Reflections of a Whistleblower
By Wendy McElroy - September 11, 2014

I finally remembered advice I received from Ayn Rand's former lieutenant, Nathaniel Branden, and the memory of it led me down an odd path of thought.

First, the advice. It came many years ago as a result of my openly admiring how well Branden handled himself during the Q&A session of a lecture. He told me one of his iron-clad rules: Never respond to an attack on your character. Always have evidence for your beliefs, always be open to reason … but never allow someone to make your character into a platform of debate. "No one ever won by arguing the pro or con of 'I am a thief,' " he observed. It is a losing proposition and an outright insult from the onset. Anyone who seeks to hold such a debate with you is trying to inflict damage while giving the sanctimonious appearance of superiority. Refuse to play the game.

I remembered Branden's advice because I'd forgotten it. And, then, an incident pulled me up short. In response to last week's article on Ayn Rand, a fellow called me shockingly "dishonest" because I wrote of a time when Objectivism was defined as anything Rand said it was. I lived through that period. Young people who called themselves "students of objectivism" were literally threatened with legal action if they continued using the "o" word in self-description. From one moment to the next, my best friend was ostracized by people he had known for years. His sin? He refused to remove a book from his shelf simply because Rand had expressed public dislike of it. He figured it was his bookshelf.

I didn't take the abusive comments seriously but I did respond to them, and politely so. Only to have the abuse return. The persistence of churlishness is not surprising but my reaction was. I had replied once and I was poised to do so again even though I have a deeply ingrained habit of ignoring attacks on my integrity. In short, I was stepping out of character.

This is the point at which the odd path of thought occurred.

On August 25, The Daily Bell published my article "The Fate of Galt's Gulch Chile," in which I blew the whistle on a massive real estate debacle. I did so because I discovered the marketing department was still functioning despite earlier assurances that sales were non-existent. Partly because of the article, investors and land purchasers are finding each other and concerted action is far more likely. Good.

But I did not realize how deeply I am still responding to the experience. At least, I didn't realize it until I was ready to reply yet again to the attack on my character, even though I know full well that giving any response is encouragement. Why was I thrown so emotionally off-balance?

One reason was the act of whistleblowing itself. Being the first to speak out on an unpleasant matter is so difficult and clumsy a thing that I would have gladly handed the ordeal off to anyone else.

The experience has led me to wonder in general about "whistleblowing." Or, more specifically, why do people stay silent in the presence of intentional and continuing harm to others? In one sense, the question answers itself. Often, the harm is to others. And there is no shame in taking care of yourself and yours, first and foremost.

But there is no shame in speaking out, either and, yet, I continue to feel strangely unsettled. In reaction, I fell back into character; I read everything I could find on whistleblowing. One article was particularly useful: "A cautionary tale: the fiasco that was/is the 'Raw Vegan Village'." It described a land swindle launched in early 2008 for which there is still no land and still no refunds even though the project stumbles on. The parallels to Galt's Gulch Chile are marked. As the author commented: "Lives have been turned upside down with unimaginable stress and anguish. Some have lost their entire life savings and are left struggling to make ends meet."

One fact was dramatically different, however, and it jumped out at me. The expose told the tales of seven people who had been victimized. But even after years and with nothing left to lose, they all spoke under the condition of anonymity. No one was willing to use his or her own name.

There are many reasons to choose anonymity or silence.

The Raw Vegan Village article stated, "some investors have now endured several long years of being led to believe … that the return of their money was, at all times, just around the corner." Coming out with the cold facts constitutes the loss of hope, and it can be wrenching. But other factors are also in play.

Everyone knows the saying, "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." But, when good people do the right thing, it is not always evil that slaps them across the face; it is other good people who take the opportunity to laugh in derision or enjoy the schadenfreude – the shameful joy that comes from contemplating another's misfortune. The backlash from good people caught me off guard. No one deserves applause for saying what is true; that's what the 'default' position of life is or should be. But the amount of gratuitous and gleeful abuse was surprising.

Another reason for anonymity or silence: It is embarrassing to admit you were swindled. You feel foolish and helpless, which is not a comfortable combination nor one you want to present to the world. When people you thought were friends are involved in the swindle, it becomes more difficult because you start doubting your own judgment of other people's character. Perhaps such doubts are appropriate, and even overdue.

And, then, there is a constant refrain from a few of the fellow victims. Don't rock the boat, they say. Speaking out makes it less likely money will be refunded, they claim. Some people even verge on accusations that speaking out makes you a snitch or a troublemaker. Indeed, Ralph Nader coined the term "whistleblower" in the 1970s as a way to deflect such negative associations of speaking out.

And, then, there is the increased possibility of legal repercussions hitting anyone who speaks out under her own name.

Those who wonder why good people say nothing should consider the backlash experienced by anyone who does, a backlash for which they may be partly responsible without even realizing it.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap