The Age of Transparency — Is Knowing Everything About Anything Worth It?

We must ask the question: is the age of unsolicited transparency a result of decades of government scandals and secrecy, or a symptom of the downfall of the government as we know it, due to a growing inability to deliberate on issues of importance to the very people that government was created to serve?

According to a Gallup poll taken in September of 2016, nearly 50 percent of Americans neither trust nor hold confidence in the men and women involved in politics who either hold office or are running for office. From this, it is safe to assume that Americans are skeptical of the government. A natural response is for politicians to seek to be more transparent, often doing this by releasing information about the inner workings of the political process. Even still, they have traditionally been given the option to choose what they want us to know. But with the rise of hackers and sites like WikiLeaks, almost nothing is confidential or classified. As a result, for today’s politicians, governing is as much about being a public figure as it is about serving the public. For all intents and purposes, our politicians are celebrities. And consequently, the general public has deemed all of their business its business.

The logic is sound: if we can access everything they say or do at any given moment, we can keep them honest. The problem, however, is that the fear of constantly being monitored, coupled with a public figure status, can lead the government to avoid unfavorable remarks and discussions. The harsh reality is that sometimes things get messy, and our government takes courses of action to deal with situations we don’t fully understand. When we constantly monitor our government, we take away its ability to tackle these situations. This means our government essentially loses its ability to do the right thing, replacing it with a pressure to do what is popular. In addition, politicians are limited in their ability to express dissent from public opinion, even if it is in the best interest of the public.

This doesn’t mean we can always depend on the government to do what we expect them to. Americans have every right to be skeptical of our government, given its spotty history. However, the idea that a government should do only what’s popular poses significant problems, especially when what’s right might not be what is popular. The public can be, and has been, wrong on many occasions. One example of this is the act of lynching. Between the years 1882 and 1964, close to 5,000 people were lynched. However, as Brentin Mock writes, “Congress failed to pass anti-lynching bills three times during that time period thanks to such denial.” He goes on to say, “It took decades for organizations like the NAACP and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and people like Ida B. Wells, to sway public opinion on this.” Mock continued, “[The] public was dead wrong, as was the public that refused to denounce lynching nationally. It was neither the first nor last time they would be incorrect.”

The Age of Transparency boils down to two key ideas: holding the government accountable and being able to monitor their behavior to ensure they are doing what we expect of them. Transparency only when it is convenient is not transparency — it is the careful selection of what information is appropriate to release. More simply put, it is the art of spinning. On the other hand, this idea of radical transparency needs to be examined more closely. We need to find a way to keep our government honest without monitoring its every action. Because this type of monitoring discourages conversation and discourse that can lead to solutions to better our general public.

This post is certainly not government propaganda. I am not advocating for the public to sit back and let the government do whatever it wants. I am not even arguing that the government is trustworthy. What I am arguing is that for the millions of Americans who don’t trust government, constant surveillance doesn’t do much to keep them honest. Instead it forces them to wear a mask of positive public opinion, swaying in the wind of what’s popular and not doing what they were elected to do: act in the best interest of the public.

This was written following a discussion about the institution of government and the role of communication within it, which took place in the Dynamics of Organizational Communication class at Southern Illinois University Carbondale taught by Dr. Craig Engstrom.