Why We Love to Hate Whistleblowers
Psychology explains why reports of wrongdoing are often attacked.
Posted Aug 17, 2018
A mom I know came home recently to find her teenaged daughter in her bedroom in tears. At first she refused to tell her mother what was the matter, but after some coaxing she said, “My friends won’t talk to me. They figured out that I told you that we were smoking and drinking in the basement, and that you told their mothers. Everybody’s been grounded. And they hate me for it!”*
A teacher made fun of a socially awkward teenaged boy in front of the entire class. He didn’t say anything about it at home, but his best friend told his own father, who told the boy’s father what had happened. When the parents went to the school principal, they were told that they were overprotective and that their son needed to learn to “man up.” “The teacher was just teasing him,” the principal said, and then added, “the boy who told on him is a tattletale.’ *
I thought about these two stories when I watched John Oliver’s recent interview with Anita Hill, the American lawyer and professor who, according to Laura Bradley in Vanity Fair, catalyzed an earlier #MeToo type of movement in the 1990’s, when she “testified that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had harassed her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
Hill, like many women and men who report a wrongdoing, whether it’s done to them or to someone else, was not praised for bringing the problem to public awareness. Instead, she was attacked and vilified. Her entire personality and personal history became a target of her critics.
When someone reports a wrongdoing, we often start to look for what might be wrong with them or what might be false about their story. Why? Why do we look to criticize someone who reports when something bad is happening?
There are several psychological reasons for this surprisingly common response.
First, we have been taught not to tattle, and we almost always resent others who do. There’s a feeling that they are trying to please the authorities at the expense of their peers, which goes all the way back to our childhood experiences of one child telling on another in order to get in good with the grownups – whether those adults are parents or teachers or scout leaders.
At a conference on “Speaking Out,” Dr David Morgan, a Psychoanalyst for Whistleblowers UK, who has worked with more than 200 whistleblowers (that is, people who make a public disclosure of corruption or wrongdoing ) from a variety of industries, says that whistleblowers make us aware of a reality of society that we don’t want to know about. “Most of us turn a blind eye. It’s a good way of surviving, you get to keep your job, you might feel guilty but you can forget about it,” he said.
Psychotherapists have long been aware of a group mentality that says, “Protect each other,” that often starts with siblings but continues into all sorts of groups – fraternities and sororities in college, religious groups, unions, and professional organizations, just to name a few. We value the idea of banding together to protect our own.
But there are other complex psychological dynamics going on when someone tells on someone else, as well. One factor is that, on top of being forced to see something we don’t want to see, a whistleblower can stir up our own guilt for misbehaving. So we flip the picture, getting angry at the person who represents our conscience instead of accepting that guilt. In psychological terms, this response is sometimes called projective identification– we see in the other person something we don’t like in ourselves and get angry with them instead of with ourselves.
And then there’s the sense (false, according to Dr. Morgan) that tattletales are often smug. They act like they are better than us; so naturally, we want to make them feel bad too. So we attack their credibility, which feels like we are protecting our own credibility.
Further, we all know of examples in which the report of some serious, horrendous behavior turns out to be untrue – from the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 1700’s to the McCarthy era accusations of communism to racially biased accusations of criminal behavior and accusations of parental abuse that have turned out, often decades after destroying the lives of the accused, to be false.
So it makes good sense not to believe every accusation that is made.
But at the same time, it makes equally good sense not to assume that every accusation is false.
Even though often we really don’t want to believe the accusations.
When Mary Willingham, a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, reported academic practices that allowed many athletes at the school to graduate without attending classes, writing papers, taking exams, or, in some cases, even being able to read at college level or below, there was a scandal, of course. But for some time, no one wanted to believe that the University of North Carolina (and, by association, other universities in the NCAA, the governing body of the American college athletic system) could be perpetrating such a scandal. In fact, in the end, the NY Times reports that “The N.C.A.A. did not dispute that the University of North Carolina was guilty of running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility.” But they imposed no penalties, “because no rules were broken.”
Whether the organization involved is a beloved college athletic program or a respected government or religious group, we do not want to believe that they could possibly have done something so egregious. So, we blame the person who is accusing them.
And we attack that person, looking not just for cracks in their story, but for all of the reasons we should not believe them. Dr. Morgan says that despite the common belief that whistleblowers are narcissistic or self-aggrandizing, most simply see themselves as doing what they are supposed to do, what is right and proper, and are surprised and deeply distressed by the amount of hostility that is turned on them.
Mary Willinghamsays that UNC retaliated against her, demoting her to a much less valued job, for one thing. Despite concrete evidence backing up her claims, and an eventual lawsuit and settlement which declared that she had been telling the truth, Willingham left her job, saying that she was still being attacked and called a liar by university officials.
This is just one example of why we attack the whistleblowers in our lives. We often find value in ourselves through our connection to organizations that others value and respect – what the psychoanalysts Frank Lachmann and Robert Stolorow once called “gilt by association.” By altering public opinion about a valued organization that we belong to, we feel that they have tarnished us as well. And that makes us angry. So, rather than try to find out the truth, we attack the person who is trying to help us see that truth.
In the end, however, attacking a whistleblower without searching out the actual truth of their accusations does nothing to protect the value of any group, organization, or individual. It simply leaves everyone unprotected.
So were the parents of the teens who were scapegoated for telling the truth, even if it got their friends into trouble, overprotective? Were they wrong to protect their children for standing up for what they believed? One mother told me that she felt that she was teaching her teens to stand up for what you believe in, even when the tide of public opinion goes against you. “I think we need more of that, not less,” she said. “And if your teen doesn’t do it in the best of all possible ways, that’s ok too. That’s part of the learning process. What I don’t want my children to learn is to follow the crowd because they’re afraid fo being criticized. That’s not my value. And I don’t want it to be theirs.”
In today's world values like truth and concepts of right and wrong have become very confusing. Parents have a responsibility to help their children search for the truth – and to protect them when they are attacked for doing the right thing. Of course, the right thing is not always so clear – so parents also have an important responsibility to help their children recognize that not everything is black and white. And not everything is exactly what it looks like. Not an easy lesson — and one that many adults haven’t yet learned, either.
*Identifying information changed to protect privacy
My thanks to Shira Moolton for her invaluable contribution to the research for this article
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C. Fred Alford (2003) Women as Whistleblowers Business & Professional Ethics Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 67-76
Sarah Nelson(2016)Tackling child sexual abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support. Policy Press at the University of Bristol.