As many of you know, I am a teacher at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec. However, I have not been privy to the negotiations between the college and Hamed Al-Khabaz. I know as much as the general public and my observations here are strictly my own.
I’ve been watching with interest this week as events unfolded around Hamed Al-Khabaz. Al-Khabaz was expelled from Dawson after violating cease and desist orders issued by the college via his Computer Science professors and the dean overseeing the department. He had been asked not to access the Omnivox system after he’d discovered a flaw in its security system.
Al-Khabaz took his fight for reinstatement to the media this week and the results were predictable. Among his outraged peers, he was seen as David to the college’s Goliath, a whistle-blower who was being punished for revealing a security breach that had the potential to affect thousands of students.
The question of heroism is a complex one and has been on my mind a lot these days. I too have been engaged in a battle to tell the truth, the truth about how the elderly are often sidelined in a healthcare system that favours younger patients. I too have felt like the proverbial David, but in my search to find validation among other activists, I have had some disappointing experiences indeed.
A few weeks ago I spoke with a woman in BC involved in fighting elder abuse. Like me, she has found that discussing it with other liberal-minded folks hasn’t been easy. It’s not like freeing Tibet, saving whales or supporting anonymous hacker groups. Unlike the injustices levelled at the Julian Assanges or Bradley Mannings of this world, injustice against the elderly doesn’t garner widespread sympathy or support. I know because I’ve tried; when it comes to activists under a certain age, they simply do not want to know.
This raises some questions. What is true activism? What is true heroism? More importantly, how can we spot the imposters, weed out the wannabes?
A few months ago, I wrote a two part series about Margaret Heffernan. She’s the five-time CEO who has written several books about business. Her latest, Willful Blindness, provides a wonderful compendium of theories and narratives about the price we all pay for not acknowledging the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room, when it comes to activism, is that some causes are sexier than others. Some have no trouble recruiting supporters while others whither and die from attrition. There’s a reason for this selectivity and in my opinion it hinges on personal autonomy and authenticity, qualities that seem to be in short supply in some activist circles. To illustrate, I need to tell you an anecdote from my life.
When I was a graduate student in Hamilton, Ontario, I had an experience that changed me. Like most life-changing experiences, it didn’t start off well.
I had my heart broken by a fellow graduate student, a man I’d hoped to marry. Although he was the one who ended the relationship – a fact he disseminated quite widely – he behaved in ways that were mystifying. In short, after our break-up he began behaving like a stalker. In the middle of the semester, he moved to my neighbourhood and on several occasions, I found him either driving past my building or following me in my car. He’d made himself unapproachable, so asking him about it didn’t seem possible.
His behaviour presented me with some epistemological problems. Because I’d moved to Hamilton after he had, most of our friends were actually his friends, and so I knew I would have some difficulty explaining the situation to them. Being the hurt party, I was certain they would think me mildly delusional or neurotically hopeful. So when he appeared in my rearview one last time, I purposely took a circuitous route to the university, stopping at a corner store on the way, and watched him as he followed and waited for me. When we both arrived, I confronted him.
His denial, when it came, was eerie and convincing. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about and that surely I was in error. All aspects of his behaviour, during this denial, conspired to present a credible version of events, a version arguably more credible than mine. His face expressed genuine surprise; his voice inflected with just the right degree of puzzlement; his manner toward me was indulgent and sympathetic. I had just spent the last 45 minutes being followed by him, but by the end of our discussion, I had begun to wonder if I’d been seeing things. He presented as a reasonable but wounded victim of an extravagant accusation and I walked away wondering if I was losing my mind.
And for the next few days, that’s exactly what happened.
I don’t remember how those days passed, but I do know that after not experiencing several in a row, I “woke up” and felt very afraid. I called a Ph.D student I knew, one who was studying psychology, and asked for help. I told her I’d had a black-out, that I had no memory of the previous few days, but knew they had passed because I’d come to while watching the news. When I told her what had happened with my ex, that he had convinced me of something against the evidence of my senses, this normally low-key, no-drama woman uttered the following words: You are not crazy and you need to leave.
I protested, telling her I’d signed up for a summer language course – one I was required to take – and that was when she suggested I negotiate with the university to take French immersion in Montreal instead. Over the next few days, with her help and the help of a few others, I packed up, left Hamilton and started at the University of Laval. I didn’t know it then, but I was also starting a much happier phase of my life.
So why am I talking about this troubling episode? It’s because it brings me back to one of Heffernan’s assertions. She speaks about cognitive dissonance, that troubling “discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.” It happens when there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviours, and we feel we must do something to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. Usually it means going into denial about one half of an argument and effectively choosing the opposing side.
In my case, however, it meant being thrown into a distress so profound I had trouble experiencing it consciously: my mind, in some ways, quite literally shut down. To my credit, I didn’t go into denial about how badly my faith in myself had been shaken; I was figuratively “in two minds” about two data-sets that didn’t compute and checking out for a few days was a frightening but nonetheless adaptive response. Given the heft of evidence that shows how rarely this happens, how rarely people eschew denial, I at least have the comfort of knowing I did not take the easy way out.
