"Learning how to learn"

2018 Jan 23, by opal hart (PGP signature)

here's a verbatim essay I wrote in response to the common misconceptions held by many Tor users and privacy freaks:

You probably see advice published everywhere – guides and tutorials and lessons. People who claim to have your best interests at heart. Many people do, but at the same time many people don't. And even the people who do can make mistakes. If you don't do so already, you need to learn how to think like a scientist: always sceptical, but never driven by fear. Being able to think for yourself, weighing all information you come across for validity, is a necessary asset that people seem to overlook in their quest toward activism.

Know what you're using

You installed Tor because it's nice and secure. Do you know exactly how it works though? Do you know what happens if you use it wrong?

I see these technologies get thrown around all the time in privacy-related conversation: Tor, VPN, PGP, Tails. And for the aspiring hackers, Kali comes up quite often. All these things are fine, but people discover them more out of haphazard curiosity than anything. They know what these things are, they know that others tell them to use these things, but they don't often know why people talk about them so much.

Read up about these subjects. You don't have to do an entire research debacle on them, but you should be able to summarise to yourself what everything does and why it works. Wikipedia is a great resource; it's concise and you can always branch out to learn more if you're interested. Once you know exactly what these technologies were made for, you will be able to utilise them intelligently.

I can summarise up a few common misconceptions: Tor's primary purpose is to provide a secure proxy to the Web, while I2P's is to provide an anonymous network that replaces the Web. A commercial VPN is for privacy, while Tor is for anonymity (this article explains their differences nicely).

Tails and Kali are simply customised Linux distributions (these two happen to be Debian-based), meaning that I could take Arch Linux (or your favourite distro) and replicate the functionality of either, after I take the time to configure it to my liking. The reason people use Tails, Whonix, or Kali is because they trust the developers to make a system that meets their needs, and they are incapable or unwilling to configure their own system. Ultimately, the choice of operating system is up to you; there is no "best" operating system, so try various systems out until you find your match.

Be sceptical

Don't believe everything you see. Professionals make mistakes, amateurs make mistakes, you and I make mistakes. Even with these guides, you should use your own judgment and filter out what seems logical. I wrote this in hopes that I was making sense, in hopes that my logic was sound and worth reading. But, I can always miss important things, and I'm here to learn just as everyone else is. After reading anything, you should cross-reference with other information if you're unsure about certain points, and ultimately you should test the information against your own knowledge to see if it fits in with what you believe.

Knowledge evolves; people go to sleep believing in one cause, only to wake up believing in something else. The best any of us can do is follow what our heart says, keep our wits about us, and hope that our current beliefs will lead us on a better path.

Lead effectively

A good leader shows power by being motivated and experienced, not by being deceptive and forceful. You gain followers by relating with them, by sharing common core values, and by educating them. People should follow you because it is their decision to do so, because they actually wish to listen to you. If someone leaves you, do not try to pull them back; it only means that they felt your group was not the best fit in terms of ideals, goals, or methods. If everyone leaves you, you may want to ask why and adjust your actions based on the response. Leaders are people too, and they're bound to make mistakes, but a good leader (and a well-formed group) can recover from these mistakes quickly and easily.

With that said, leadership is bound to change. It's natural, it's seamless (in a mature group, people just know who's "in charge" simply by the way they present themselves in the group), and it fosters new ideas and a different way of approaching issues. When starting a group, don't worry about who's head; that will come naturally and by consensus. Just focus on what you, as a group, need to do, and take everyone's opinions and suggestions into account. There should be an equal level of trust placed on all group members, and if the group simply cannot trust someone then it should make a decision on whether removing the person from the group is the best move. Feelings may be hurt, but a good group is resilient to this sort of friction. The group will carry on its business and wait for the conflict to pass.

Most importantly, never trust someone solely because they are a figurehead. There is a strong difference between a figurehead and a true leader, and more often than not, people will grow to oppose a figurehead once they begin learning the truth about him. A figurehead is usually defaulted into power – either by status or by money or heritage. In contrast, a leader starts out as an equal and is brought into high esteem by his peers. Both leaders and figureheads are influential, but figureheads will hardly have your best interests at heart. Figureheads will do what they need to retain power, and they will trick others into believing whatever they have to say. They rely on the power of emotion in order to convince others that certain views are correct. And once they have a following, they can dispatch whatever lies they wish, knowing that their followers will eagerly eat it up.

If you think this part sounds a bit overreactionary, I apologise, but I have seen this cult-like pattern in quite a few groups, namely the social justice movement. Everyone in the movement is bound together by a common emotional appeal: they are all minorities (real or imagined) and they seek safety in their circle by rejecting outsiders and playing the role of a victim. This is a toxic, spiraling attitude that only strengthens the power of the group, and the worst part is, people who seek acceptance see this movement and think they are doing the "right thing" by promoting minorities. So, they join in, finally feeling a sense of acceptance, and they learn from others in the movement that the patriarchy is the cause of all suffering in the world. A logical person would dismiss this claim and assign the blame to real issues (sexism and racism are issues, but not in the ways that the social justice movement claims), but once you have given someone hope and reassurance, you can make them believe whatever you wish.