From the politics of secrecy to the politics of knowledge

One of the grounding assumptions of liberal democratic politics is that the open flow of information—including exposure of state secrets where necessary—enables people to hold states accountable for their actions.  

At the current moment, however, the effectiveness of exposure, as well as the broader politics of truth, have become a site of intense concern on both sides of the Atlantic.  The United Kingdom is now heading into an uncertain “Brexit” bolstered by popular support despite a campaign tainted by easily disproven claims,[1] while the United States Senate has recently voted to acquit in the impeachment trial of President Trump, despite the exposure of numerous impeachable offenses.  These apparent failures of truth-telling have led to much hand-wringing about the role of truth and evidence in the political arena.[2]    

My article in Security Dialogue, “Truth and consequences?  Reconceptualizing the politics of exposure”, was prompted by another seeming failure of truth.  Why had the exposure of the use of torture in the U.S. war on terror not led to a more significant reckoning with these violations of human rights?  Seeking to answer this question led me to rethink how we conceptualize exposure and its effects.  

While exposure is commonly understood as a switch that takes us from secrecy to openness, I argue that we must instead think of exposure as a process that is contingent and contentious, with contention over the meaning of what has been exposed, and its significance, at the center.  Exposure is not simply the release of new information: this is only the first step in what might then lead to what I call revelation: a collection recognition that something new has become publicly known.  

Despite the presence of hints, allegations, evidence, and even acknowledgements of its use in the public sphere, torture functioned more like a “public secret”[3] than an acknowledged fact throughout the early years of the War on Terror.  This persisted until the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, which marked the revelation that torture was occurring.  I argue that Abu Ghraib was a transformative moment not just because of the release of dramatic images, but because these images fundamentally disrupted existing discourses of torture as something that might be done in a controlled, professional, and effective manner.  In other words, the effective exposure, at which point the knowledge that torture had occurred became collectively acknowledged, required a disruption of collective understanding, and not simply the release of information. 

Reconceptualizing exposure as a political and interpretive process has potential applicability to developing a broader politics of knowledge. This discussion may analyze phenomena ranging from how and when “whisper networks” circulating information about sexual harassers turn into public accusations, to how a politician who seems to delight in openly breaking norms might suddenly find himself under official investigation.  Only this broader approach, rather than a focus on discrete “secrets” and “exposures,” can help us understand the changing role of “truth”, “evidence” and information in politics.




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