Valuing whistleblowers

The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), May 1998, pp. 9-10.


Brian Martin


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Whistleblowing is a risky business. Most whistleblowers suffer in various ways, including ostracism, harassment, punitive transfers, reprimands, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. Bosses and top managers are responsible for many of the attacks on whistleblowers, but coworkers often join in or do nothing, often due to fear that they could be the next victims.

If more people considered whistleblowing to be a valuable contribution to society, then these sorts of responses would be less common. But how can the perception of whistleblowing be changed? Surprisingly, there are insights to be gained by examining society's responses to people with intellectual disabilities. Let me explain.

Last year, I joined the board of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy, one of a number of citizen advocacy branches in Australia and in several other countries. Staff at citizen advocacy search for people in the community with intellectual disabilities and who are in greatest need. These people are called proteges. For each protege, the staff then seek to find someone in the community to be that protege's advocate. Being an advocate is a freely given relationship. There is no money nor other benefits involved. Once the relationship is set up, citizen advocacy staff can provide support, but the advocates are responsible for taking action on behalf of their proteges.

Many proteges are clients of government and private service organisations, and sometimes these organisations are part of the problem. Advocates often have to become whistleblowers about failures of the service organisations. I'm not an advocate myself, but have taken on the role of advocate associate, namely someone to help advocates.

The inspiration behind citizen advocacy is the work of Wolf Wolfensberger, a professor at Syracuse University in New York. Wolfensberger has developed a theory that is relevant. It is now known as "social role valorisation". Yes, it's a mouthful! What it means is giving value to people through the roles they are associated with in society. I learned about the theory at a three-day workshop in November, run by John Armstrong.

Social role valorisation, or SRV, has many dimensions. Here I can only indicate a few highlights that are relevant to whistleblowers. The basic idea is that certain people are severely devalued in society, with all sorts of undesirable consequences, and that this can be countered by associating them with valued social roles.

Let's start with the concept of social devaluation, which is when someone thinks of someone else as having little or no value because of some characteristic. It might be, for example, because they have a physical or intellectual disability, have a criminal record, are homeless or drug-dependent. Sometimes an impairment actually defines a person, as suggested by the words "amputee" and "addict".

Some of the most common "wounds" suffered by devalued persons (especially ones with disabilities) are:

These are only 8 of the 21 common wounds listed in our handout, but they give a good idea of what's involved. One thing to note is that the most severely devalued people in society are far worse off than the typical whistleblower. Some people with disabilities have a lifetime of degradation and abuse, being neglected, assaulted physically and sexually, humiliated, prevented from working, denied friendships and even allowed to die unnecessarily. Coming under attack as a whistleblower can give some inkling of the profound wounding experienced by many who have been devalued all their lives.

Whistleblowers suffer some of the wounds experienced by devalued people. For example, whistleblowers are commonly assigned a low social status, being called a dobber, traitor, incompetent, etc. Rejection by coworkers is common, and rejection by family and friends sometimes occurs too.

There are many deviancy roles into which devalued people can be put, including pity, charity, menace, sick, sub-human, ridicule, dread, child and holy innocent. A person with an intellectual disability could be put into any of these roles. A whistleblower is commonly put into only one or two: treated as a menace or object of dread, or treated as someone who is sick or diseased.

People with disabilities are often put at a distance from others, especially by being put in institutions together. Whistleblowers are sometimes subject to a similar process, for example when they are assigned to an office away from anyone else or, in exceptional cases, in a building that is otherwise unoccupied.

People with disabilities are often moved around against their will for bureaucratic reasons, breaking their spirit and their links with others, especially defenders. Forced transfers of whistleblowers have a similar dynamic.

Service organisations are supposed to help people with disabilities, in everything from rehabilitation, education, housing, transport, eating, and jobs, depending on the degree of need. Yet, all too often, services do not work well. Indeed, rather than helping, they may cause increased wounding. Some of the systems that were set up to help devalued people ended up being the main source of their problems. That's exactly why advocates are needed.

This is analogous to the problems that whistleblowers face when reporting on corruption or dangers to the public. The official bodies that are supposed to deal with these problems do not work well and, in some cases, make the problems worse by discouraging or discrediting whistleblowers.

Devaluation is largely an unconscious process. Those who devalue others, without even being aware of it, have picked up attitudes and modes of thinking that cast others into stigmatised roles. This is one important reason why it's so hard to change the situation of devalued people. Each of us has probably picked up perspectives that make us devalue certain others - usually those who are also devalued by most other people.

So much for the problems. What about solutions? The idea behind SRV is that devalued people should be put into or associated with valued social roles. This helps to counter the normal processes of devaluation. For example, rather than letting an adult with disabilities to appear in public sloppily dressed in children's clothes, they should be helped to be well groomed and smartly dressed, for example in a suit. Rather than living in a segregated facility next to the cemetery or abattoir, they should live in a conventional-looking house on a suburban street. Rather than working in a segregated workplace making garbage bags or pet products, they should work next to able-bodied workers making electronics or heart valves.

