Does the "wrong" come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via flickr.com. Click for original.

Does the “wrong” come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via flickr.com. Click for original.

Philosopher Peter Ludlow, a faculty member at Northwestern University, writes in a recent post for “The Stone” blog on NYTimes.com that, instead of undermining systems and generally acting immorally, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden took real risks to expose what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of systemic evil.” In a lengthy dissection, Ludlow looks at the leaks that so many have condemned and, noting that one of Aaron Swartz’s self-professed favorite books was the sociology text Moral Mazes, and finds an emerging extra-institutional morality across the cases. Ludlow concludes:

…if there are psychological motivations for whistleblowing, leaking and hacktivism, there are likewise psychological motivations for closing ranks with the power structure within a system — in this case a system in which corporate media plays an important role. Similarly it is possible that the system itself is sick, even though the actors within the organization are behaving in accord with organizational etiquette and respecting the internal bonds of trust.

Just as Hannah Arendt saw that the combined action of loyal managers can give rise to unspeakable systemic evil, so too generation W has seen that complicity within the surveillance state can give rise to evil as well — not the horrific evil that Eichmann’s bureaucratic efficiency brought us, but still an Orwellian future that must be avoided at all costs.

For more on weighing the costs and benefits of surveillance, be sure to check out “A Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control” and pretty much all of the Community Page Cyborgology here on TSP. For more on moral ambiguity, consider Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall (updated and released in paperback by Oxford University Press in 2009) and Teaching TSP’s piece on the “Obedience to Authority” and the Milgram experiments.