Whistleblowers: why they do it

…is the contempt in which these elites, whether they be bishops or deputy ministers, tend to hold those who challenge the customary ways of doing things and threaten their authority. Such disdain easily passes into irritation and anger, and a strategy to punish those who seek to expose wrongdoing. This is why so many whistleblowers have suffered humiliation, calumny, firing, cessation of promotion, ill health and extinction of career. Some, at least, are driven by the moral demands of stewardship, witness and warning that will not allow them to do otherwise.

The Globe and Mail
May 17, 2003

Whistleblowers: why they do it
New laws may not do enough to protect those who expose wrongdoing – but such people are compelled to speak out for other reason, says religion professor ANTONIO GUALTIERI.
Antonio Gualtieri

The prominence of whistleblowers in Ottawa's advertising scandal raises questions about the moral imperatives that motivate individuals to embark on the costly and perilous course of whistle-blowing. Since I am by trade a comparative religionist, I shall focus on those moral demands that have strong connections with religious traditions. Let me isolate three principles.

Stewardship: By this I mean the responsible use of resources with which one has been entrusted. This is a recurrent theme in Christian tradition which draws, in turn, on the Hebrew scriptures: "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. The world and those who dwell therein." (Psalm 24:1). Humans do not possess for their own purposes the bounty of the Earth. They are only stewards or trustees on behalf of God, morally obligated to use the Earth's abundance in conformity with God's good intentions.

How does this apply to governments, civil servants and financial dereliction? The sweat of the taxpayer's brow is entrusted to politicians and bureaucrats with the charge to spend it wisely and well for the common good. Is it too grandiloquent to say this is a high and noble calling? The way some observers have dismissed $100-million (or $13-million) of sponsorship mismanagement as peanuts in the context of the global budget suggests that we exaggerate; that we have set the bar too high. But those who operate as conscientious stewards of money that has been entrusted to them cannot sit so cavalierly to violations of that trust.

Witness: The moral meaning of witness is to testify to the truth one has seen. This is a pivotal principle in many religious traditions. The first pillar of Muslim faith is the Shahada or witness statement: "I bear witness that there is no God but God and that Mohammed is his Messenger." Those who have seen the truth of this are obliged to bear witness to it. The idea of witnessing to Jesus Christ runs through Christian tradition. An apostle is an eyewitness of the resurrection of Christ upon whom has been laid the burden of testifying to it. "You killed the author of life [Jesus] whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses." (Acts 3:15).

Much Holocaust discussion has stressed the obligation to eschew silence and to bear witness to the genocidal experience of the Jewish people that unmasks optimistic pretensions about human benevolence. This insight is persuasive even to those of secularized consciousness. The universal theme is that human dignity and integrity demand bearing witness to the truth one has perceived — especially when one is ranged against powers and interests that want to hide the truth. In their humble way, those who expose stupidity and corruption, greed and falsehood, in the governance of their society stand in this moral tradition of steadfastly and courageously bearing witness to what they have seen.

Warning: Finally, I want to draw attention to the obligation whistleblowers feel to utter a warning against deformed and deviant institutions. This note of warning finds its religious precedents in the series of woe sayings uttered by Jesus against the religious authorities of his time, such as "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness." (Matthew 23:27). A secularized contemporary version of condemnation directed against the elite of political institutions might be "Woe to you cabinet ministers and directors, hypocrites! Outwardly you profess honesty and fairness, but inwardly you are devious and self-serving, replacing public good by private and party gain." Muslims look on the Koran not only as a word of grace and guidance, but also as a warning about the judgment of the Last Day to those who deviate from the revealed way for social life.

If hypocritical, wasteful, failures of stewardship are not exposed and denounced, the long-term consequence is further deterioration of important social institutions by public despair and cynicism. Some whistleblowers are morally impelled to issue warnings, which if heeded, can lead to social and political renewal and the restoration of institutions to their rightful civilizing mission.

There is a disposition on the part of institutions of whatever sort — governmental, health, educational, ecclesiastical — to devote much of their energy, not to original purposes, but to self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement.

This probably has a great deal to do with the ego and material needs of the institutional elite — but the consequence of this is the contempt in which these elites, whether they be bishops or deputy ministers, tend to hold those who challenge the customary ways of doing things and threaten their authority. Such disdain easily passes into irritation and anger, and a strategy to punish those who seek to expose wrongdoing.

This is why so many whistleblowers have suffered humiliation, calumny, firing, cessation of promotion, ill health and extinction of career.

Why then do they do it?

Some, at least, are driven by the moral demands of stewardship, witness and warning that will not allow them to do otherwise.

Antonio R. Gualtieri, professor emeritus of religion at Carleton University, is the father of Joanna Gualtieri, a lawyer with the Department of Foreign Affairs who spoke out about misuse of taxpayer money on diplomatic accommodations and has since been on unpaid leave.


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