In each case, the person should be put in or associated with valued social roles. The same applies to whistleblowers.

In terms of language, the term "dobber" should be rejected and more valued terms promoted, such as "whistleblower", "principled organisation dissent" and "free speech". Whistleblowers Australia has helped make attitudes to the term "whistleblower" more positive. Slogans such as "black is beautiful" have helped to change attitudes. Thought needs to be given to the most effective way to shape perceptions of whistleblowing.

A professional image is important. Media releases, letters, leaflets, articles and submissions should look professional as well as having good content. Venues for whistleblower meetings should, if possible, be in locations conferring status.

For whistleblowers who are still employed where they have blown the whistle, it makes sense to keep up appearances and keep good company. This might mean dressing especially smartly, showing up at all important meetings, and chatting with high-status people when possible. This may help to counter ostracism and wounding caused by putting the whistleblower at a distance.

For whistleblowers who lose their jobs, it is worth seeking alternative employment in a valued occupation, or perhaps doing volunteer work in a socially valued area. A person who is perceived as making a worthwhile contribution to society is more likely to win support.

Another implication is that whistleblowers should try to get people in valued positions associated with their cause. Examples are doctors, lawyers, scientists, business executives and public figures. (To be sure, people in some of these occupations are the cause of the problems about which whistleblowers complain, and a whistleblower's attitude to these occupations may be quite negative. The general principle still applies, though.)

SRV might also suggest that whistleblowers should seek vindication through high-status avenues. That is exactly what most whistleblowers do: they pursue their cases through formal grievance procedures, make submissions to ombudsmen or anticorruption bodies, use the courts and approach parliamentarians. The problem is that official channels seldom work, and often waste time and effort or even make things worse. Far more effective in getting results is mobilising support, especially through use of publicity. This can, in a general sense, be called social action. It may be more effective, but it has a lower status that official channels.

Politicians and top bureaucrats prefer that people use official channels because they are essentially part of the system. It is almost impossible to make a significant change to the system by working through the normal channels. Social movements, such as the environmental movement, women's movement and peace movement, can be seen as a response to social problems that are caused by dominant groups. Movements are necessary because the official channels don't work to fix problems. Movements do not have the status of established institutions because they are a threat to those institutions.

Many minority groups are widely devalued. They are a "threat" largely because they are different, whether it is being handicapped, poor, illiterate, unemployed, or a different race or religion. Dissidents, by contrast, are a threat because they directly challenge existing systems of power. Giving value to this sort of challenge requires an unusual twist to SRV. It means that an attempt should be made to give a higher status to social action outside official channels. This has actually happened over the past several decades. Passing out leaflets, holding rallies and sitting in front of bulldozers is far more common and accepted today than in the past.

Actually citizen advocacy fits this model in a sense. Service organisations, which officially take care of people, have the prestige associated with formal authority, money, credentials and experience. But when they don't work, advocates are needed, even though advocates seldom have the status of the organisations that need to be challenged or prodded into action.

SRV also throws some light on tensions within whistleblower organisations. Whistleblowers, to be valued, need to be associated with valued people and roles. A whistleblower organisation is extremely valuable in putting whistleblowers in touch with each other. But who should be invited or allowed to attend? Some members do not welcome certain others. Perhaps they are thought to be criminals, child molesters, cranks or fantasisers. Some people have a personal grievance but would like to have the whistleblower label. Therefore, there will always be tensions in an organisation like Whistleblowers Australia between the goal of maintaining and raising WBA's status (partly by keeping out stigmatised individuals) and the goal of providing support to all who seek it. This tension is heightened when whistleblower organisations offer to support individuals in their cases. Since only some individuals can be supported, due to limited resources, this means that only "worthy" cases will be adopted. Others, especially those who are stigmatised, will be excluded.

SRV has one further insight here. Because of their long experience of wounds, devalued people have a greater vulnerability to further wounding. A child subject to sexual assault may, as an adult, be more sensitive to and distressed by even slight negative comments or actions than others. Similarly, whistleblowers who come under relentless attack often have a heightened sensitivity to later incidents. Something that most people would ignore may be extremely upsetting to a whistleblower. That means that we need to be extremely sensitive, when talking to whistleblowers or holding meetings, to prevent additional wounds and to compensate by offering valued options. For a whistleblower to be excluded or devalued by a whistleblower organisation is an extra level of hurt.

SRV is a theory of what should happen. In many cases, though, the most valued option is impossible due to lack of resources or other constraints. Whistleblowers Australia is subject to these constraints as much as any group. There are far more people seeking support than there are people and resources to provide it. The same can be said, of course, about many institutions.

To return to the idea of citizen advocacy, it is worth thinking about the idea of whistleblower advocacy. It would be nice to have more people who, while they are not whistleblowers themselves, are willing to take up the cause on behalf of individual whistleblowers. This is needed because the official channels are not working, just as citizen advocates are needed because service providers are failing. Whistleblowers Australia already has some members who are, in essence, whistleblower advocates (in some cases they are former whistleblowers), and there are some outside the organisation who fill the same role. Perhaps we should think about formalising and extending this role.