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Losing Inquiry in the Public Sphere

The Age of WikiLeaks has brought with it a flourishing of technocratic dilemmas.

Debates following the actions of Edward Snowden continue to spread globally. They range from applauding mass data release in the name of a healthy democracy to designating his activity as treasonous and possibly punishable by execution. Snowden joins the ranks of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange in our Age of WikiLeaks that turn such John Wayne moments of political defiance into ripe reassessments of the democratic project. For professors of the liberal arts, these developments also make for difficult discussions that can prompt cause for concern. What becomes readily apparent is that, in classrooms that function as open spaces of curiosity and debate, many students now voice their doubts regarding freedom of privacy and the right to inquiry in the public sphere.

Often, students are able to wrap their minds around the belabored, violent history of American democracy. Topics on slavery, women’s rights, and civil rights are digestible, in part, because they are safely quarantined in the past. That was then. Americans fought; justice prevailed; society improved. But to bring up the modern day, to ask about today’s American democracy, the status of our own “freedom,” is to delve into murkier territory. Snowden, Assange, and Manning beget different reactions. Some see hyper-data collection as an invasion of privacy and thus WikiLeaks as part of the new checks and balances necessary for a healthy democracy. Others cry foul and charge that such breeches ultimately risk injury to American freedom and that thieves must be punished. Overwhelmingly, young people are suspect of both vast data mining and its release into the public domain. But more often than not, they are hesitant to find out what WikiLeaks and similar sites might reveal. They are fearful that merely to connect to such a site will earn the government’s attention. “Don’t they track you?” they often ask. “I don’t want to go on a list,” they say.

The Age of WikiLeaks has brought with it a flourishing of technocratic dilemmas: in what instances does information gathering become problematic or illegal? What, if anything, ought to remain in an FBI filing cabinet or on an NSA spreadsheet? How do we define sensitive information and to whom does it belong, ultimately? As the sponsoring entity for increasing amounts of data clandestinely stored, does not the public have any rights to it?

Political theorists of republicanism will maintain that historically the strength of democracy has relied on a robust public commons, that information gathering and exchange—aspirations to public transparency—is necessary for people to make appropriate decisions about whom to vote for or what position to take on an issue. Our WikiLeaks society, however, has built into democracy a cloak that, we are told, helps protect national interests and thus our democracy. But so, too, do underpinning questions surface and surround postmodernity’s democratic project: how often and to what degree should populations be left in the dark in the name of national security? What is an acceptable sanctioned public ignorance and who or what agencies should determine these parameters? Do we subscribe to the notion that national interests and the will of the multitude stand on unbridgeable banks? In short, does preserving national interests now endanger the health of public welfare?

Educators should be among the lead voices defending the logic that improving the social contract is not compatible with complicity in sanctioned ignorance. They are contradictory endeavors. Born in the Enlightenment, American republicanism evolved because it nourished inquiry, curiosity, and wonderment to fulfill its political and economic potential. For far too many college students today, those traits are affiliated with anxiety when facing the proposition of penetrating governmental accountability. The downside is that future generations check not federal power but themselves by halting their impulses towards inquiry. The automatic urge to limit one’s own investigative curiosity, especially in matters of governance, is worrisome, because the pervasive fear of being “put on a list” has unforeseeable consequences for the democratic project.

Which is why WikiLeaks continues to have its champions and its critics, because it is a model of redress against the truism that power always controls the circulation of information. If democratic desire is a testament to openness, then the release of gigabytes of information presents the potential for a new stage of liberty, which is why Snowden, Manning, and Assange remain ultra-democrats for some and criminals for others. The fear that is increasingly associated with curiosity and inquiry will spread alongside social condemnation of those who release troves of data. More crippling than the information that might be hatched, however, is that we lose the compulsion for democratic enlightenment that relies on curiosity and inquiry. To detour too far from these axioms builds a sheltering ignorance that breeds further fear and mistrust rather than collective wellbeing and debate. These are the traits of a healthy democracy, which must always begin with the demand to question.