Heffernan is using the theoretical framework developed by Leon Festinger, a pioneering social scientist who first coined the phrase “cognitive dissonance.” In an landmark experiment, Festinger and some colleagues infiltrated a doomsday cult with the intent of observing what happened when the predicted doomsday did not arrive. When he wrote about this research, Festinger was at pains to show that the beliefs held by the leader, a Mrs. Keech, and her adherents, were not unusual or “crazy.” Their belief in a divine being that was set to cleanse the earth of evil is in keeping with narratives embedded in many mainstream religions; among her devotees were physicians and professors and others who could not easily be dismissed as fringe members of society.
So what happened on that fateful day? Spaceships were due to pick up the cult at midnight on December 21. When they didn’t turn up, the group went into spasms of distress. However, by 4 AM Mrs. Keech, via automatic writing, was told that the powerful goodness of the group had defeated the evil and that the expected cleansing — a flood — was no longer necessary, was no longer going to happen. Jubilance followed and according to Festinger, most members of the cult continued to believe in Mrs. Keech for years afterwards, many until their deaths. No only did they still believe, they felt even more strongly about their beliefs and especially about publicizing their miraculous experience. They wanted the world to know how their goodness had saved the planet.
It’s ironic, but what Festinger found was that groups and individuals often dig in their heels in the the face of information that contradicts their reality. It only serves to strengthen their resolve, and they often go public in order to eclipse information that might force themselves and others to see things differently.
To that end, threatening information is consistently reinterpreted. This repositioning of facts to fit a fantasy is a drama that plays out in the real world in both micro and macro ways. Think of the abused wife who keeps reinterpreting her husband’s behaviour, twisting it to make it her fault; think of Wall Street bankers who kept insisting that deregulation was a good thing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They stayed that disastrous course until the crash of 2008, despite the fact they had many and frequent warnings.
I brought up the story of my experience in Hamilton because, as I said, it changed my life. It made me realize I could be vulnerable in the face of expert deception and that expert deceivers could easily walk into my life. It made me realize there are no effective lie detectors of either the human or mechanical variety: I would be lied to in the future and I wouldn’t always know it. I also realized that when I make a decision to believe something, that it is a decision and not a process that creates a fact. Making it a decision means I am responsible for what I believe. I may end up being a victim of another person’s lies or stupidity, but it is up to me to do the best I can to prevent it.
How does that work? Here’s another example: when I was told my mother had pulmonary embolisms and had 24 hours to live, I made the decision to be skeptical. I picked up the phone and called another doctor at another hospital. His information contradicted what I’d been told. After I asked him to, he called doctors at my mother’s hospital and told them how to stop the growth of my mother’s embolisms. Attending to that cognitive dissonance — attending to facts that for me didn’t add up — saved my mother’s life.
When I heard Al-Khabaz’s story, I picked up on a few dissonances too. Here’s the analogy that came to mind. Let’s say a neighbour heard about a gang of thieves who were targeting our street. Let’s say he went around to each of our houses and tried the front doors to see if they were locked. Let’s say mine wasn’t and he entered my home, startled and frightened me. I would be suspicious, but would also, for the sake of being neighbourly, thank him for checking and resolve to lock the door in the future. I might also ask him not to mention my forgetfulness. I wouldn’t want the wrong people knowing about it.
However, if this neighbour returned and successfully entered a second time, I would call the police. I would wonder why he felt the need to check my lock by entering when he could have knocked or called instead. I would likely start wondering if he had any connection to the gang or if indeed a gang existed at all. Call me cynical, but two break-ins in a row would create an experience of cognitive dissonance that would prompt me into taking steps to protect myself. As a woman living alone, I doubt anyone would criticize me.
Al-Khabaz is positioning himself as the hero in this situation and the fact that some of us have our doubts is causing a tide of reactionary behaviour: death threats are being sent to some administrators at Dawson; hysterical accusations are being made online.
I think I know why. Al-Khabaz’ supporters are being asked to consider information that challenges their version of reality, their view that he is a hero trying to do some good, that he is the little guy being victimized by a large and unfeeling institution. It’s a template that’s hard to resist because we like our heroes, we like believing one glorious individual can set things straight. However, the strength of his supporters’ reactions is notable not because of the truth it purports to convey, but because of the measure it provides: not of the veracity of Al-Khabaz’ words, but of just how badly his supporters need to believe those words. They don’t see it, but they’re waiting for spaceships too.
Al-Khabaz has gone on record saying that IT companies love hiring innovators like him. I have no doubt. I also have no doubt that his publicity-seeking is part of a second, less-impressive narrative, a narrative that is more closely related to his future, a narrative that is less heroic and more utilitarian than many of his supporters may want to believe.