Amnesty on Campus: "Government and Dissent"

So tonight I went to an Amnesty International on Campus Panel titled "Government and Dissent".

OGGB 4, University of Auckland Business School, 18:30–20:30, 22 September 2011.

The speakers were:

John Minto - "Veteran protester, notable for his involvement with the 1981 Sprinbok Tour actions. Minto is also rumoured to be a potential candidate for the Mana party." [his candidacy is now confirmed]

Keith Locke - "Green MP, as well as a long time activist who has a particular interest in civil liberties and human rights."

David Seymour - "Former ACT on Campus head and ACT's Auckland Central candidate for the upcoming election."

Mohsen Al Attar - "Law lecturer and a specialist in international law and law and development."

(descriptions are from the event page at Amnesty's website)

What John Minto had to say

Minto was first up. He gave a very interesting account of what dissent means in conceptual terms, drawing on a heavily Marxist view of political economy. He characterised dissent as a challenge to power: one person/group challenging another in order to achieve a transfer of power. As with any challenge to established power, dissent is inevitably met with resistance. People are always going to defend the money/influence/power that they enjoy.

I don't think I have any particular objection to that characterisation of the phenomenon, but I think there might be various valid forms of dissent don't fit neatly in to that model of class struggle. While I suppose it is true that any effort to influence the decisions of others is to some extent an assertion of and challenge to existing power, that isn't necessarily the essential characteristic of dissent. Where the object of dissent is simply to encourage debate and broaden an issue, I don't think the power factor is always central to that.

He also had some interesting things to say about state control of dissent. He pointed to the requirement to get permission from the Police, and often the local authority, before any significant protest can lawfully go ahead. He thinks that "this means they don't mind protest as long as it's ineffective protest" (he appeared to attempt to go back on this proposition a bit during questions from the audience, but he definitely said it in those terms during his main presentation). He thinks that it's important that we always resist such efforts to control dissent. According to Minto, if we don't push back against them then the control will get tighter and tighter until the right disappears altogether.

Again, I think he has a point. There does seem to be something counter intuitive about asking permission of the state to protest against it. But also, I think that to view the situation in those terms might be over simplifying it. Not all protest is the people versus the state. Not all forms of dissent are efforts by the proletariat to throw off the yoke of the bourgeoise. Obviously there will be times when it is inappropriate to consult the authorities on a planned demonstration, but that should only arise where the cause is particularly important or there is reasonable basis to believe that cooperation with the authorities will significantly reduce the impact that the demonstration has. That won't always be the case. I don't see any reason why the default position shouldn't be one of consultation and cooperation, which can be displaced in appropriate situations.

He then went on to talk about the Hamed v R decision (see my post: "An effective and credible system of justice" for detail), the Search and Surveillance Bill (currently in bar-2 version, available on Parliament's website) and the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 (available at He said, rightly in my opinion, that all of these are examples of the unnamed suppressor (my words, he just said "the Police") trying to extend its power to suppress dissent. 

Now that's undoubtedly true, but there is another way of looking at it. There is this tendency (and all four of the speakers never strayed from this approach) to conceptualise a faceless institution as the enemy of free expression and dissent. That institution is variously the Police, Military, Intelligence Service, Government, Parliament, local councils, rich people, property owners, media organisations, etc. The problem with this approach is that it's very easy to rile against a faceless organisation. It's easy to see 'the man' as an oppressor. But when you add names to these institutions it becomes more difficult. Minto, Locke and Al Attar all have some experience with protest action. They know who the players are in this field. And yet they almost never mentioned any names. It was never John Smith. It was always The Police, or The Council, or The Government, or (unsaid) The Rich. I suggest that they might find it more difficult to say some of the things they said if they put a face and a name to the institution.

What Keith Locke had to say

Locke introduced himself as A. Bureaucrat and embarked on an interesting, though somewhat indulgent and cynical, monologue describing various elements of dissent from the point of view of faceless oppressor that I talked about above.

He identified the targets of this faceless oppressor (or A. Bureaucrat, in Locke's terms) as criminals, particular political criminals, terrorists, Maori Nationalists, fanatical religious groups and 'eco terrorists'. His explanation made it clear that these labels are a way of characterising legitimate dissent as criminal and therefore attracting the attention of the law.

