Understanding Snowden

After hearing about my background in political psychology, I was recently asked what we can do to make people care about what the NSA abuses.  I cannot remember the lame answer I offered, but I have been turning the question over in my mind for the past two weeks.

A careful student of history will note that the Pentagon Papers only indirectly ended the war in Vietnam.  Even with the awful history of the war and all of the official lies laid bare, the bombing would have continued had Nixon not been saving his political favors for an impeachment vote1.  Similarly, catalyzing a second Church committee would require nothing short of a president abusing the surveillance state to attack the opposing political party.

Not that the original Church committee reforms have been very helpful.  Bush simply bypassed the FISA court, the FISA “court” rules in secret and only ever hears from the government’s lawyers, and Michael Hayden managed to turn the congressional oversight committee from watchdogs into witting accomplices.  Indeed, instead of serving five years in a government penitentiary for each warrantless wiretap (as envisioned by the Church committee) Hayden is receiving a government pension.

Early on, I was very frustrated with my inability to convince friends and family of the worthlessness of the surveillance state and that Snowden had no alternative but to release such a high volume of documents.

What I learned from my work at Cognitive Policy Works and from studying Lakoff is that meaning bundles logic and emotion into a single package.  There is no messaging, no magical talking point that will make everyone suddenly care.  Genuine outrage requires understanding the situation, the technology, and the abuses.

In that respect, we have reached our target audience. The author of Lavabit, Ladar Levison, did not understand his users needs until he was standing in a secret court, listening to the prosecutor detail what lawyers he had emailed, information that could only have come from illicit surveillance.  In Levison’s talk at Defcon, he expressed anger that communicating with a lawyer requires a military grade communications system.  However, this was always the reality for political dissidents in Russia, China, and Iran!   Indeed, I am grateful to the NSA for pushing us build the secure, anonymous, and usable systems that we always needed.

However, making “outsiders” care is still important: we need to preserve a space for us to (re)build this infrastructure.  We cannot allow US politicians and NSA agents to sabotage efforts to build technologies that can resist the police state.

However, it was not until I saw reactions to the Snowden documentary that I understood my previous error: I had imperiled the logical argument by ignoring emotion.  The situation is no different from any of the recent past.  For example, to reject the logical arguments for torture, you must witness the suffering of the innocent to understand the lies they will tell and experience the conviction of the guilty in resisting an unjust oppressor.

For “abstract” thought is the animation of our perceptual systems for a simulation: watching a fragile 29-year-old “burn his life to the ground” forces the viewer to simulate his emotions. Only when they understand the fear of being executed for treason will the skeptical accept Snowden as a human being acting on emotion fueled by a logic that the viewer may not be capable of fully understanding.

While the duty of correcting these wrongs falls to those that understand, conveying the importance of our work requires conveying the emotional struggle as much as the soundness of the “abstract” argument.


  1. Normally I link to source material, but my understanding of the Pentagon Papers comes from an independent study project I undertook as part of High School journalism course.  I also just don’t have time to fact-check every statement about the NSA scandal.  Feel free to leave corrections in the comments. 

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