Public Interest Psychology


Moral Good Or Self Interest what are the psychological dimensions of defying a perverse or corrupt authority? 1.

"Do not trust the Horse, Trojans, Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks bearing gifts." (Laocoon 1188.BC)

The first whistleblower was Laocoon, who, 3,000 years ago, tried to tip off the authorities in ancient Troy that the Greeks and their 'gift horse' was a trick. He was later murdered for his pains, ‘when it comes to speaking out, one man’s whistleblower can be another man’s traitor.’

Failure to blow the whistle is famously illustrated in “First they came…”, a provocative poem attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the sloth of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their targets, group after group.

"First they came for the dissidents

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a dissident.

Then they came for the socialists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left to speak for me."

1. This paper was originally presented at the Freud Museum on 25th July 2013. It will be presented at the Applied Section meeting of the Society on Wednesday 26th March 2014.

Films are made about famous whistleblowers and their place as A-list celebrities seems assured to us on-lookers. Through their disclosing acts they, rather than governments and leaders, become the important ones it could seem to us.

But for most of the people I have seen since becoming a consultant for a whistleblowing organisation it is a very different story.

Everyday whistleblowers, those whose name does not become a public entity, mainly experience loss, not gain, through their decision to disclose. And whatever it is that they disclose, in all the many fields these people emerge from, armed forces, banking, law, politics, ship building, health, police force, church, psychoanalysis (see BPC New Associations 12, article by Onel Brooks), whistleblowers that I have met are waiting to have their lives turned upside down, their comfortable places of esteem in their communities dismantled, and, equally importantly, from a psychological point of view, they have lost their peace of mind and quite often their own faith in their own and others value and motives.

What motivates a whistleblower and what is the psychological profile of people who risk, or gain – depending on where we stand – so much? Also what does it tell us about society and our own organisations if we fear the message whistleblowers try to communicate?

Whistleblowing as a term sounds vaguely pejorative, like snitch, so I favour the term social disclosure because it gives the clue to what altruistically motivated disclosure is really about. Traitor or whistleblower, trouble maker or idealist, these are the poles of our discussion.

We expect, in Nazi Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, or North Korea for there to be hideous consequences for any perceived betrayal, we know that terrorist states do all they can to stamp out any dissent, and we like the idea that different mores apply here, that we live in a land of freedom and protection for human rights and in comparison with the totalitarian states I have mentioned, we do of course enjoy significant freedom.

But what I have discovered is how tough and suspicious our societal attitudes are to people we perceive as different, those who break free from not only our public laws and standards but who undermine all our cosy assumptions about the safety of our world. When a whistle is blown we all listen and we all have to decide how we react to the people who tell us things we may not want to know. As with Snowden and Assange it has been the subject of many a supper table conversation.

Even in Britain, criticism or threat to the social order is muted, or seen as anti-authoritarian, naive, an attack on the parental authority, the status quo. Compliance, playing the game and loyalty to one’s organization is often seen as a sign of psychological health. Sometimes of course it is.

What countless less famous whistleblowers discover is that the same blocks to speaking about problems, betrayals, failures and exploitation apply here in Britain albeit more subtly. We all bring powerful pressures to bear on those who risk speaking out, challenging the prevailing mythology. As in the fairytale 'The King’s New Clothes'. Unlike the child in the story, few are rewarded.

I am thinking of people I have spoken to in the last year like:

The vehicle manufacturer, who discovers that his factory has been using seriously sub-standard materials, is in a position to create unemployment for himself and everyone he knows. The economic impact of a scandal to his company, already on the brink of economic collapse, would be disastrous. But he is also aware that the lives of the product’s users are at risk. He goes to and is shunned by his union and bosses. But still he speaks out. He receives death threats in the post and loses his job. His health begins to deteriorate. He is accused of having mental health problems, which of course he now does and probably did before in an everyday sort of way. He goes to his MP and is told that there is no evidence. The MP and local newspapers are funded by interested parties.

The judicial person, who discovers the conglomeration of Freemasons in her chosen profession and believes that they have operated a cover up over a certain case. And decides to tell the story. She loses her position.

The banker, who discovers that in the house of mammon all that matters is profit, and sees that as a consequence of dodgy auditing that his mother’s pension company (and mine it turns out!) is diminished by sharp practice.

In the field of state provision, in hospitals and social services, even today when people speak out over damaging cuts, or mis-management or the appalling culture of un-care, say at Stafford Hospital, or neglect in Elderly Care teams they are liable to be disbelieved, humiliated and dismissed.