He spent quite a while talking about the Urewera operation (what is this thing even called? I've heard it called "Operation [any number between 4 and 20] so many times I've lost track), Ahmed Zaoui, Mark Taylor and Tame Iti. There wasn't a huge amount in his presentation that isn't familiar to pretty much everyone, so there's not much point in me going through it all.

He placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of fear as a means of securing for the state the tools of oppression that they want. He implied media complicity has a lot to do with this. Quite rightly, he identified the introduction of tasers for police, changes to the jury trial system, the Search and Surveillance Bill, the Terrorism Suppression Act, and various other enhancement to state power of oppression as products of this culture of fear that the state and media carefully propagate in the general public.

There's not really anything that I have to say about any of that other than the point made above about the ease of criticising a faceless oppressor as opposed to an individual member of the targeted institution.

Locke did have a rather saddening comment to make about the passage of the Government's response to Hamed v R. As a seasoned political figure, I'm forced to admit that he's almost certainly right when he says that the 'victory' that Labour and ACT are claiming in getting the Bill sent to a truncated select committee process is almost certain to achieve nothing. We already know what all the submitters to that committee think about the proposed legislation. All the Government will do is say they've listened and then pass it anyway. I guess this is an example of the kind of situation I referred to above where if you were going to try and organise some sort of public demonstration it probably wouldn't be appropriate to ask permission of the authorities.

What David Seymour had to say

Seymour was definitely the odd one out on the panel. I have to commend him for descending into the lion's den of an Amnesty International event wearing a suit and being introduced as an ACT party candidate. All things considered, I think he handled himself exceptionally well.

His first point was taken from The Road to Serfdom by F A Hayek (which I haven't read, so I'll have to take Seymour's word for what it says). His proposition was, as far as I could follow, that post-WWII there was a big push for coordination of society by central government. But, according to Seymour (and presumably Hayek), as you build up a large government apparatus that theoretically can give you anything, that same apparatus can also take everything away. He idea seems to be that as government grows the rule of law is weakened, corruption and greed grow, and the "worst get on top". Apparently centralisation is always going to be bad for individual liberty when much of people's lives is controlled from one point.

I'll be honest here and say I didn't really follow this argument. I think he was kind of relying on the audience having read Hayek's book. Without really knowing what he was on about, I don't think it's worth me trying to form an opinion on whether he's right or not.

Seymour's second point was based on Moore's Law of the exponential growth of computer processing capacity (hopefully I don't need to link to the Wikipedia article for this one). He then stretched that general theory out to computer networks, and described three kinds of networks: one-to-many, point-to-point, and 'social'. His argument was that, as we have moved from one type of network to the next, the capacity for communication and dissent that the network supports has grown exponentially in a similar way to Moore's Law of processor capacity.

As networks become decentralised and widely dispersed, they become much harder to control and/or shut down, and are therefore a powerful tool for dissent.

Acknowledging a point made by Minto about the surveillance society that we are developing, he conceded that this was a double-edged sword in that the same developments which increase the capacity for communication and dissent also increase the capacity for monitoring and oppression. At the very least, technological developments are changing the playing field when it comes to political dissent.

While not a particularly thorough analysis of the potential of the internet as a democratic tool, I can't really fault anything that Seymour had to say. It's all been said before of course, but it was a valid point to be made in this context. It would have been interesting if he'd tied it in more with the Government aspect of the moot, but still.

What Mohsen Al Attar had to say

Now I gather that Al Attar is a bit of a cult hero for Amnesty on Campus. He definitely had some very interesting things to say, but it has to be said that I think he kind of hijacked the occasion to trumpet his own cause a bit by talking entirely about the We Are the University movement (if you want to try and figure out what the hell they're about then good luck, but here's their facebook page which you'd think would be a good place to start).

I'm not going to go through all of what he said, since I think it was a bit off topic and not all that relevant to the other content that I've talked about already, but here a few key themes that came out of it:
  • Young people are under attack
  • The 'Soft War': consumerism, debt, transforming us from inquisitive young people into apathetic consumers. Technology is mining us for information and stifling growth with a noose of debt.
  • The 'Hard War': An expanding youth crime complex. Student riots are characterised as criminal when they are largely legitimate demonstrations. Dissent is being criminalised.
  • The 'compassionate state' has turned into the 'punishment state'.
  • Youth are a problem that has to be contained.
  • Universities are turning into factories rather than institutions of higher learning.
He ended with "now is not a time for dissent; now is a time for action" which was a bit gratuitous if you ask me.

