Whistleblowers as Troublemakers?

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.

Union Activists as Troublemakers

Did you know that many union activists/activist organizations proudly embrace the label of troublemaker? Labor Notes sponsors troublemakers schools and they even have a handbook. Check out what they say about the schools (which were held this spring in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area and Kansas City):

Are you angry that bankers get bailed out and workers get sold out?

Labor Notes readers across the country are stirring up trouble and connecting with grassroots groups to think through big-picture responses to big-picture problems—positive action on jobs, contracts, health care, and the environment. Learn tactics, skills, and strategies you can use right away. Join with other activists to figure out what this economic crisis means for everyone.

And, here is how they define troublemaker in The Troublemaker’s Handbook:

By “troublemaker” we mean someone who dares to defend her or his rights and those of fellow workers. That often means making waves and making management uncomfortable—so management tends to call such brave souls “troublemakers.”

I have not read the handbook yet, but I have been wanting to order it ever since I found it on the web last fall. The handbook focuses on tactics and strategies (as told by worker-activists) for claiming and defending one’s rights while on the job. Central to their mission (Labor Notes, troublemakers schools, and The Troublemaker’s Handbook) is the importance (1) of real stories from workers-on-the-floor and (2) of linkng resistance to education and to social justice.

Here’s another online article, Savvy Troublemaking that describes (and in positive terms) union activism as troublemaking. I particularly appreciate the author’s (Amy Carroll’s) explanation of savvy:

The AFL-CIO tends to stress that skills, as an organizer or staffer, are what young activists need most of all. And while such skills are imperative, they are better derived from experience than through a pamphlet. Rather, the best tool of the activist is political savvy. Such understanding is derived from knowing the relevant questions to ask, both of ourselves and of the movement. Towards the end of developing sophisticated politics, we tell here the stories of union reform caucuses, activist newsletters, community groups, and strikes that embody the best of vision and struggle, and are helping to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up into the militant fighting force that it has the potential to be.

So, much like Labor Notes with their handbook, Amy Carroll emphasizes the importance of real stories and experience; for her, savvy is akin to being streetsmart. And, savvy is about developing the skills and tactics (a real world education?) for how to resist/transform and survive on the floor.

Savvy as streetwise…tactics…skills…real stories…I love the language they use. In my work on virtue ethics, I have long been interested in comparing virtues with skills and tactics. When is something virtuous and when is it skillful or tactical? Also, what are the differences between being streetwise and being intellectual (or theoretical)? This last question makes me want to revisit María Lugones and her fabulous chapter in Pilgrimages/Peregrinages entitled “Tactical Strategies of the Streetwalker/Estragias Tácticas de la Callejera.”  More on this later…

Incidentally, in the process of googling troublemaker for this entry I came across this little gem. Sweet. I have already netflixed it. Look for an entry on Laura Ingalls Wilder as the troublemaking schoolgirl soon. Ahh the interwebs how I love you so.