Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 30, July 2002, pp. 10-11

Brian Martin

In the face of corruption and abuse, why do so many people stand by and do nothing? Whistleblowers are a tiny minority. Lots of others are aware of the problems but seem content to be bystanders. This lack of action can be perplexing and aggravating to whistleblowers.

To understand why co-workers and others so often do nothing, it is illuminating to understand how we ourselves are bystanders. Sad to say, we are all bystanders in some ways but we seldom think about it.

We all know that there are people dying of starvation in many countries around the globe. We all know that there are brutal dictatorships. We all know that there are numerous wars going on, with millions of refugees. We all know that torture is widely used.

We all know about the problems. What are any of us doing about them?

Now listen to the responses. "That’s someone else’s problem." "There’s nothing I can do." "I have enough problems of my own." "They brought it on themselves."

The reality is that we can all do a lot to help. Contributions to human rights organisations like Amnesty International make a difference to political freedoms. Contributions to independent aid organisations help save lives. Even a few dollars can make a difference to a child’s life.

My aim here is not to make you feel guilty but to illustrate that we all know about human suffering but manage to blot it out of our consciousness most of the time. The same processes help explain why most people are able to ignore the corruption and abuses around them.

My thinking on this is inspired by a recent book by eminent sociologist Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Polity Press, 2001). Cohen systematically analyses processes of denial by both individuals and governments. The book is impressive in its scope and insight. I can only introduce a few ideas from it here.

Cohen describes five methods of denial.

1. Deny responsibility: "I don’t know a thing about it."

2. Deny injury: "It didn’t really cause any harm."

3. Deny the victim: "They had it coming to them."

4. Condemn the condemner: "They’re corrupt hypocrites."

5. Appeal to higher loyalties: "I owe it to my mates."

These methods can be used by individuals or governments and by perpetrators or bystanders. Germans living near death camps under the Nazi regime could hardly be unaware of what was going on, but used one or more methods of denial.

Most of us are familiar with all sorts of human tragedies. Consider for example, Afghani civilians who were killed or injured in the US anti-terrorist assault. Denial can take many forms. Have you heard any of these comments?

1. "I don’t know anything about it."

2. "I don’t actually believe many civilians have been hurt."

3. "What do they expect, supporting the Taliban?"

4. "Those meddling bleeding hearts should butt out."

5. "We’ve got to support the US government."

When corruption or abuse is widely known in an organisation, only a few speak up. The rest can deny any responsibility in various ways.

1. "I never knew a thing about it."

2. "It’s just a trivial matter. Why get upset?"

3. "If people are stupid enough to get ripped off, they deserve it."

4. "Whistleblowing my eye! They’re stirring up trouble to hide their own poor performance."

5. "I’ve got to stick with my mates."

There can be whole cultures of denial. Everyone in an organisation knows about the exploitation, but each person either says nothing or mouths platitudes about it being a wonderful caring place.

When a single person speaks up, it breaks the silence, but this may not be enough to change the culture. Cohen tells of two main ways of forgetting. One is through active cover-up and suppression, such as rewriting history. Whistleblowers can be shut up by threats of reprisal, defamation actions, silencing clauses and a host of other methods. The other route to forgetting is through diffusion, namely getting lost in the abundance of ongoing information. A whistleblower’s story may be news today but be out of date tomorrow. Before long no one wants to know.

Cohen says that denial is something central to human functioning. We have to live with it. But some sorts of denial are far more damaging than others. If we donate to a good cause, but deny that our real motivation is to avoid guilt or to impress others, is that so bad? Most people who, on hearing of torture and other human rights abuses, use a form of denial to avoid taking personal responsibility, do so because it’s all they can do just to get by in their own lives, not because they are malicious. Cohen says that only a few people are evil.

What are the implications for whistleblowers? It is important to recognise that denial of responsibility is a predictable human response. So rather than just condemning those who just sit by and do nothing to help, be prepared for this lack of response and take it into account in devising your course of action. Learn to decode the standard responses, realising that what people say is often an excuse for an instinctive avoidance of responsibility.

Go get some leaflets from Amnesty or other human rights or charitable organisations and look at the ways they try to break through people’s psychological defences. Such groups have a lot of experience in promoting worthy causes. You can pick up some ideas for putting whistleblower stories on the agenda. And remember that the most you can hope for is that just a few people will become active. Bringing those few on board is a key to success.

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