Whistle Blowing - the psycho-dynamics of conflict
when values and reality do not match

Introduction - when ideals and reality do not match up

In recent articles about the social economy, colleagues at the European Network for Economic Self Help and Local Development have produced a number of pamphlets which attempt to define its key values - for the common good, promoting and supporting community, co-operation, decentralisation to the lowest possible level, democratic, supportive of diversity, socially useful, holistic, inclusive, people centred, sustainable. I do not wish to knock these values of a different kind of economic organisation - these are the things that economic life should be based around. What I want to do, however, is to suggest that we must go beyond the statement of values to show the issues, difficulties and consequences of making realities live up to ideal values. Merely setting up organisations around different values does not guarantee that they will remain committed to them in practice. Indeed it is my argument that it is virtually inevitable that, over time, they will not live up to them, that they will be dragged away from them to the values of "mainstream enterprise culture". This is even more the case now that politicians are discovering the social economy sector and beginning to promote it in ways that tie it more closely into the mainstream.

Alas I think we have to start from the assumption that there is an inherent tendency in any organisation set up for the common good to degenerate into something less inspiring. This doesn't mean we should give up on promoting economic processes for vulnerable people - it means that we need to develop a less naive and more honest theory of what is involved, so to speak, a set of maps for those who come after us, in the hope that they can navigate the perils better and hopefully get further. In other articles on this web site I have said that the very existence of a sector where people work for the good of the community gives the lie to the idea that people are intrinsically personal gain orientated. I remain convinced of this - but in recent years personal experience has made me feel the need to temper my idealism.

In all social organisation there is an inevitable inequality in what people contribute and what they take. Children, the sick and the frail elderly inevitably take out more than they put in and it is the hallmark of a healthy society that the community does not begrudge them but upholds this as their right. This is the basis for a generalised feeling of social and personal security and quality of life. It is likewise appropriate that there is a safety net when more active and able people are made unemployed or, in other ways, hit by changes in life that leave them struggling to cope. However, the rationale for a social economy lies in the recognition that one needs to give support to "losers" when they are down so that they can help themselves, (re-)developing their skills, ability and mutual organisation to steer their lives in ways that will be more sustaining. This requires commitment, it requires people acting as"moving spirits" who will be prepared to give more than they take to people who will take more than they give as they learn, grow and become independent.

This is all very idealistic however. Most of the large non governmental organisations in the UK are just not like this and they are run by people who simply do not think this way. For example in the magazine "NGO Finance" for June 1999 we can read in an article by Adharanand Finn and Paula Howley to the effect that "Research commissioned by human resources consultancy Charity People highlighted the recruitment and retention of skilled staff as a growing concern for the sector, which generally cannot match the salary levels paid in the corporate and public sectors. The research found that 64% of the organisations interviewed had encounter difficulties in recruiting skilled personnel, with the main problem areas being, finance, IT and fund raising".

Of course this explains why governments are becoming so keen on the so called "Third Sector". It is cheaper and it poses the question of who is being subsidised by social provision at the lower wage rates. One can ask: if the Third Sector brings down public expenditure on social welfare are the released resources being channelled into further welfare provisions or are they keeping tax rates down - in other words helping the poor or subsiding the rich and powerful? You can answer this question for yourself. For me this means that the so called "Third Way" is also a way for suckers unless it combined with practical and ideological hostility to the destructive effects of the corporate sector and its PR culture - and that means, for example, not taking money from the corporate giants where they are pretending to be socially and environmentally responsible.

In the "not for profit sector" you can also be ripped off in more direct and immediate senses. Stated values may not match up to realities. Of course it is inevitable that people lose interest in their jobs over time - they grow, their circumstances change and, if they are healthy, they then move on, making space for a new person to rejuvenate and bring in new approaches. However things are often not like this. There are people who work in the social and community economy and related groups who have lost interest in their jobs but not in their income. They may be reluctant or unable to move on and they become cynical. They may never have been interested in their jobs in the first place but were going through a rough time and got sucked into the self help process which started the project - landing the paid post before people really knew what they were like. They may be out of their depth, find that their volunteer managers are soft touches who are unable to monitor them closely and discover that they can get away with more and more. If you create a sector which is about supporting vulnerable people you create opportunities for people whose own way of coping with poverty has been lying, cheating and stealing. There is a sense in which you want to create opportunities for these people - to start again, of course, not to be Judases - but it would be naive not to recognise that the social economy, just like a garden, has its pests, diseases and parasites. What is more they can come to dominate organisations and when they do they can be extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. That is when whistle blowing becomes necessary - but, as I shall show, if an organisation is far gone in the processes of degeneration, then whistle blowing is not an easy course of action to take. Indeed it can be a ticket to hell.

