Courage is key. Bravery is the buzz-word. Fortitude is fundamental.
Do these seem like platitudinous slogans? Judgements are open, but the reality is that they are the kind of things you might see on the social media page of one of the most indomitable people ever who irreversibly changed geopolitics in their fight against censorship.
We are talking about Chelsea Manning: a person who challenged every orthodoxy available to her by both exposing her institutions and herself to the world. Twitter warrior, emoji innovator, eternal optimist, the second transgender woman ever to pose for Vanity Fair, and a whistle-blower who in her fight against suppression of information was tortured, abused and vilified.
During the time she worked as a military intelligence analyst, she – like many others – had access to footage of a US army helicopter firing in error upon Reuters journalists and a van containing two children. She had the evidence of the horrific human consequences that western presence in the middle east had on the innocent, and the powers which would go to any length to prevent them becoming public knowledge.
But unlike many others who worked there, it was Manning who dared to do something about it. Unlike Edward Snowden, who agonised over what information to publish and how – eventually entrusting a select group of journalists to help him, Manning was rejected by the media. The publication of the secret and, according to many, dangerous documents was done through Wikileaks, rather than through channels which would have enabled thorough consideration of each piece of data. Although Wikileaks did not then enjoy the same disrepute that it now does, this more desperate act is not one that Manning undertook by choice. She first approached the bastions of the free press, the defenders of truth and transparency: the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico. These emblems of freedom and exposing wrongdoing apparently told her to ‘fuck off’. They lacked any interest in being involved with their own principles, instead opting to stay within the realm of acceptability. Others in Manning’s position at the time, seemingly without any support from their own institutions – even those whose duty it was, may have chosen to give up. But she did not, and revealed some of the worst abuses of military power in modern history, including the execution of civilians and ensuing cover-up, which many credit with catalysing the Arab Spring.
The consequences of that cannot be underestimated, for the world and for herself. She did not have the luxury of protection after she leaked what she felt the world had to know. Prior to sentencing, she suffered ritual humiliation which led to the resignation of a State Department Spokesperson, and a judgement from UN Special Rapporteur describing her treatment as ‘cruel and inhumane’.
Being an unashamed outsider meant that she was, and is, deplored and distrusted by people across the entire political spectrum. Even though she has many on her side, a societal blind eye was still turned to her treatment for the longest time. Some revelled in it, shouting into the digital and literal void that “he” deserved everything “he” got.
Perhaps her most-lasting legacy will be what she showed us about the way in which society treats those who challenge the power structures and the orthodoxy that we prefer not to consider. Chelsea Manning’s socially unacceptable concern for the murder of the weak by the strong was ignored at every level of our culture, forcing her to act outside of the acceptable and bear the horrific consequences of doing so.
Her case pushes us to examine the censorship that we all practice; that of ourselves and that which our silence on key issues imposes on others. Personal censorship is omnipresent; we hold back on expressing our opinions and ourselves for fear of judgement. This is hardly a revelation, but to see how widespread and ingrained it is in our way of life, one only has to look at recent political events regarding the gap between what people tell pollsters and how they vote. Life within a society and culture censors us by determining the boundaries of acceptability.
And this means that, although whistle-blowers are some of the most courageous people who actively play in society, they seem to exist in a collective blind spot for our ethical concern. If we are to fight against censorship, we have to examine the internal and external pressures that stop each of us from passionately defending the rights of those who reveal secrets, or we give license for people to be treated as she was.