the same propaganda.

The unasked and unanswered question is whether we could in fact be behaving in the same way ourselves now?  In the face of evidence of harm we are subjected to the continuous and repetitive blast of political rhetoric about asylum seekers.  We get a regular barage from politicians and from websites beating up our aged care system.  This drowns out the complaints.

It's hard to imagine that someone charged with preserving life could participate in such a widespread campaign of killing, and these stories are difficult to comprehend.

Many assume that the nurses were following orders and that to do otherwise would have meant a certain death, but that's not the case, according to Shields. There is no record of anyone being punished for refusing to participate in the programs.

We like to think that we could [resist] but with the propaganda like it was and the community peer pressure, I don't know what we would do.

Source: Ethical questions raised by 'Nazi nurses' still relevant ABC Radio National 22 July 22, 2015

For a more recent example, look at the way in which the CIA and the US government including the president, accepted and justified the "rendering" of unconvicted suspected terrorist to foreign countries where they tortured them.

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The community aged care hub

As outsiders, we have no choice but to criticise and confront. Those we criticise will instinctively dismiss what we say and respond defensively.  They are unlikely to willingly change. The only way we are going to be able to engage is to force the issue until they have no choice but to engage. It is very important that once that is accomplished we switch from criticism to constructive engagement with issues and solutions and draw those we have criticised into that process.

The proposed hub is intended to create a context where people can be brought to confront the consequences of what they are doing and then see what others see in a sympathetic friendly and constructive environment. Information will be collected and discussed.  Unless beliefs are too deeply entrenched responsive behaviour can be changed and become constructive. It is very important though that the proposed hub be in a powerful enough position to force believers to confront what is happening and if they are unable to do so then take the decision to remove them from the sector.

It is worth noting that the original black leaders in South Africa including the black consciousness movement understood all this well. I discussed these issues with some at the time.  Once they had created a situation with sanctions and riots that forced the government to talk to them they engaged in discussions that created a context in which they could work together to both acknowledge the problems and become constructive in addressing them. The truth commission was one example. People were pardoned for their actions under apartheid if they were open and honest about what they had done.  This does not mean that all problems were solved, or that subsequent leaders have shown as much insight.

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The Ostrich phenomenon: Burying your head in the sand

With psychological needs in mind, a system’s greatest victims being its greatest supporters makes sense. The more that a person feels dependent, powerless and vulnerable, at the mercy of a system over which they have no control, the more terrifying it is to think that the system is deeply flawed.

Source: Truth Hurts: The Science Behind Why People Don't Care About The Death Of Our Planet And Democracy New Matilda.com 19 Aug 2015

One of the big problems for the freedom movement in South Africa under apartheid was that so many of the disadvantaged and exploited “non-white” groups simply ignored the arguments for change and continued to think in the master/servant colonial way. They accepted the status quo as what God had designed. They considered that that was the way the world was, and even supported the white government that was responsible for discriminating against them. It was particularly so among the older generation and this sometimes caused disputes within families. It was fascinating to talk to both sides of this.

This can be understood by attributing it to the instability and angst caused when the established patterns of society that have given stability and meaning to people’s lives are attacked and challenged. Despite their disadvantaged status many found this instability very challenging. In this situation many people simply switch off and disengage with issues, particularly if they feel impotent and powerless. The black consciousness movement was a response to this and a strategy to deal with it. This example illustraes the relevance of the quote above.

The quote comes from a paper by Lissa Johnson, a clinical psychologist. The paper addresses this same issue in Australia within a more detailed psychology framework than I have used.  The article quotes research to show when and how it happens.

The interest in this paper: This is a long paper in which Johnson looks at two issues. These are Global warming and democracy.  There is a vast amount of evidence about climate change and also describing the recent inroads made into Democracy in Australia.

The issues have arisen in a community disillusioned with politics, at a time when there are serious destabilising problems in the global marketplace, and when we are threatened by destructive global ideologies that need attention and considered debate. Citizens feel powerless to influence events that are vital to all our lives. Johnson makes her point about victims supporting the exploiters using the low level of acceptance of climate change and the surprisingly low number that believe democracy is the best form of government - figures revealed by surveys of Australian citizens.

If this sort of thing interests you or you are pushing confronting ideas in the community then the analysis of why and how this occurs is of interest. The theory and explanations are much further on in the paper, but worth reading. She makes some suggestions for dealing with the problem.

Relevance for aged care and the proposed hub: The interest of this article for aged care is the extent to which the community has disengaged from aged care issues in spite of the extensive publicity, the unhappiness of some families and the comments by nurses.  The community has been largely excluded and feels powerless. The elderly, those most affected, have grown up and built the lives they are proud of - their identity - within this market system and understand the world this way. They are likely to find criticism destabilising and upsetting.

While this phenomenon will make it more difficult to get support for and establish the proposed aged care hub, once established the hub will provide a venue within which citizens can be effective, exert control and have influence - all factors that studies have shown are important for re-engaging the community and countering this phenomenon.

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Politicians hiding their past

An interesting development in the digital democracy sphere is the battle between those who want to hide information on the internet that they don't want anyone to see and those who believe that there are things that politicians in particular are not entitled to hide and should be preserved.  Citizens believe that they need to know the sort of people they are going to elect to parliament. They want to know what they have said, what they have done and who they are.

There is already a large industry that is making money by helping people hide information on the internet. They do so by finding ways of removing it or if they can't manage that then burying negative material under a barrage of positive material so that the negative material does not come up on web searches.  If you have the money you can blot out your past.

Since 2012 an international non-profit group called Politwoops has been tracking down archived copies of material that US and other politicians across the world have deleted to hide their pasts. They shone a light on politicians conduct by posting links to hidden archival information that the public needed to know about on Twitter.

This was seen as an important and valuable means of putting some sunlight on things that needed to be known. After 3 years in operation in May 2015 Twitter closed down their US activities (run by the Sunlight Foundation). In August they closed down the remaining 30 services around the world. This non-profit service was considered by many including journalists as a valuable resource.

No one has closed down the company helping those who have enough money to protect their reputations when they have done something awful but the group of citizens stopping politicians from hiding theirs were closed down globally. There are of course, good reasons for closing down unfounded false and damaging information, but this silent censorship of the internet is an interesting dilemma that needs judgement and not market forces and political pressure to resolve.

Update - Oct 2015: At a Twitter developer conference in San Francisco, the CEO of Twitter hinted at the return of the Sunlight Foundation's well-regarded Politwoops service. No further details around this are available yet.

Twitter CEO suggests Politwoops might return - Politico, 21 Oct 2015

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Helpful information

In 1996 Jeane Lennane when president of Whistleblowers Australia wrote a landmark paper What happens to whistleblowers and why describing what happened to those who exposed problems in our society.

Professor Brian Martin, a past president of Whistleblowers Australia has a special interest in dissenting views. He has a web site Suppression of Dissent. His site contains information and advice for those wanting to speak out to expose wrong doing or to criticise something that is wrong - for the good of the public.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the direction aged care should take in order to make life worth living and working in Australian nursing homes: Join our conversation  Author: Dr. Michael Wynne, Copyright 2015