Why We Love to Hate Whistleblowers

August 23, 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.

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