We need to do better by our whistle-blowers. Our history is littered with examples of how we have mistreated whistle-blowers.
Whistle-blowers range from the infamous “Deep Throat” who blew the lid off what would be known as the Watergate scandal, to the employee who speaks up in the workplace against the mistreatment of a co-worker. Every whistle-blower risks something. They risk their job, reputation, career, friendships, relationships, prosecution, persecution, some even risk their lives.
Whistle-blowers for he most part are compelled by an overwhelming need to “do the right thing”, to bring a grave injustice to public light. Few whistle-blowers actually reveal their information out of malice or revenge, as is often suggested.
I looked up “whistle-blower” on thesaurus.com because I’ve already used the word “whistle-blower” eight times in this article. The results were quite telling of how society views whistle-blowers. Here is the complete list of synonyms with a positive or neutral connotation: informant; source. Here is part of the negative list: backstabber; betrayer; blabbermouth; canary; double-crosser; fink; narc; rat; scab; snake; snitch; squealer; stool pigeon; stoolie; tattletale; tipster; traitor; turncoat; weasel, the list goes on.
We should not treat our whistle-blowers as if they are criminals. In most cases, they are not, and even in most of the cases where a law was broken in their speaking out, it could easily be argued as the lesser of two evils.
I will use one very recent example to illustrate what I mean.
A university which I shall not name (except as “the school”) recently had a scandal involving its Dentistry school. Male members of one class had been made part of a private “men-only” Facebook group. Most of the conversation in the group was typical of what you’d find on most of Facebook – benign and uninteresting. Sometimes the conversation drifted around to topics from class, and sometimes the posts were a little cruder.
Some of the posts discussed their female classmates in unflattering, misogynistic or downright violent ways. The most notorious of the posts asked the members of the group to identify which of their classmates they’d most like to “hate-f**k”.
Thanks to one member of the group, who went public with the information, this little pocket of nastiness was exposed to the light of day. …But it wasn’t his first time trying to blow that particular whistle. He took his concerns about the group to school authorities the previous year as well, but they fell on deaf ears. The school said they couldn’t act because they needed a complainant, and he wasn’t the appropriate complainant. So, when the posts continued, he grabbed screencaps of the posts and went to the women who were named in some of the posts.
The protests and media circus began almost immediately. Protests against the school, against rape culture, against violence, against the patriarchy, against all men, the TV cameras ate it all up.
The school was facing pressure from lots of directions to do “something” about it. The demands ranged from extracting a pound of flesh to immediate suspension to outright expulsion and eternal banishment from any dental profession anywhere. The school also had an image to protect, and there was also that nagging little issue about their earlier inaction on the complaints.
The school identified twelve students who made the offensive posts and suspended all of thirteen of them – the twelve plus the whistle-blower. The school considered him equally as guilty.
The local police were asked to investigate the situation to see if criminal charges could be laid. The investigating officers found that no law had been broken, charges would not be laid.
The school, of course, didn’t suspend the students immediately, they waited for weeks to do it. While all this was going on, a few of the women involved were working with the school to resolve the issue. They actually did not want anyone suspended, and they opted for a restorative justice program. They weren’t looking for blood, they wanted these young men to learn. In North America, restorative justice is a remarkable and effective concept, deeply rooted in the traditional practices of First Nations people. A lot of people reject this process (without knowing the first thing about it), seeing it as a “slap on the wrist”. Of course, the shrieks of protest picked up again.
The whistle-blower, who had not contributed in any meaningful way in the posts, refused to take part in the restorative justice program. His reasoning was solid: he had done nothing wrong. Because he refused to take part, he remained on indefinite suspension.
After a series of disciplinary hearings that included the whistle-blower’s lawyer, the school laid out its case as to why the student should be suspended. They claimed that he should have taken the issue to the school after the first post, not after several posts had been made (they never addressed their earlier inaction), and they also counted him as an “active participant” in the group because he clicked the “Like” button on one rather innocuous photo. Rather weak, I think you will agree.
While this was going on, the restorative justice program moved ahead. Later, the women and the men issued a joint statement saying they considered the situation dealt with, they criticized the media for their representation of things, they said that everyone had learned from the experience, and everyone wanted to just get back to the business of learning dentistry.
After some time, the school reconvened its disciplinary committee and allowed the whistle-blowing student to return to the classroom with a pile of conditions attached, including him making an acknowledgment of professional misconduct, and he must participate in “remedial initiatives such as private counselling, written essays and public lectures”. None of the other male students had such conditions placed on their return to clinical study. The school has made it clear to him that they place the blame squarely on him for the negative publicity the school received, hence the conditions.
The whistle-blower is now back in class, well after his other classmates have returned. He will not likely be graduating this year, because of all the time he missed, but he is determined to see his education through and use his education to support his family.
The final indignance with this is that to this date, the identities of the other male students involved have never been publicly revealed… but yet the whistle-blower’s name is common knowledge. His name will be the only one associated with this whole ugly incident, and he was the only one out of the group – the school included – who did nothing wrong in this whole affair.
In their zeal to respond to the pressure, and their perplexing desire to act as if under a “zero tolerance” policy, the school completely overreacted, acted irrationally and grossly mishandled the whistle-blower. The most likely outcome of this is that the school has guaranteed that they will very likely never hear from another whistle-blower again. Who would want to be treated like that?
We need to treat our whistle-blowers better than this.