On Chelsea Manning (and B. F. Skinner)

9 Mar

This post also features in OffGuardian

Note. The OffGuardian version of this post has drawn flak for use of gender pronouns of the ‘him/her’ kind. I stand accused of being ‘bigoted’, an ‘immature child’, ‘sniggering’, ’embarrassed’ and a few other things in respect of XY men who identify as women. I’m none of these, and have no problem with gender self identification per se.
My use of such constructs was to imply complexities – like self identified women demanding access to women’s changing rooms, or to compete in women’s sports – I did not wish to go into here. Perhaps that was clumsy. In seeking to place a marker for future inquiry, without distracting from the simple truth of Chelsea Manning as a courageous victim of a state whose vindictiveness and hypocrisy are a matter of public record, I was not fully successful. Witness the amount of adverse comment, albeit from a handful of individuals, for whom my failure to refer to Chelsea as unambiguously “she” eclipses what another OffGuardian commenter referred to as “Philip’s thoughtful, honest and indignant article”.


Do I say hero or heroine? Pass. I’ve a head full of thoughts on that subject but it’s not where I want to go here. Chelsea Manning is back behind bars. Not as punishment but as coercion. A grand jury held in secrecy wants him/her to testify against Julian Assange and s/he won’t.1

A judge has held Chelsea Manning in contempt and she is being detained after refusing to testify about her disclosure of military and diplomatic secrets to WikiLeaks in 2010 …

The former Army intelligence analyst, who served about seven years in prison for the massive leak, objected to the questioning in a grand jury appearance … [in] a continued effort by federal prosecutors investigating the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange.

“In solidarity with many activists facing the odds, I will stand by my principles. I will exhaust every legal remedy available,” [Manning] said. “My legal team continues to challenge the secrecy of these proceedings, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my refusal.”  Prosecutor Tracy McCormick said Manning could easily end her incarceration by simply following the law and testifying.  Guardian yesterday

B. F. Skinner, godfather of operant conditioning, distinguished punishment from what he called negative reinforcement. With punishment, an undesirable past deed – undesirable to whom is a separate issue – elicits unpleasant outcomes for the doer. Negative reinforcement by contrast is a response to ongoing undesirable behaviour. That behaviour may be a firm’s refusal to treat its employees better, a rich man’s to pay a ransom – or Chelsea Manning’s to testify against a man already paying a bitter price for telling you and me the truth about our criminal ruling classes.

The unpleasant situation – created in response, in tandem or even in advance – may be a strike, a child kidnapped or an unusual use of judicial incarceration. Punishment aims to convey the message, you Did The Wrong Thing so we will make you suffer. Negative reinforcement aims to convey the message, your suffering will cease When you Do The Right Thing.

Skinnerites, aka Behaviourists, aka Learning Theorists, say negative reinforcement affords finer calibration than punishment in shaping behaviour. Nevertheless, our prisons are premised on a punishment model, albeit with a negative reinforcement component in the form of the parole system.2 Chelsea’s incarceration, however, is pure negative reinforcement. The moment s/he agrees to help the United States – on any number of metrics the world’s most lawless nation; its most ruthlessly warmongering too – to lock up Julian Assange and throw away the key is the moment she walks out a free woman.

Or man. Like I could give a flying fuck about identity politics at times like this. Or the niceties of operant conditioning. What I care about is yet another person of courage and principle paying top dollar for those virtues in a world of morality and sanity stood on their heads.

* * *

  1. While I’m more Marxist than Political Realist, the latter school offers astute insights. One being that rulers seldom lie to each other but frequently lie to their subjects. Do bear this – and what we know, thanks to the courage of Julian, Chelsea and Ed, of their chilling cynicism – in mind if you’re inclined to give the authorities benefit of doubt re a grand jury conducting its proceedings in secret.
  2. Since parole boards look unfavourably on prisoners maintaining they were wrongfully convicted, the likelihood of false confessions to gain early release is high.

5 Replies to “On Chelsea Manning (and B. F. Skinner)

  1. Bradley?/Chelsea has made it known he wishes to be a she, ergo, I have no problem with identifying her as a “she”.
    It really doesn’t matter whether the term “operant conditioning” is used or “positive reinforcement”, “negative reinforcement” it’s still coercion by any other name. It’s a form of bribary – do what I want and you will get a reward, don’t and you will be punished in one of many forms. ie; withholding of food, affection or freedom. They are the same tools we use to teach dumb animals and in particular wild animals, to do our bidding. Aother name for it would, of course, be outright blackmail.
    That courts, in complete contradiction of the mandate under which they are supposed to uphold the law and protect citizens from illegal persecution would use this immoral application of blackmail, is yet another example of gerrymandering toward a favourable outcome, or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    According to US law she has served her time regardless of Obama commuting her sentence and should not be apprehended for crimes she has already been convicted of or acquitted of due to the double jeopardy law. Manning was charged with everything they could throw at her including the Julian Assange angle:
    Obama’s statement was later echoed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who said “We’re a nation of laws. He did violate the law.”[36]
    Manning’s lawyers argued that the government had overstated the harm the release of the documents had caused, and had overcharged Manning in order to obtain evidence against Assange. They suggested that other people had had access to Manning’s workplace computer, and under cross-examination Shaver acknowledged that some of the 10,000 cables on Manning’s personal computer did not match cables published by WikiLeaks. Coombs asked for the dismissal of any charge related to the use of unauthorized software, arguing that Manning’s unit had been “lawless … when it comes to information assurance.”

    Chelsea Manning, as far as I am concerned, is not the one in contempt of the Law, but the law and particularly the judge who went along with this government dictated infringement, are the ones in total and utter contempt.

    • Susan I added a footnote on political realism a minute after your comment. It’s relevant because I recall Obama saying – of Snowden but it could equally have been Assange or Manning – that US democracy (!) needed truth, yes, but Ed’s methods had been wrong. The implication being that the truth could have come out any other way. What a joke!

      Agree with you on Chelsea’s identity choice btw. Issues arise over (a) access to gender specific locations where people undress, (b) competing in gender specific athletics, and (c) other stuff I can’t anticipate but will doubtless arise in due c.

  2. Welcome to the world of political realism where the rules have yet to be made and therefore gender specifics are not really applicable, I suppose that’s the point of realism.

    I can’t believe the lengths the scrotes in Washington will go to get at Julian Assange when all the world and his uncle (her aunt) knows that Killary Clinton illegally accessed information from the DNC and her hubby WAS a rapist, sexual predator, liar etc. and such things as lying under oath are swept under the carpet. Perhaps the whole of the US establishment are pathalogical liars or maybe all we see is theatre, if so, can someone give us a heads up on the final curtain call?

    Good article btw.

    • Phew, glad you added “their aunt”, Susan. I’d have hated being compelled to censor you for sexist language. Huge weight off my mind, that …

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