As I listen to the many stories of painful internal conflict, fear, anger and sometimes bitterness and regret, I think to myself would I, an NHS worker for 25 years, without a financial cushion to fall back on in my private life, have stood up and been counted, risked my mortgage and children's futures, putting my own self-interest and survival above the other considerations? If I had been at the Bristol Children’s Hospital, would I have said anything, in the interest of the greater good?

In terms of thinking about the psychological pre-cursors and sequelae of the disclosers I have met, I do ask myself; does real idealism exist? Is disclosure just a trouble making act or an altruistic act? Driven by grievance, envy, a repetition of early Oedipal issues? Avoidance of their own internal corruption? Does it matter?

The first comment from my first ever assessment with an established and successful discloser was, "Is this place (my consulting room) bugged?”

It would be easy to see this as paranoia, as we are used to working with people with these sort of psychological issues and we might see this sort of communication as a projected form of aggression, externalised onto the outside world, where it then persecutes the originator, from outside in the minds of others or through delusions and hallucinations. Through externalisation the internal aggressive impulses are thus reduced and put out to tender.

But with this group, the feeling has remained for weeks…..and the question "is my room bugged?" no longer seems so delusional. I tell myself that I'm not that important in the scheme of things but the stories I hear are compelling and mostly feel genuine. An interesting state of counter-transference. For instance I have become fairly convinced that David Kelly's death was probably not suicide. These are dangerous waters in which to paddle. At least with my training I am able to pick through the evidence, like a dream the patient is presenting, to see what, their contribution is, whilst respecting their perspective.

Undoubtedly many of the people I see do exist in paranoid states of mind and some must definitely have had traces of these states before they disclosed. Afterwards they feel watched, their level of trust is low and it is easy to write them all off as vexatious litigants and troublemakers. A small minority may indeed be less than idealistically motivated, but even they may have something important to say; like victims of abuse it is essential that we find ways to hear it. Reminds me of clinicians who hear stories of abuse and say 'we only have the patient’s word it happened'. I think this is a way that we manage traumatic information that threatens our own equilibrium.

Traumatising as it is to hear and seductive as it is to turn a blind eye or just pathologies, the ultimate defence of the cushioned clinician. I have become convinced that the psychological profile of the whistleblower is not different from that of anyone else.

Although rather like Leslie Sohn's paper on ‘Unprovoked Assault’ (1995), something is often waiting to be enacted, if the circumstances conspire to trigger them. Like the aggressive man who asks for a light, but is refused, and attacks the withholding other. There is often a history of grievance of some kind that is triggered by an apparently unrelated external event. But this could be true for all of us. Acquiescing to corruption or turning a blind eye could be similarly pre-disposed.

Of course, not all whistleblowing is benign or altruistically motivated. HMRC has an anonymous phone line for people to report tax evasion and it is apparently consistently used to denounce neighbours and family members.

While disclosure can be an altruistic act it can all too easily be used for revenge and humiliation. At times, some whistleblowers are clearly eager to attack authorities through resentment. Stalled careers, failed love affairs and no pay rise can see increases in some individual’s willingness to shame or punish their communities, employers or families.

The organization, however, as an institution seems to appear at times, in phantasy or reality, dedicated to the destruction of the moral individualist. Frequently the organization succeeds. Which means that whistleblowers are broken, unable to reconcile their actions and beliefs with the responses they receive from others (Alford 2002).

Understandably, many people who disclose should reasonably expect some reward, praise, respect. They often have to face disappointment. We don’t very often want to know.

In order to make sense of their stories some whistleblowers must set aside the things they have always believed: that truth is larger than the herd instinct, that someone in charge will do the right thing, that the family is a haven from a heartless world. Naive beliefs that may have made them more vulnerable to a cynical world. Many come from a background espousing moral rectitude, such as religion or other belief systems.

Any old psychoanalyst can tell you that we project onto external authorities our internal versions of parental figures. When those parental figures are benign and fair minded the failure of external authorities to live up to the projection can be devastating. Many whistleblowers recover from their experience but even then they live in a world very different from the one they knew before their confrontation with the organisation.

One aspect of social disclosure that is under estimated is some of the emotional fall-out that is occasioned by revealing truths that other people prefer to keep hidden. Shooting the messenger. Disclosers of uncomfortable truths can become the recipient of a great deal of ambivalence from a variety of quarters. Like the analyst, disclosers threaten to make something conscious and known that has either been hidden or brushed under the carpet through a range of people turning a blind eye (Alford 2002).

There will be powerful forces ranged against the discloser in order to maintain the status quo. Disclosers can threaten whatever defences and belief systems institutions have developed, maybe necessarily, as is argued with security breaches and Snowden's disclosures. This permits the behaviour that is being exposed. How can a security service proceed without secrecy?

