Edward Snowden and the psychology of whistleblowing

(Washington, DC) After reading many speculative articles about the personality and personal ethics of Edward Snowden, I Googled the name “Fred Alford” to see if he had anything to say on the matter. That is because my former colleague literally wrote the book on Whistleblowers. His subtitle is “Broken Lives and Organizational Power,” and it’s a sad but insightful book. Whistleblowers are usually abandoned by co-workers and friends and defeated by the organizations they take on. They may sacrifice not only their jobs, but also their families. Some of their causes are truly noble, but just as often they are consumed by technical rule-violations, such a minor Medicare reimbursement violations. They are not concerned, Alford finds, about concrete other people. Some wish to avoid being polluted by belonging to an organization that lies. “Most do not talk about the others they are serving except in the most general terms, such as the ‘public.’ In this regard they are different from rescuers.” In situations of genocide, rescuers also act with courage and against the crowd, but they are moved by intense commitment to the individuals they save (p. 67).

David Brooks sees Snowden as an “atomistic” individual: “When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. … Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds …” Alford, who has almost the opposite normative orientation from Brooks, sees whistleblowers as existential rebels against pervasive and growing conformity.

But Alford also makes a wise point in a Salon piece: “Ultimately, Alford argued, we shouldn’t care what kind of a person a whistle-blower is. [Daniel] Ellsberg, he said, was ‘not necessarily the most saintly human being, but who cares?'” The question in each case is whether leaking was the right thing to do.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.