Dissent and whistleblowing

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 39, September 2004, pp. 13-14

Brian Martin

"If only those complainers would just get in line, then we could get on with the task and be more effective." Have you ever heard this sort of comment? The underlying assumption is that agreement, cooperation, consensus, conformity - whatever term you want to use - is beneficial for the group. Consequently, those who challenge orthodoxy are deemed to be selfish.

Actually, the reality is exactly opposite, according to a readable book by Cass R. Sunstein titled Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). Sunstein says that "Much of the time, dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves." (p. 6) Whistleblowers certainly know that they seldom benefit from their disclosures; more commonly they are ruthlessly punished.

In making the argument that dissent benefits society, Sunstein describes fascinating research on group dynamics. Many findings show how readily people will conform, even going so far as to deny evidence staring them in the face. This propensity to conform leads to social cascades. In one type of social cascade, an informational cascade, people base their beliefs not on what they know themselves but on what other people do or say.

For example, most scientists will make their judgements about fluoridation or global warming based on what a few experts say, not on their own independent assessment of the evidence. The same can apply in politics, business and other areas. The result can be an appearance of unanimity when actually the information base is limited. A single dissenter or, even better, a group of dissenters can puncture this cascade and lead to better decisions.

Another sort of cascade occurs when people know that a belief is wrong but nonetheless go along with the majority in order to keep in their good books. This is called a reputational cascade. Bullying at work has occurred for decades, but for a long time few people spoke out about it: they knew it was wrong but they didn't want to go against prevailing opinion - or what they thought was prevailing opinion. Actually, most people dislike bullying. Dissenters break the silence and benefit others.

Sunstein says "Freedom of speech provides the key safeguard against senseless cascades. It opens up space for dissent by forbidding government from mandating conformity or from insulating itself, and citizens generally, from disagreeable, unwanted, and even offensive opinions" (p. 96). To this should be added that freedom of speech is also needed inside organisations. It is not just governments that mandate conformity: corporations, schools, police forces and other organisations can be just as intolerant and, therefore, just as prone to poor decision making as a result.

Another phenomenon that Sunstein analyses is group polarisation. When people in a group deliberate about a matter, they often arrive at a more extreme view than any of the individuals started out with. For example, if some people who dislike the prime minister get together, after discussion they will dislike the prime minister more intensely than before. This can be a dangerous process when juries, executives or politicians are making decisions about vulnerable people. Extremism in religion and politics is fostered by group polarisation.

Once again, dissent is valuable. Groups are less likely to succumb to damaging polarisation if dissenters are present.

Sunstein is sympathetic to whistleblowers, but gives little attention to them. Noting that "Better outcomes can be expected from any system that creates incentives for individuals to reveal information to the group," Sunstein suggests that a "company might inform employees that it welcomes internal whistleblowers and will not punish anyone who reveals information about wrongdoing on the premises or who makes suggestions about how things might be done better" (p. 71). This would be fine if companies actually practised what they preached. Many whistleblowers have learned that reality does not match the rhetoric.

Some whistleblowers are actually conformists, not dissenters. Conformist whistleblowers just do their job, which they believe means reporting problems when they see them. They conform to the officially stated policies of the organisation, or to ethical or professional norms, and this brings them into conflict with the actual power system, which is different. These sorts of whistleblowers are usually unprepared for reprisals, which hit them very hard. People who consciously dissent often have a better feel for what the response will be.

Why Societies Need Dissent concludes with this statement: "Well-functioning societies take steps to discourage conformity and to promote dissent. They do this partly to protect the rights of dissenters, but mostly to protect interests of their own" (p. 213). Those who have suffered reprisals for speaking out might conclude that we have a long way to go to become a "well-functioning society."

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