Whistle-blowers are often asked why they blew the whistle despite the grave risks to themselves. Their answers are often disarmingly matter-of-fact. They don’t make complex moral arguments. They don’t appeal to foundational principles. They don’t cite legal statutes or verses from the Bible. They say things like “I had to be able to look at myself in the mirror” or “That’s simply how I was raised.” When Butterfield was asked why he did it, he said, “I answered truthfully because I am a truthful person.” Which explains both nothing and everything.
Whistle-blower narratives are stories about the self. The choice to blow the whistle or to stay silent is a choice about the sort of person you are and the one you want to be. It’s not just a matter of what should be done in the abstract. Often, it’s not even primarily about the consequences of the choice, although it can be. It is about the personal stakes of keeping quiet. More often than not, what torments whistle-blowers is what their decision will reveal about them. They are worried about the state of their soul.
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We don’t know anything yet about the person who blew the whistle on the Trump White House. What we do know is that most bystanders to wrongdoing do nothing. When asked why they remained silent, bystanders usually give two reasons: first, that speaking out is futile, and second, that they would be punished. And of course, they are right. Felt only avoided hardship because he denied he was Deep Throat until the end of his life. Although Dean blew the whistle at least in part to save himself, he still went to federal prison for four months and was disbarred from practicing law. Even Butterfield, whose only sin was telling the truth, found himself shunned for a decade. Something along those lines is likely to happen to the current White House whistle-blower, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.
Whistle-blowers may triumph in Hollywood, but in real life, blowing the whistle is a professional suicide mission. Fred Alford, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has interviewed dozens of whistle-blowers, many in science and engineering. “The average whistle-blower of my experience is a fifty-five-year-old nuclear engineer working behind the counter at Radio Shack,” Alford writes. “Divorced and in debt to his lawyers, he lives in a two-room rented apartment. He has no retirement plan and few prospects for advancement.” Whistle-blower protection laws are intended to prevent decent people from being fired for doing the right thing, but no law can really mitigate the psychological devastation that comes from blowing the whistle. Most whistle-blowers find themselves exiled from the communities that gave their lives meaning.
Whistle-blowers know this and they speak out anyway. This is why Alford calls the act of whistle-blowing a “choiceless choice.” The whistle-blower didn’t choose to be in this position, but once they are confronted by a choice, they see no real debate about what to do. The relevant question, according to Alford, is not “Why did I act?” but rather, “How did I find myself in the strange position where this is all I could do?”
* This article originally identified Fred Thompson as a senator during the Watergate hearings. He was elected to the Senate in 1994.