by Emmanuel Tchividjian
We are all experiencing the greatest global crisis of our lifetime. In such times, we are given, because of the confinement and the precious commodity of time, the opportunity to reflect on what really matters in our own lives and in the lives of others. It is also the right time to question and review our fundamental values.
It is clear, in the confusion that accompanies any crisis, that the value of truth and truth-telling is critical and can be lifesaving.
Dr. Li Wenliang, the 33-year-old Chinese ophthalmologist who alerted his colleagues and the world through social media to the coronavirus health risk is an amazing example of courage in speaking truth to power. Li was accused of making false statements and of acting illegally to disturb social order. He was arrested but later released when the Chinese authorities conceded that he should not have been censured. Very sadly he contracted the disease himself and died. He said shortly before his death, “It is not important to me whether I am vindicated or not, what is important is that everyone knows the truth.” He is, for millions, a hero and the face and conscience of this crisis.
Whistleblowers are often heroes who risk retaliation, and even threats to their lives.
Although the law in many democratic countries now provides protection for whistleblowers, it is often ignored in subtle ways. Employees still face retaliation and often have a hard time proving that actions against them, subtle or not, are due to their whistleblowing. Most of all they often feel very uncomfortable being in an environment where they are perceived as a snitch or, worse, a traitor.
Issues of compensation is often raised by detractors who claim that the true motivation of a whistleblower is personal benefit. This assumption is factually and historically false. Very few whistleblowers have benefited financially or otherwise from their actions. Jean Lenane, a psychiatrist and a whistleblower himself, in his article, What Happens to Whistleblowers and Why, quotes a study of 233 whistleblowers, which found that 90 percent lost their jobs or were demoted; 27 percent faced lawsuits; 25 percent got into difficulties with alcohol; 17 percent lost their homes; 15 percent were divorced; 10 percent attempted suicide; and 8 percent went bankrupt.
Sharon Watkins of Enron, Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom exposed criminal actions but lost their jobs in the process.
One of the most controversial whistleblowers is Edward Snowden, who copied and leaked classified information about the NSA’s surveillance programs authorized by the Patriot Act. He is now a fugitive from U.S. justice and resides in Moscow. Some consider him a hero of democracy because he exposed a surveillance program that he believed most citizens would oppose. Others believe he is a villain for stealing highly classified documents and endangering U.S. national security, possibly putting the lives of U.S. citizens in danger.
Perhaps the first whistleblower in French history was army officer Marie-Georges Picquart (1854-1914), as suggested by Bernard-Henri Levy in his review of the movie J’accuse!, which tells the story of the Dreyfus affair that divided the country of France. Picquart, chief of army intelligence, discovered that the document accusing Dreyfus of treachery and espionage was a forgery. High-ranking generals warned Picquart not to continue his investigation, as they were trying to suppress the evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence and cover up the scandal. He refused and pursued truth and justice. He paid a very high price for it. He was himself falsely accused of espionage, arrested and set to be court martialed. Fortunately, the French Court of Appeals finally, in 1906, exonerated Dreyfus and absolved Picquart of any wrongdoing.
Speaking truth to power for oneself or for others takes enormous courage. One example of such courage is Rachel Denhollander, a former gymnast, who tells the story in her book, What Is a Girl Worth? This horrific and heartbreaking account describes how she was repeatedly sexually abused as a young girl by her physician, someone she trusted and whom was revered by the community and supported by two powerful institutions, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. By coming forward publicly at an enormous personal sacrifice, she encouraged 250 other women to come forward as well. Dr. Nassar is now serving life in prison.
Ethics is essentially about values. What are the values at play in the issue of whistleblowing? How do we resolve the conflict between the moral values of justice and loyalty? Steven Mintz, in the blog post, Is Whistle-blowing an Ethical Act Practice?, says that loyalty “should never be placed above one’s ethical obligation to act responsibly.” He adds, “Responsible people blow the whistle when they believe more harm than good will occur if the whistle-blower stays silent.”
I am particularly sensitive to the dire consequences of remaining silent when evil is perpetrated. Many years ago, I discovered, to my astonishment, the silence and sometimes even the complicity of the Church during the Shoah (Holocaust). Very few Christians have spoken up against antisemitism and the persecution and annihilation of Jews throughout history. Those that did often paid the ultimate price for their courage. That is why I chose to personally become involved in repairing damage done during the Swiss bank World War II scandal in 1997. For almost 50 years, Swiss banks had withheld funds deposited by Jewish families just before the war. My goal was to help in making sure that those funds were returned to their proper owners. It was an opportunity for me to do something, not just say something. That is how I joined the PR firm Ruder Finn, which at the time was representing the Swiss government in its attempt to do the right thing, finding those lost funds and returning them to Holocaust survivors.
Silence in situations of abuse, particularly when children are involved, is very troublesome to me. I have been actively involved with a nonprofit organization called G.R.A.C.E., which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. The organization’s purpose is to prevent child sex abuse in faith-based communities and to train religious institutions both in preventing abuse and responding appropriately to abuse when it happens.
What questions should we ask ourselves before we act? Let me list a few:
1. What is my true motivation or intention?
2. Do I have enough information to be credible?
3. Will my actions be effective? Will they make a difference?
4. Am I ready to pay the price for my actions?
5. Will I be able to live with myself if I do not act?
Speaking up is a moral obligation in defense of truth and justice and in exposing evil. We should all have the moral courage to be a whistleblower.
It is true that crises do not form character but reveal it. In these soul-searching moments it would be wise to think about our character and identify any inconsistencies between our ideals and our actions. In the end, what matters is not what we say but what we do. It takes courage to live up to our values.
As Ralph Nader once said, “Moral courage is the highest expression of humanity.”
Article previously published by Strive Magazine
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