The other day, I came across the following article online: Whistleblowers: Troublemakers or Virtuous Nurses? My first thought was, can’t they be both? If you have been following my blog, you already know my answer to this question. Yes! Troublemaking is a virtue. My second thought was, what exactly is whistleblowing? Are whistleblowers troublemakers? If so, what kind of troublemakers? How and why do they make trouble? And what is it about their practice of making/being in/staying in trouble that is virtuous or not virtuous?
Here is how the author of the above article defines whistleblowing:
Whistleblowing is an attempt by a member or former member of an organization to issue a warning to the public about a serious wrongdoing or danger created or concealed by the organization.
So whistleblowing is truth-telling; telling people truths that they don’t want to hear. Whistle-blowing is about holding people and organizations accountable to the larger ethical principles that the society espouses and demonstrating how organizations are failing to honor those principles or are claiming to honor those principles but are secretly (or not so secretly) violating them for their own gain. In this way, whistleblowing is not about disrespecting the status quo, but trying to make sure that everyone follows the rules that have been established. Far from violating rules, the whistleblower wants to honor them. Is that what distinguishes a whistleblower from a troublemaker? Can a troublemaker make trouble by honoring the rules? Hmm….was Socrates-as-gadfly an early whisteblower (let me think about that one some more…)?
Addendum as of 6.27.09: I just found the following passage in “Whistleblowers: Moral Principles in Action” from The Art of Moral Protest which reinforces my idea about whistleblowers honoring the rules:
Scholars have found that employees are more likely to go public with damaging information if they “are committed to the formal goals of their organization or to the successful completion of their project; identify with the organization; and have a strong sense of professional responsibility. In other words, they are more committed to the rules than others (138).
The whistleblower is not merely an appointed or self-proclaimed enforcer of the rules/principles (like a hall monitor or a tattle-telling kid). Her truth-telling is aimed at those who benefit most from the system-as-it-is (this is called the hegemony in academese): large scale organizations, institutions, or privileged public figures. Not those who benefit less (that is, those with less privilege and less access to that mythical norm).
I found several articles online about the virtue of whistleblowing. I hope to read them in the next few days and write more about the specific ways that whistleblowing could be considered a form of virtuous troublemaking. In thinking more about the whistleblower, I will NOT be watching The Insider, however. The movie is fine. I saw it when it first came out. But, sorry, Russell-who-throws-phones-at-hotel-clerks-Crowe is not my kind of troublemaker.
Addendum as of 6.26.09: Reading through another essay on whistleblowing (Whistleblowers: Saints of Secular Culture by Colin Grant), I came across a reference to Silkwood with Cher and Meryl Streep. I definitely want to re-watch this movie–I saw it about 15 years ago. Must put this on Netflix queue! Too bad I can’t watch it instantly.