It sounds like a cliché: A person’s life changes when exposed to a previously hidden or distorted truth. In theory, all information is freely available – and, therefore, is widely known. In reality, much of the information that governs personal behavior is restricted by biased gatekeepers. Revealing critical information can shatter a power imbalance that a group depends on to maintain its social balance and power dynamics.
Is it a question of cybersecurity? Yes… finally. Before discussing the link with the business world, I want to talk about the American social order. If you’re reading this from outside the United States, you may not (luckily) have heard that reactionaries have reopened a tired old front in America’s prime-time “culture war”. The latest fashionable false panic is to remove and eliminate “inappropriate books” from school libraries that may contain “subversive ideas”.
VICE’s Emma Ockerman recently published an excellent summary titled “Here are the books parents want to ban in schools now”.  Her opening line says it all: “Parents are fervently campaigning for school children to read less about race, gender and sexuality by trying to force certain books out of student libraries altogether.
Without dwelling on the point, the banning of books is – and always has been – infamously common in American culture. Ever since there were American parents, overworked parents have cried, whimpered, and tore their clothes theatrically because of the “polluting influence” of “subversive” literature. The specific flavor of “intellectual contamination” changes the subject every few decades (eg communism, evolution, civil rights, etc.), but the central argument of the book banners remains as consistent as the tides. : “If my dear, sweet and innocent child learns about this,” the martyrs shout, “then their beliefs will be permanently changed in a way that I do not approve !
To break it down, the logic works like this:
- A parent explains to their offspring an aspect of the world that warrants questionable conduct (for example, discriminating against people of a different race or religion because “they” are not fully human, etc.)
- The parent shields their child from opposing views to ensure that this belief “stays” long enough to be part of the child’s core identity.
- The child goes out into the world and meets people or reads literature that challenges the explanations of the parent figure
- Child realizes that his parent has deliberately cheated on him and begins to question everything else his parent has taught him
- The child rebels against his or her parental figure (s) and challenges the power structures that the lies of the parental figure have preserved
There is nothing new under the sun. This has been going on ever since our species developed language skills. I don’t expect this to be a shocking revelation. We know how it works. I say this because I want to be explicit about the basic concept: One of the most dangerous risks to an exploitative power dynamic arises when the exploited population realizes How? ‘Or’ What and Why they have been exploited because said revelation then inspires anger, resistance, disrespect and a demand for corrective action.
Chances are, no matter where you work, you had this conversation with a reactionary colleague: “My kid left for college as a kind and obedient kid and came back radical. I blame the Communist teachers! The correct answer – although unacceptably rude – is “Nah, bruh. Your child did not rebel because he read Marx. They rebelled because they found out that you had lied to them all their life about (race / religion / politics / sex / sport / other).
I listened far too many parents try to justify their “white lies” on the grounds of “protecting” their children from “complicated” subjects “before they are ready”. Ugh. Selfish rationalization is hardly justifiable when children are young and impressionable. It inevitably breaks down when children realize that their parents are not infallible… like, in elementary school. Once a parent’s credibility is shattered, obedience and trust crumble in no time.
So why bring all of this up in an InfoSec column? Because it is not an isolated parental error; it is a mistake that everyone to hold power over others fact. Replace the words “parent” with “boss” and “child” with “employee” and the whole story remains as written. Rationalized deception always fails… ultimately. Once a boss’s arguments turn out to be selfish lies, the boss’s credibility evaporates. Employees rightly see their boss as a cynical and manipulative adversary, not someone who should be blindly trusted and obeyed.
Concrete example: many years ago, I was drawn into a project to relocate half of the technical support capacities of our company.  In the months leading up to the change, the vice president in charge banned anyone involved in the project from telling anyone in the central east coast that their job was in jeopardy. Instead of facilitating a smooth transition for operations and for the affected workers, the people on the east coast were simply fired – abruptly, traumatically – with no explanation. Hundreds of people lost their jobs and were forced to scramble to find replacement wages and health insurance. It was horrible… and everything was done to reduce personnel costs.
You might argue that the secrecy surrounding the offshoring operation was necessary to avoid creating outside threats within the affected US workforce. It was the public rationalization of the VP. By spreading the bad news to their employees like a car bomb, the affected personnel would not have time to attack them before being escorted to the parking lot. It was true… and it was also irrelevant. Of course, the dismissed workers were immediately taken down by the mass shootings … but all the workers in the other technical assistance center were radicalized by the news. They realized their VP was a heartless, soulless, liar bastard who would piss off his own mother if he thought it could improve his performance metrics. From the moment the center of the East Coast was wiped out, almost everyone at HQ irrevocably lost faith in the chain of leadership.
Yes, I understand the need for operational secrecy. I am not opposed to it. I say rather that lies are fragile. False statements seldom survive first contact with the truth. The workers are not as gullible or stupid as the leaders think they are. People always find out the truth… finally. Once they do, the liars among them lose all institutional and personal credibility. This, in turn, leads to adversarial, even confrontational, personal behavior as workers strive to protect themselves instead of “focusing on the needs of the organization”.
I have heard many business people say that there are sensitive topics that need to be kept under wraps, like wages, diversity statistics, disciplinary action, or the fact that unions exist. We can discuss the relative merits of secrecy and transparency in all of these matters in the following columns; I’m not trying to argue for or against operational secrecy. Instead, I want to make it clear that there is a crucial difference between restricting company information by hidden a truth and by layer about that. The former may be reluctantly accepted; the latter is unforgivable.
Leadership depends on credibility just as life on Earth depends on oxygen. Once you’ve wasted it, you’re no longer effective as a leader, no matter how rank and how powerful you might be on paper. When your people find out that they can’t trust your words or your motives, they will resist you… and eventually leave you. Just like children and their parents who burn books. Children and workers are not stupid; threaten them with due respect or lose them forever.
 I also highly recommend Adam Laats’ recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Conservative War on Failed Education”
 You can read the whole sordid story in Office cowboys.