The world recently became even more complex. In days gone by, personal disgruntlement and consequent “disloyalty” on the part of diplomatic staff in possession of “sensitive” material (and therefore capable of, if not likely, to divulge this to adversaries), sometimes threatened relations between countries — that much has not changed. What has changed, however — and this has made governments vulnerable to citizens’ legitimate criticism as never before (which is a good thing) — is that the sheer extent of potentially embarrassing and even “endangering” information that can be divulged by anyone motivated to do so (for any of a number of reasons), as well as the public reach of any such exposé, has been shown to be vastly in excess of what was previously possible. And that, thanks to an invention that was initially developed by the US military: the internet.

It is significant that the information disseminated by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks which has caused such outrage worldwide — but nowhere more so than in US government circles — is of the diplomatic kind. Which already tells one something about diplomacy. The Encarta Dictionary defines “diplomacy” (in international relations) as follows: “the management of communication and relationships between nations by members and employees of each nation’s government”. Bluntly put, it is the art of lying skilfully for the sake of keeping the peace between potentially bellicose nations.

What the WikiLeaks “leaks” of such “sensitive material” into the public eye has done, is to expose the extent of the lying and hypocrisy that routinely occur between representatives of various nations at the overt level of diplomacy, and concomitantly, the cynicism underpinning such lying, as it is manifested in the leaked diplomatic cables. What they reveal, is the true estimation of the other “sovereign” country on the part of the one embarrassed by the leaks — for example — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s concern over the growing nuclear potential of its fellow middle-Eastern state, Iran, expressed in his (leaked) wish that the US do something drastic about this — something hugely embarrassing for the Arabs, given their vaunted solidarity with one another.

Between the lines it also shows the extent to which the Saudi dictatorship depends on the US’s need for Middle Eastern allies, for ensuring its own continuation — in other words, there is no genuine friendship here, only mutual needs relating to positions of power. That is not new; it has always been the case in international relations. Whatever the impression created by ostensibly pious leaders of states may be as far as their personal religious commitments (and the implications of these regarding justice, righteousness and so on) may be, in the end it is all about power.

In an interview Assange has indicated that his organisation is intent upon exposing only those organisations (governments, among others) that are “abusive”, not “open” and “honest” where they should be, instead of which they cover up duplicitous and “abusive” dealings. It seems as if he is suggesting that governments should practice completely “open” communication, instead of secrecy, in relation to the public. What would such communication be like, and how would it differ from what commonly passes for inter-governmental communication?

Jürgen Habermas — the philosopher of communication — sheds light on this with his distinction between two types of communication, or what he calls “strategic action” as opposed to “communicative action”. The first kind covers, from a discourse-theoretical perspective, informational actions and exchanges which are disingenuous, in other words, which covertly advance the interests embedded in the discourse, or those of the speaker-subject of this discourse, at the cost of the receiver(s) or listener(s) in question.

Where such “strategic action” is concerned, there is therefore a tension, if not a contradiction, between what is stated at the overt level, and what is covered up by this — for example, when a company’s management informs employees that they are given the opportunity to be paid out for a certain category of leave that they have accumulated, which, if accepted, entails losing the leave in question, but receiving a corresponding amount in cash. On the face of it, it is the employees that benefit, but closer inspection reveals that it is a clever accounting move to save the company money in future, when retiring employees would have had to be paid out much more than at the time of the offer. In everyday relations between people, “strategic action” happens all the time, of course: when a husband tells his wife and children that there is no money for a holiday this year, it may be the case, but unbeknown to them, the (withheld) reason may be that he is saving up the holiday money for that luxury sedan he wants, to be seen as successfully competing with his colleagues at work, or his wealthier brother.

In contrast to “strategic action”, its counterpart, “communicative action”, is all about being as sincere and open in acts of communication as one can possibly be. Habermas characterises it by saying that in such acts of “communicative action”, one puts all one’s “validity claims” on the table. This means that you should attempt, as best one can, to provide the reasons for adopting a specific position in one’s communicational exchanges, with nothing intentionally hidden. For instance, when two lovers quarrel, instead of hiding the reasons for their dissatisfaction, lest the other take umbrage at these motives, ALL the motives for one’s stance or actions should be revealed, in stark contrast with “strategic action”, where they are deliberately withheld.

Needless to say, it is not easy to practice “communicative action” — firstly because most of us are subject to the unconscious desire to advance or secure our own interests most of the time, and therefore we tend to practice a species of “strategic action” more often than not. And besides, in my judgement, Habermas underestimates the extent to which unconscious motives trip up even our best intentions to communicate openly and sincerely. But “communicative action” remains the normative ideal to be emulated, although it is a moot question whether complete openness and sincerity would actually be possible in a world which thrives on hidden agendas in most relations between people, as shown by what WikiLeaks has uncovered. The governments that have expressed their displeasure in the face of these leaks have indicated as much: although they don’t admit it openly, their implicit belief is that the relations between countries would be far better (“managed”) if the normal “strategic action” would be left to occur unhindered.

Make no mistake, therefore. What this brief reflection on the difference between two types of “communication” shows, not only pertains to the WikiLeaks phenomenon that has lifted the veil normally covering the “true” face of diplomatic exchanges. The same tension that obtains between the “strategic action” by which such diplomatic exchanges are usually governed, and the principle of “communicative action” which governs those RARE instances where individuals, parties, governments or partners of various stripes put all their “validity claims” on the table (to the extent that it is possible), also exists in the everyday “communications” between people.

This is the case between enemies, acquaintances, friends, lovers, husbands and wives — with hardly (if) any exceptions. More often than not the exchanges between people fall into the “strategic action” category, not because people are irrevocably evil, but simply because, in our informational and communicational exchanges we are, first and foremost — under pressure of what Freud called “survival instincts”, no doubt — intent on serving our own best interests. Recall that Habermas characterises “strategic action” as being disingenuous, that is, as advancing a hidden agenda: what is overtly said or otherwise indicated, should never be taken at face value. “Strategic action” always advances the interests, and serves the purpose of increasing the power of, the one employing it.

From this perspective the phenomenon of gossip is interesting: gossip has the structure of WikiLeaks leaks, but hides its own, redoubled, covering up or “strategic action”: in gossip, the putative “truth” about the actions, intentions or plans of others (usually supposed “friends” into the bargain) is revealed to usually eager fellow gossips — information or opinions that would never feature in exchanges between the gossip (person) in question and the subjects of the gossip. But although the manner in which the information or opinion is phrased is always such that it has the appearance of “communicative action”, it is nothing of the sort. Even if the information shared may be shown to be accurate, the intention or motivation behind it places it in the “strategic action” category, namely as being motivated by the hidden agenda of promoting the interests of the gossiping person (for example in an attempt to ingratiate him/herself with the listeners). Ironically, when found out, the interests of the gossip (person) are usually undermined.

What WikiLeaks has done, is to expose the virtually exclusive sway of such “strategic action” at the level of diplomatic relations, much as the cartoon convention of “the shadows tell the truth” indicates, in silhouette, the “true” intentions of the figures foregrounded in completely different positions. But don’t be fooled — it is not restricted to this domain. It is everywhere.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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