Lessons learned from Julian Assange and Keith Henson

[Trigger warning: Mention of rape and child molestation follow.]

I’ve been avoiding talking about the Julian Assange case on my blog, in part because many of my friends have have said it better than I can. But I have some personal insight on the situation and I decided I couldn’t stay entirely silent.

The response to the women who reported rape by Julian Assange gives me an ongoing sense of deja vu, due to my own experience with Keith Henson. The parallels are strong: Keith Henson raped or molested at least 4 young girls, he spent a lot of time fighting a powerful group, the Church of Scientology, this powerful group found out about his crimes and cynically used them to attack Keith, and many of his supporters leapt to his defense, using tactics they would ordinarily find immoral and disgusting.

The most ironic example of this behavior when my sister agreed to go public about Keith Henson molesting her. After I posted a web page describing the incident, an anti-Scientologist used a takedown request to get the site removed from my web hosting service. The anti-Scientologists have been arguing for years that takedown requests for Scientology materials are unethical because they violate free speech. But when it comes to attacks on one of their own – free speech be damned!

What I learned from this incident is two-fold: First, people suffer cognitive dissonance when popular martyr figures are accused of crimes and will vigorously defend them even in ways that violate their personal principles. Second, if your organization can be seriously harmed by the immoral actions of a single person, you have failed to create a robust long-term movement.

So, the primary lesson I take away from the Julian Assange story is: Don’t have a single charismatic leader for your social justice movement – especially not one with a criminal history.