Public Interest Psychology

The Patients New Clothes

"have patience awhile; slanders are not long lived, Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee" (Emmanuel Kant).

To understand the process of the Whistleblowing , I would like to illustrate the process with a version  of the tale "The Emperor's New Clothes". 

The  Emperor, a proud man,  prone to insecurity about how his subjects regard him, is very susceptible to flattery and greed while wanting to prove or feel superior to his subjects.  As we know power can corrupt and people can become omnipotent and believe that what they do is based on the power they have achieved or that the end justifies the means. They can lack their own internal Whistleblower and turn a blind eye to their own corruption. This externalises conscience making it the responsibility of an outside agency.

In the tale  con men appear and realise they can exploit these weaknesses of the Emperor to their financial advantage. They tell him they are the most talented craftsmen in the land, able to create clothes from the finest material.

The Emperor commissions them to create the most extravagant robes for him to wear at the next royal procession. An event where he would be sure to be seen and admired by all his subjects. Of course, the con men have a method which they know will both confound the emperor and make them rich without any genuine effort. So, when they start to "make" the fabulous robes, they invite the emperor to choose the fabric and ingeniously show him a roll of material, apparently so fine, it is invisible to all those but the most sensitive people. The Emperor could not see this marvellous cloth for the simple reason that it did not exist, but could he admit it?

Could he or his advisors blow the Whistle on his or the conmens corruption?

They couldn't, the  Emperor's courtiers could see no cloth, but they were, due to their own self interest, not about to admit it.  If the Emperor could see it, then indeed it must exist and anyway no one wanted to acknowledge that they lacked the discernment to be able to see such finery or to acknowledge the cover up in the Emperor's mind or the con mens' trickery. They chose, as many of us do, to turn a blind eye.

The con men finish the "robes", receive their payment and disappear, never to be seen again.  Like many who live on  ill gotten earnings,  the Fred Goodmans of this world, they appear to have no conscience disappearing for a life of leisure on their earnings.

In the days leading up to the royal procession, the city is full  of rumours about the wondrous outfit, the Emperor himself  even more convinced of the reality of his robes, even though he knew himself to be a fraud (lacking discernment as he did).   Whatever uneasiness he felt was more than compensated by the high praise the robes received from all those around him.  In this way he lacked the insight necessary to see his own corruption and was supported in his delusion by those too frightened to challenge him.

The day of the procession arrived and the emperor paraded through the city  naked. The citizens, though, were not about to admit that what they could see (or not, as it happened) and cheered and roared their approval of the emperor and his new suit of clothes. This happy, if undignified, delusion would have continued unhindered were it not for one person, the Whistleblower, whose own wish to belong and be part of the group was superseded,  by his own disquiet and motivation to say something.

This need to challenge the mythology of the group is in the main motivated by genuine altruism, like the Bristol NHS disclosure and Elin Brokovitch,  it should be distinguished from the less altruistic motivation  for gratitude,  fame and recognition, or financial gain from selling a good story , or envy due to grievance over fair or unfair promotion and preferment. This courage to Whistleblow is in sharp contrast to the larger groups collusion with corrupt practice, this collusion is well known in psychological circles, (see Milgram 1963) )and  is a well know social defence against anxiety. (see Isabel Menzies Lyth 1960)

The whistleblower in this story was one of many spectators, waiting expectantly to see the emperor and the much heralded robes, but instead sees a naked emperor, and shouts out, in a heady moment of social disclosure, "He's completely naked!"  Of course, those around him laughed at his stupidity, exposing their own collusion, and tell  him to shut his mouth, but the whistleblower  persists.

The relief for the whistleblower at this moment of disclosure can be a heady moment.  To begin with there must be feelings of triumph  as the truth teller exposes the corruption in others, relief at having finally told the truth, but this can also be occasioned by justifiable feelings of superiority, and in the early stages of disclosure whistleblowers may be, perhaps nescessarilly  carried along by this energy.

The beginning of the arc of whistle blowing is initiated when the whistleblower believes that the truth has to be exposed, despite the power of the crowd or belief system that is being challenged and the heady rush of relief attached to disclosure and carrying out a courageous act may carry the whistleblower  fears about their own security and safety.

