The man who says the river is dirty

Remember when I blogged about the stupidity of anti-rhetoric rhetoric?

I didn’t link to any specific examples in the blog post. That was a deliberate decision. I wanted it to be clear that I was talking about a particular tactic rather than a particular person, and I wanted to stop fiskers and trolls from zooming in on specifics while ignoring my broader argument. I decided that if I ever did give examples, I would do it in a separate post (or posts). I spotted a good example today, so here goes.

A quote, supposedly from Ross Perot, has been doing the rounds on Twitter. I’m not sure why, given that it must be decades old. The quote is:

The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.

At first glance that seems to make a lot of sense. Why stand around complaining about the dirty river? That doesn’t make you an activist! A real activist would just get on with the job of cleaning it up... right?

Well, no. If we’re talking about crisp packets and the odd shopping trolley, then yes, activists can (and often do) clean up rivers and the area around them. But what if we’re talking about something on the scale of the oil spill into the Kalamazoo River last year? We’re talking about 800,000 gallons of oil entering the river from a broken pipeline.

If you want to be an activist, what are you supposed to do when you find out about a spill of that magnitude? Just head over there with your Marigolds on and start cleaning it up with no training and no equipment? Are you allowed to spread the word in order to co-ordinate a cleanup operation, or does that make you the non-activist who says things are dirty instead of the real activist who cleans them up?

And what if we’re talking about something like the Trafigura waste dumping off the Ivory Coast in 2006?

Trafigura went to great lengths to stop “the man who says the river is dirty”. When Newsnight did an investigation on the waste dumping, Trafigura sued the BBC for libel. When the Guardian got hold of a leaked copy of the Minton report, an internally commissioned report on the toxicity of the waste, Trafigura went to court. It applied for a gagging order that forbade the paper from publishing any part of the report or mentioning the existence of the order itself.

When Paul Farrelly MP used parliamentary privilege to get the story into the public domain, Trafigura tried to prevent reporting of Farrelly’s comments. It withdrew opposition to the reporting after a noisy internet campaign spread the whole story far and wide. People were angry about Trafigura’s aggressive legal tactics as well as about the original waste-dumping. It might not have been the first super-injunction, but it was the first one to get widespread exposure and attention in the UK.

It would have been very convenient for Trafigura if activists had gone for the “action, not words!” rhetoric. If you can rely on activists to quietly clean up your mess instead of publicly holding you to account, you can go ahead and make a lot more mess without worrying about the consequences.

This is why I think “action, not words!” rhetoric is so treacherous. It’s based on the false and dangerous assumption that the man who says the river is dirty can’t also be the man who cleans the river.

We have many cultural tools for shutting people up, and one of them is the idea that complaining and questioning is antithetical to action. Being the first person to mention a problem leaves you open to the terrible charge of “whining”. And nobody likes a whiner, because whiners are the opposite of hard workers and team players. So we don’t have to say “Shut up” or “Stop asking questions”. We just say “Get on with it” or “Haven’t you got work to do?” and our cultural assumptions will fill in the unspoken half of the double rebuke.

The best thing about this kind of rebuke is that you get to silence someone without admitting you’re trying to silence them. It’s a rhetorical double-silencing that mirrors the legal double-silencing of the super-injunction.

It works, and it works especially well to preserve the status quo. If a subordinate asks questions you can't answer, you can pull out the “Get on with it” line. If your boss asks for more figures before giving your project the go-ahead, it’s much harder to do the same thing. If you publicly accuse someone of whining, the chances are you have more power than they do, even if you don’t realise it.

So, please, no more disingenuous rubbish about choosing action over words. If you're working hard to stop that man talking about the dirty river, we can assume you have no intention of cleaning it up yourself.