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WikiLeaks as Diatribe

January 31, 2011

On November 28, 2010, Julian Assange’s whistleblower website WikiLeaks began releasing hundreds of secret U.S. embassy cables to the international press. The extent of WikiLeaks’ geopolitical fallout has yet to be determined (some have credited the revolution in Tunisia to WikiLeaks), and Assange’s ultimate fate remains unknown. But this much is clear: Assange’s bold and unorthodox act has captured the world’s attention and directed it toward a series of disturbing truths that would have otherwise remained concealed from public scrutiny. In this way, Assange’s act has functioned as a diatribe.

Rhetorician Theodore Otto Windt, Jr., characterizes the diatribe as the “last resort for protest,” a rhetorical form that “gathers an audience when orthodox speeches will not.” Developed by Diogenes and the Cynics, those famous moral philosophers and social outcasts who publicly criticized the hypocrisies and excesses of Hellenistic Greece, the typical diatribe is a written or spoken attack against some person, institution, or common practice or belief. Its main purpose is to gather attention and rearrange an audience’s perceptions by “dramatizing the chasm that exists between ideals and practices, between language and actions, between illusions and actualities” in society. Violating rules of decorum with unbridled language and unusual symbolic acts, the diatribe “is intended to illuminate and to purge corruption when other methods fail”—to expose the hypocrisies and truths that authorities wish to hide and the masses tend to disregard.

Because it transgresses generally accepted norms of civil discourse and democratic deliberation, the diatribe can entail great personal risk for the speaker. Much like Michel Foucault’s “parrhesiastes”—the courageous person who lashes out against tyranny because he “prefers himself as a truth-teller rather than as a living being who is false to himself”— the diatribist exposes herself or himself to the wrath of the public and those in power precisely because she or he sets out to shock, not to win over, the audience.

But, as Windt tells us, the diatribist is willing to risk all because she or he knows that “[p]eople seldom become concerned about problems until they are shocked”—that shock and moral dramaturgy foster attention, and that attention is a prerequisite to communal discourse and action.

Having sketched out this definition, I would like to revisit my claim that the WikiLeaks saga (taken as a whole) has functioned as a diatribe. First, we can view Assange’s release of U.S. diplomatic cables as a “last resort for protest”; in this post-9/11, anti-terrorism, pro-national security, global atmosphere, many governments (such as ours) reserve the right to hide information from the masses (especially when the information is damning). In such an atmosphere, it seems, our only option for protest is to somehow intercept information that has been purposefully concealed and display it for examination and discussion.

Second, Assange’s main goal has been to attract public attention to distressing truths and political hypocrisies by (as Windt puts it) “dramatizing the chasm that exists between ideals and practices, between language and actions, between illusions and actualities.” For instance, U.S. leaders would have the American people and the rest of the world believe that this country is a stalwart defender of democracy, open government, and human rights around the globe. However, official, “classified” communiqués (released by WikiLeaks) regarding things like a U.S. military atrocity in Yemen and the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program indicate otherwise.

Finally, the WikiLeaks saga has certainly violated the rules of decorum and exposed Assange to public wrath and persecution. Some members of the American right have dubbed him a “high-tech terrorist” and called for his arrest, conviction, and execution. On the other side of the political aisle, the Obama administration is preparing to prosecute Assange for violating laws concerning state secrets and national security. In short, the noose is tightening around Assange’s neck. But as a kind of modern-day Cynic—a truth-teller who has set out to shock and awaken the masses—Assange seems willing to take the risk.

If you want to know more:

  • Familiar historical examples of the diatribe may include Martin Luther’s 95 Theses; Emma Goldman’s anti-war essay, “The No Conscription League”; Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech; and Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial sermon, “Confusing God and Government.”
  • Windt’s essay might provide the best succinct introduction to the diatribe. See Theodore Otto Windt Jr., “The Diatribe: Last Resort for Protest,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 58.1 (1972): 1-14.
  • For more on Foucault’s “parrhesiastes,” see Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).

David W. Seitz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

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