Revelations can be experienced by the institution and colleagues as humiliating and attacking and others will see themselves as justified in retaliating against a whistle blower and there may be a concerted to discredit or pathologise them (Alford 2002).

Having an understanding of the group hostility to revelations that are threatening to cohesion can be or considerable use to an individual who needs to find a way to maintain their self-belief at times of personal stress and marginalization. E.g. "You don't have to become what people project into you". Also it is important that they recognise their own guilt and responsibility, even if they have a justifiable cause for grievance.

Part of this in my experience is getting help to understand the unconscious reasons for putting themselves in this situation in the first place. And that takes us to the heart of individual psychology, personal experience and unconscious motivation. Any previous emotional and psychological difficulties will be exacerbated or if not evident before, brought to the surface. Motives and personal integrity will be publicly questioned so that through reversal and projection the institution that is being questioned can evade any sense of responsibility for wrong doing. The discloser is therefore made to feel the wrongdoer arousing serious self-doubt and depression.

However it's also important to recognise that most turn a blind eye.

Fred Alford in his book (2002), talks of Orwell in his book, 1984, who used the term double-think. The psychological phenomenon behind it is called doubling. E.g. You are a middle level functionary in a bureaucracy or corporation and you possess some truth you know does not conform to your institution or boss’s agenda. Doubling, splitting as we might call it, means you can hold true to your personal morality while maintaining a separate public or institutional morality. At home you may never behave this way but at work telling the truth may hurt not only your boss but your institution, your livelihood and the health and safety of your family. In such situations it is helpful to be able to hold contradictory positions to separate out your different selves and different loyalty structures (Alford 2002).

So why do whistleblowers do it?

First of all they may be unable to double or split themselves. The inherent contradiction would be too great and too painful.

They may fit in with Hannah Arendt’s idea of the heroic men and women, people who talk seriously with themselves about what they are doing, people who cannot double, or do double speak. They feel a compulsion to do the “right thing”. As one person in analysis said, “I had to do it; I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak up.” They can’t not choose to abide by their conscience.

But the operative phrase here might be 'I could not live with myself'. The need to externalise unbearable truths about the self may also be a strong motivating factor. Unlocking the secrets of others may be easier than looking at one’s own repressed issues.

The trouble is blowing the whistle separates whistleblowers from their former lives. Organisations constrained by law not to fire or retaliate against whistle blowers find a way of doing it. E.g. Julian Assange is currently resident in a small office in the Embassy of a South American state in London. Snowden is equally imprisoned in Russia, arguably now helping them with their enquiries, a nuclear scientist after whistleblowing about security risks finds herself assigned to making copies or emptying waste paper baskets. For the first time her reports are negatives and she is passed over for her long awaited promotion.

Global capitalism does create problems and it’s one that affects us all in different ways, it unites a lot of protest going on in the world and I would include whistleblowing as one of those protests, they might be seen as reactions against different facets of capitalist globalisation. The idea that there might be something more important than financial expansionism and genuflection to those in power.

This was brought home to me recently when someone I saw, who was a head of a global bank, was able to pay literally millions of pounds to get his mother the best medical treatment in the world for breast cancer, whilst a close relative of mine with the same illness was treated at a good but under-funded NHS hospital. The former patient’s mother extended her life by several years due to ground breaking treatment she was able to purchase. The latter didn't. What gaineth a man if he inherits the world and loses his soul? Well good health care actually!

Let’s face it, who hasn't lost a bit of social conscience in the name of self interest in the years of total market economy?

We are currently confronted by further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services, healthcare, education, culture and increasing authoritarian power led by the buck (Zizek 2013).

All whistleblowers are dealing with a specific combination of factors, one economic (from corruption to inefficiency in the market itself), the other a demand that individual morality can make a stand against organisational might, how else can we fight the excesses of the market place (Zizek 2013).

“A market economy thrives on inequality so self-interest will always triumph over the moral good. Think of the violent reaction to Obama’s universal health care plans (Zizek 2013).”

Just as a whistleblower has to be vilified lest he expose the rottenness that we might accept, to maintain our lifestyles that are quite often based or reliant the suffering of others.

We all want to believe in a rational world of logic but the excavations of the whistleblowers are so disturbing to our structured lives that we prefer not to know. By its very nature it's about unveiling painful things and our theories of life can be so comfortable that we can all find ourselves not wanting to know.

There is the lone voice, which may be at times one motivated by repressed internal secrets, but still fulfilling a role in society that we are too afraid to do. We often want to kill the messenger because he makes us uncomfortably aware of our own compliance.

David Bell in his important paper 'Primitive Mind of State' (1996) says “The introduction of the Market into the National Health Service could be seen within the perspective of the destruction of the Welfare consensus.”

