I don’t mean the perils for the whistle blower, but for the collateral damage and the missed opportunities to address some truly critical issues.
The current Snowden affair has given me much to think about. I will focus more on the social psychology of whistle blowing than commenting on Snowden’s actions per se.
I contend that the impact of the majority of whistle blowing cases is never cut and dried, or black and white. There are too many unintended consequences and ripple effects, and there is too much collateral damage. Even in the case of Enron where most of us applauded the downfall of the scumbags, the top managers of Enron who clearly cheated, there was unfortunate collateral damage. Think of all the people who lost their pensions and/or jobs, through no fault of their own. In particular, people in their 50s who lose jobs are much less likely to find equally paid jobs, from Enron’s case or otherwise. Should Enron not have been exposed? Enron would be caught sooner or later; so, in the grand scheme, the damage is less if the error is exposed sooner rather than later.
Many of us feel viscerally aligned with underdogs, sometimes even romanticizing the whistle-blowing act. Upon closer examination, however, we find shades of grey in any underdog actions. Some self-righteous individuals may even regard themselves as heroic “watchdogs” in a system and wear underdog-status as a badge of honor. But what is really going on with regards to the perpetual whistle blower?
Organization W (OW) is heavily involved in scientific pursuits; some branches handle dangerous materials all the time. In such an environment, there are the inevitable watchdogs and oversight offices. Someone in the oversight organization thinks he has the responsibility of keeping laser-keen scrutiny on the dangerous-materials work at OW. He takes pride in calling out any errant practices at OW, indiscriminatingly, and sees himself as a “whistle blower.” Thus even when OW provides scientific proof that strict adherence to a particular requirement is counterproductive or even hazardous, or the interpretation of the requirement is demonstrably wrong, our whistle blower would not budge. With no scientific background, why is he in the position of judging the criteria for conducting scientific work?
The above is a mundane example, but illustrates some of the subtle aspects of the nature of the whistle-blowing act and actor. I suspect that variations on the theme of such obstructionism are fairly common.
When a whistle blowing act becomes sensational, we get caught up with only the most glaring aspects and neglect to address some other fundamental issues. Did we take care of the underlying structural problems that had allowed Enron to manipulate for years? I fear not.
In the current Snowden case, not only there are no serious actions to address the violation of the fourth Amendment of the Constitution, there is little movement in addressing the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) law and the secret FISA court. Strictly speaking, NSA didn’t break any law in mining our data, but we continue to evade the question, is what is legal automatically ethical? And while we are always suspicious of government or other large entities — perhaps rightly so most of the time — somehow we almost automatically embrace one lone person’s judgment call. Why? Should we not examine and re-examine the practice of privatizing government functions? Is it really cost-effective? Certainly not based on Mr. Snowden’s annual salary. Should we allow government security issues to be handled by private contractors, who don’t seem to be subjected to the same rigor of clearance check as government employees are? The list is long, but we probably won’t ever get to them.
In defiance of the trend to make no distinctions, I will say this strongly: I find Julian Assange dubious at the very least. Mr. Assange’s WikiLeaks website could have been truly heroic in the cause of the silent majority, but his making no distinction in publishing whatsoever comes his way is just as unethical as the actions of the entities he wants to take down. In the case of US Private Manning, the divulged classified information has the potential, if not already realized in fact, to literally get people killed. Among the published classified information were details that caused many people working under cover to have their identities blown – people who, like Assange, oppose what their governments are doing, but who unlike Assange take tremendous risks in their opposition. What Wikileaks, through Assange, did in the case of Manning was nothing but a sheer data dump, with no distinction and no responsibility. When unwilling participants’ lives are threatened and terminated, I find the act of data dumping revolting.
The way most organizations handle classified information is the opposite of data dump: essentially an indiscriminate data freeze. It’s a lazy way to manage information and consolidate power. Once we put “classified” on any work, we gain power of secrecy and escape accountability. As for those who aren’t supposed to have the access to classified information, how do they judge the nature of the information and its ramifications when revealed? They have no overview, no system perspective, with which to assess the information. I do not suggest that just because most of us don’t have access to a whole system perspective that we shouldn’t expose unfair, criminal, or shady acts. It is a judgment call on the whistle blower’s part, and for the rest of us, we need to take time to examine issues more closely and with care.
Whistle blowers are like scapegoats (and sometimes heroes); they serve as the repository for our collective frustrations and other emotions. In rushing to celebrate or condemn the act and the actor, we shortchange ourselves on other equally important issues. The act of whistle blowing and the information it reveals are only parts of a larger system. Collateral damage may be inevitable, but if we attend to the interconnections of the parts in a system, we stand a better chance to reduce the damage all around.
There is too much going on around July 4th. I will resume in this space on July 14th.
Enjoy your holiday. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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