Typically whistle blowing occurs about financial management and/or about performance standards. It will usually occur in the not for profit sector, not after single events, for we all make slips, but when certain practices of a powerful individual or group seem to have become chronic - let us say, for example, in an organisation when several treasurers in a row have resigned, been slung out or had breakdowns, then something is seen to be very wrong and another person tries to take a stand. However when whistle blowing occurs a number of things may happen which can turn the whistle blower's world upside down and inside out, leaving them struggling to cope in an emotional nightmare which goes on and on, for far longer than they dreamed it would, stripping them of any remaining illusions about the organisation they thought they were working in.

When friendship is not good for your mental health

For the whistle blower an Alice in Wonderland world can open up. For one thing if you think that criticism will call down hostility on you may be right - but sometimes something quite different can happen. Critics can also defused by being "befriended". This makes them uncomfortable at the intensification of a dilemma. For when you find yourself in deep disagreement with people, with deep differences, and then they are nice to you and say so widely in the joint work and social networks that you inhabit, when you then continue to express your differences you end feeling that the idea is getting around that you are being the "difficult" person. Whereas everyone is very nice about you, you are the nasty and obnoxious character who will not let difficult things rest.

In the organisation under criticism an expectation can take hold that people should be friendly to each other and that some people are being "unfriendly". This expectation that people be friendly can go even further as an accusation that critics have "poor interpersonal skills".

Who can possibly disagree with the idea that everyone should be friendly to each other? But of course this is a wonderfully good way to smother criticism. The expectation of chumminess creates what the psychologist Charles T Tart calls a "consensus trance". In his writings Tart describes an office in which competitive rivalries for promotion are under the surface and everyone is being terribly nice to each other. The issues in whistle blowing are somewhat different. Nevertheless the description of the friendly surface veneer over an office conflict in the following quote is remarkably apt. Tart writes:

" Suppose we are talking with several co-workers at the office. On the surface level we are friendly but on another level we may be rivals competing for promotion. As a result, our conversations have hidden agendas, such as an implicit contract that we will focus on the surface friendliness and not notice the hidden rivalries in order to smooth our interactions, thus avoiding the extra stress that would be generated through open rivalry. A second hidden agenda might be to preserve our self concept about not being aggressive. A third might be to spy out information about our rival's intended actions that might be useful to us. An atmosphere of friendliness might make it more likely that a rival will be lulled and say more than he or she might say if he or she remembered our rivalry. A fourth hidden agenda might involve demonstrating our own superiority by being relaxed about a rival" (Charles T. Tart, "Living the Mindful Life" Shambala Publishers, 1994, p202)

I am far from advising whistle blowers to remain in a state of continual hostilities. A surface politeness is something that we should be able to expect of each other. There would be extra stress in open rivalry and even as one is whistle blowing you have still to deal with people in day to day practicalities. It is extraordinarily difficult to be practically dependent on people with whom you have differences. To have rows with them will not make possible continued work. So whistle blowers must along with the surface most of the time. But there is a cost involved. Living and working in such a situation is living and working with a subtle lie all the time - not a lie as a statement but a lie in my presentation of myself in the situation, about what you really feel. Dealing with your chummy colleagues you end up feeling psychologically mucky.

True friendship is based on trust. It is trust that has broken down at that point where a whistle blower decides that they must act. The pre-condition of friendship and "good interpersonal relations" is that people are open and straight with each other. That way they can orientate accurately to each other. That way they are not misled into liking a PR facade. But it is the PR facade that the whistle blower is trying to blow right open.

Happy Families and their dissidents

What is often happening in organisations on crisis of this type is similar to what is happening to freak out individuals whose sudden outbursts of hostility seem utterly incomprehensible to "happy families" - until a psychiatrist comes in and diagnoses "schizophrenia" . In such families there is a surface niceness and reasonableness which covers over the fact that someone in the family has a different view of how things are. Someone gets sick of the family PR lies. However if they raise their alternative view, the different view that makes sense of their experience, they rupture the veneer of niceness, which is very much the family self concept, in a way that the others in the family can only accept through a deeply frightening process in which their illusory self concept as being ever so nice disintegrates.