"The ideology of the Market and the attack on welfare-ism derives considerable support from their appeal to primitive parts of the personality that view dependency or vulnerability as weakness, the process originally described by Rosenfeld who termed it ‘destructive narcissism’.” (Bell 1996)

"NHS reforms create fragmentation and alienation. This has led to primitive survivalism, such as competition between clinics, modalities, although a natural outcome of the process described, is proving very costly in terms of its effects on staff morale an essential component of adequate health-care delivery." (Bell 1996)

Very few of us in the NHS have said much; in the face of these changes in fact I think to protect our jobs we have colluded quite often with the process, to the extent that I attended a meeting toward the end of my time, where the patient had become talked about as if a commodity.

Again bowing to Orwell, it was becoming difficult to perceive any difference between the businessmen and the health worker. They had become the same. This included colleagues doing their MBA's; if you can’t beat them join them.

As the scandals of mid-Staffordshire, so ably disclosed by the courageous Kay Sheldon, who was described as a paranoid schizophrenic by her enemies, and even the terrible tragedy of baby P, again brought to light by the equally courageous Dr Kim Holt, or Margy Haywood, a nurse who covertly filmed the abuse and neglect of elderly patients in an NHS Hospital for BBC Panorama, and lost her nursing registration for 'breaching confidentiality', whilst the staff who were abusing the patients were allowed to carry on working.

These are the symptoms of this 'mind of state'. Where the individual is sacrificed to market forces and the welfare state suffers (Bell 1996).

This is clearly not just in the field of medicine but also many other fields, such as the destruction of the legal aid service.

Case study

A clinician I see for depression, who has no office, has to hot desk with four others, and is having to meet a patient appointment target that compensates for the fact that he is now the only clinician in a dept. that has been decimated by cuts, reliant on temp staff, who do not have the same commitment.

The depression does represent an aspect of his early experience as a child where attainment seemed to matter more than emotional involvement. Just as in his dept. it feels to him targets are taking over from patient care.

He wants to highlight the dangers of his workplace and the plight of his patients and needs my help to separate his own issues, disappointment with authority from the disappointing parental authority, and his fear that I too will let him down, and take sides, has been important as has been his exploration that maybe this time he might stand up for himself and patients against what is becoming a perverse authority, whilst being aware of his own issues.

He brings two rather similar dreams, this before addressing senior hospital management about the dangers inherent in current patient care, and the rise in suicidal behaviour in his hospital. In one he can't find a lavatory anywhere to get relief, a common anxiety dream, which could be taken a number of ways. He has an analyst or container so full of their own crap that there is no room for his (including all the whistleblower stuff). There is the larger environmental significance of the constipated state of his place of work, that repeats his earlier experiences of having too much expected of him, also at an internal level his own blockage to finding the relief he needs, not through evacuation, but dealing with his own feelings that he constantly seeks to be rid of.

In another dream a child he likes, that he should be taking care of, is defecating on a carpet, he is cross, as he has an important appointment to get to and he has to deal with this child, who he feels is behaving wilfully.

You might say that he is becoming aware of an incontinent aspect of himself that he wishes to avoid, by busying himself with the failings of others.

The multi-layered aspect of these dreams, including maybe justifiable criticism of his analyst and authority, but a growing awareness of his own part, demonstrates his dilemma. He both has to deal with his own evacuations and the failings of others who might blame him to avoid their own faults and blind spots, but also needs to be aware how he can use apparently justifiable grievances to avoid his own awareness of what he also does.

Obviously we are never going to be able to decipher in full the motives of those who disclose. I am not sure we always need to. We can argue for as long as we like about the personal stories of our most famous whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. I could write case histories filled with the experiences that motivate later acts of disclosure. It could be a Scientific Meeting at some point.

But the most important thing we have to keep in mind is that societies who cannot tolerate disclosure and transparency are on their way to being the totalitarian states that most of us in this room abhor. We as analysts have to bear this in mind rather than pathologising, whilst at the same time helping those in this dilemma recognise their own areas of difficulty that also need to be addressed.

Whistleblowers can act, sometimes, as the conscience for us all.

We never know how high we are

Till we are asked to rise

And then if we are true to plan

Our statures touch the skies. -

Emily Dickinson


Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power. C. Fred Alford (2002)

Primitive mind of state. David Bell (1996) Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1996, pages 45- 57

Bending over backwards. Onel Brooks. New Associations 12.July 2013.

The Global Protest. Slavoj Zizek (2013). London Review of Books. Vol 35, nos. 14.

Unprovoked assaults--making sense of apparently random violence. Leslie Sohn, Journal Int J Psychoanal. (1995) Jun; 76 (Pt 3):565-75.

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