The main thing I want to talk about that I got from Al Attar arose in his answer to a question from the audience at the end of the presentations. Someone asked him something along the lines of:
Some of what you have said seems to suggest that you think the ends will always justify the means. What do you think about the desirability of peaceful protest as a value worth pursuing in its own right? I acknowledge that there will be times when peaceful protests won't be a valid option, but shouldn't they be something that we aim for wherever possible because peace has some intrinsic value of its own? 
(I've paraphrased a series of follow-up questions into that for the purposes of keeping this nice and simple)
Al Attar's answer was something like:
There is nothing morally superior about peaceful protest as against non-peaceful protest. If you start from the position that peaceful protest is virtuous in itself then you negate a whole range of other legitimate choices.
Now I realise that I've been come across a bit negative about Al Attar so far here, but that's simply because I think he picked the wrong platform for what he had to say. I'm not criticising the content of his presentation (though I might be inclined to). But what he said there I think does deserve some criticism.

Surely the goal of any form of protest is to advance some sort of cause. Some belief or ideology or position on a particular issue. It is entirely legitimate for any individual to judge the ideology of another based any moral criteria that the individual subscribes to. Indeed, that's exactly what protestors are doing: they are making a moral judgement about the ideology that they are protesting against.

Now if it's possible to make a moral judgement about an ideology, then it is equally possible to make a moral judgement about the chosen method of challenging that ideology. If the goal of protest is to improve society in some way, then it is perfectly reasonable for people to make a moral judgement about whether or not the actions of the protestors actually contribute to the advancement of society. An individual may or may not be right about that moral judgement, but they are perfectly entitled to make it.

Now the person who asked this question seemed to be at pains to point out that she wasn't saying that peaceful protest was the only legitimate way of going about political dissent. It was quite clear to me that what she was suggesting was that 'peace' it itself a desirable objective of any effort to improve society. That interest may be displaced where the targeted injustice is more damaging to society than the non-peaceful actions of protestors opposing it, but that is a moral judgement that it is worth making.

Al Attar seemed to suggest, in the face of this argument, that the objective of peace was simply not factor that should be considered when assessing the available options for expressing dissent. As the questioner suggested, he was solely concerned about the ends to the exclusion of the means. That is a very dangerous position to put oneself in.

Where dissent does more damage to society than the injustice that it is attacking, that should rightly be condemned by moral judgement.

Out of respect for Al Attar, who I think made an excellent argument during his presentation and is clearly much more qualified to comment on these issues than myself, I will concede that it is likely that he either didn't entirely understand the question that was being asked, or I have misunderstood either the question or his answer. It may be that I've cast an unjustifiably bad light on what he had to say through my own misunderstanding, but that is certainly what I took from his response and it deeply concerned me.

Summing up

I think John Minto and Keith Locke were by far the most effective speakers if judged in terms of addressing the moot: "government and dissent." What they had to say, especially in Minto's case, was heavily coloured by their economic and social perspectives, but that is to be expected at an event organised by Amnesty. From a conceptual point of view, I think Minto had the most to offer to the discussion with his consideration of the importance of power, transfer and resistance in the context of political dissent. Locke provided an entertaining insight into some possible motivations for state oppression.

David Seymour made some interesting points that were also well on topic. I don't think there was anything particular ground breaking in what he had to say, but it was a good contribution and his performance during questions was admirable (considering the fairly hostile audience).

I'm not really sure what I think about Mohsen Al Attar and what he had to say. As far as his main presentation goes, it wasn't entirely on point if you consider that the topic was "government and dissent" and was perhaps a bit beyond what I was interested in. But he clearly hit a chord with the audience, so in that sense his was probably the most valuable contribution if you consider the whole context of the panel.

I think the format that the organisers adopted, of a panel discussion rather than an outright debate, was extremely fruitful. I don't think we would have seen the variety of different approaches to the issue that we did if the participants had been limited to debating each other. As it was, each got to cast the issue in entirely their own way and speak to that perspective without worrying about addressing a whole range of issues that didn't really touch on their core theses.

Overall, it was well worth a listen and hopefully I've done the speakers justice with my account of what they had to say.

Edit: Here's a video of Mohsen Al Attar's segment:


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