In the story the crowd began to get restive, uncertainty and whispering breaks out. Then like a punctured ball, the pomp began to deflate as spectators, courtiers and Emperor alike realised that what the child was saying was indeed true. This happens quite quickly and I think it is unrealistic that the crowd changes so quickly, in reality to begin with the organisation is likely to unite against the whistleblower who then in the second stage of whistleblowing must then be made to experience isolation, fear and exposure.

As if it is them that is the wrong doer or corrupter of moral values. The support however from media, family, friends, other Whistleblowers and  inner strength of character, pre-existing belief systems such as philosophical or religous thinking must be all important at this time. The greatest barrier to Whistleblowing must be fear of ones own vulnerability particularly economic security and the effect on ones loved ones and dependence. I remember a patient of mine deliberating if his son would admire him more for standing up against a corrupt organisation or condemn him for putting the families security in jeapordy.

In the story the emperor is taught a very harsh lesson in pride coming before the fall and the courtiers and city dwellers the importance of not believing everything you're told, even if it comes from apparently unimpeachable sources. It also carries another equally powerful message, because after all it is only the child who sees through the charade. The story of the Emperor's new clothes tells us that overweening pomposity and grandeur can get its come uppance and sometimes from the most unlikely source, for after all how could one person be a threat to the highest authority in the land.

The moral of this story, for me anyway, is that just because something is accepted as a universal reality, it can be just because powerful people have a vested interest in seeing it like that. Even if they want to, they can't see it any other way, because if they did express doubt it would not only undermine the so called "truth", but their own position as well.

It takes someone who feels for various reasons, that what they might lose is less important than the truth and the need  to point out what is obvious.

The emperor is the bank conned by its own greed, and  the whistleblower is equivalent to the young child who sees through the charade, who does see the nakedness of the emperor.  To begin with they are not  listened to, in fact the child is regarded as quite mad, even to question the reality of the clothes and  invites an extremely powerful reaction, partly reproach and partly sorrow.

This is followed by anger, because the child will not conform, and there is exasperated impatience that the child continues to resist the systems of the organisation.  This might be the third stage of the arc, the sense of disappointment that occurs when the social discloser instead of being greeted with acclaim is, through a process of projection,  turned into the corrupt one.  The messenger has to be killed or silenced.

To challenge strong group rules is like waving a red rag at a bull, it is certainly ill advised, it challenges group mythology  and it is potentially lethal for your professional reputation.

The third aspect of the arc is therefore disillusionment.  A feeling can develop for the whistle blower of having been conned themselves by their own moral imperatives. The child in the story is often said to have become one of the Emperor's most trusted advisors, because that is the happy ending we would like to see,  but in reality Whistleblowers mostly find themselves made an outsider and in time the full weight of the after effects of what they have done hits home. This is the most likely time when psychological issues such as depression and self doubt take a hold as social exclusion, disciplinary action and moral disapproval are put into effect - was it worth it?

Could it be that we all have some unsustainable beliefs in the power of authority,   like our parents before they turned out to be only human,  we all want to believe that authority is benign and it is deeply disturbing to find that it is't, therefore by implication it must be beyond challenge, it must be the truth, an unpleasant one perhaps, but unassailable all the same. It is beyond criticism therefore to criticise authority is to challenge the view of benign parental authority.

It is this kind of seeming authority, like the emperors, that blind us from seeing things as they really are, whilst also silencing those who see things differently. For fear of ridicule and rejection are powerful disincentives. Unless like the Whistleblower, these essentially adult concerns seem to have no effect, and he or she has to say loudly what it was they could see and what they couldn't. There is a good reason for our and the crowds response, we are understandably confused and scared.

The Whistleblower takes a great risk because he challenges a human desire for certainties in an uncertain world, and therefore has to endure being made to carry all the uncertainties him or herself, before truth is allowed to come to the fore or as in many cases sadly not.

Further reading

Isabel  Menzies Lyth
Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety.
Menzies Lyth, Isabel (1959) 'The Functions of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital', Human Relations 13: 95-121; reprinted in Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, vol. 1. Free Association Books, 1988, pp. 43-88

Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (4): 371–8. 

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