A surface persona of niceness is useful in superficial undertakings where one has no deep differences with people. However if important matters of principle are a stake one has good cause to ditch this nice persona and reach for those responses which therapists always call for - getting in touch with your real feelings. And the real feelings of the whistle blowers who have discovered that the organisation that they work for is merely a honey pot for the clique that runs it are bewilderment, fear and anger. Psychotherapists assure us that the correct thing to do is to work with real feelings and that involves not pretending to be nice. That is the mentally healthy thing to do because it is the honest thing to do.

If the whistle blower is totally isolated then the situation can be even terribly disturbing. It would be gravely disturbing. There is a Sufi parable in Tart's book which I found highly apposite. The teacher of Moses, Khidr, warns mankind that on a certain date all water that is not hoarded will be replaced by a special kind of water that will drive men mad. Only one person heeds his warning and hoards water. When the date comes this one person observes the wells and rivers dry up and then, shortly afterwards start flowing again. He himself only drinks from his hoard but everyone else fails to notice, they drink the new water and they start acting very weirdly. In their relationship to him they are either totally hostile to him or compassionate about his oddness . This means he ends up feeling that he cannot actually communicate with anyone properly anymore. He comes to feel totally isolated and alone and so, in the end, he too drinks their water . He forgets about his own hoard. Everyone else then regards him as a madman who has been miraculously been restored to sanity (Tart p 172)

Being absorbed into the "consensus trance"

Whistle blowers can be faced with a similar choice. Sincerity or being absorbed back into the consensus trance - to continue raising criticisms and the issues in dispute or, alternatively, to stop their critical commentary and being accepted back into the flock - but with a feeling of total inauthenticity and insincerity. Friendship after all is about trust, about honesty, about sincerity.

When day to day you are in contact with work colleagues or fellow activists they become your effective social world. If you challenge them continually about issues then your life can become emotionally uncomfortable. A skilled personnel manager knows this. They know the importance of making you feel at home, at getting you to smile, at making you feel cosy. That way it's uncomfortable to raise serious matters of dispute. It can be well nigh impossible on a day to day basis to sustain differences particularly if you are not supported by other social networks and if you do not have any different conceptual and moral framework to put up against the "we know best" supposed expertise of the managers and professionals.

Staying in touch with reality when the facts about reality are in dispute

Of course, whistle blowers also find that the information to them tends to dry up. In a situation of dispute, as an isolated individual, it can be difficult to get any "facts" other than those that other people are prepared to give you. If they have any reason to fear you then clearly what "facts" they will share will be limited. Actually no one in a situation of conflict or complexity ever truly knows what is going on. On the one hand there is not the time to find out the full picture. On the other, when conflicts develop people become closed about what is happening and outright deceptions become deployed as defensive and offensive manoeuvres - usually on both sides of a conflict. Later the "winning side" have the ability to beautify and tidy up their account of events and the "losing side" neither has the resources nor credibility to challenge the inaccuracies of the winning side (since their own failings might have been thrown into such high relief). If things are corrected at all, it is only much much later, when the dominant network of vested interests no longer control things and a fresh group of people can reconsider the issues.

This is why whistle blowers, if they are honest, may also be plagued with doubt. There is an important point here when considered from a mental health perspective. Mental Health is usually conceived of as "staying in touch with reality". Yet the deepest reality one discovers if one finds oneself in a context of polarisation and conflict is that the consensus about what is really going on disintegrates and it becomes more and more difficult to find out what is "real". If madness is being out of touch with "reality" then conflict reveals that what people commonly understand by "reality" or "the truth" is a set of consensus impressions. In the complexity of conflict, when consensus breaks down, this is very difficult to find. The apparently firm ground of one's existence, your orientation to the people you work with and the facts of your work (e.g. money affairs) can then begin to melt away if you are not one of the people with the power to assert what the reality is and get away with it.

In conflict the situation can, in any case, change rapidly. New problems and new issues arise quickly and can superseded previous points of conflict in ways which are paradoxical and do not always favour the whistle blowers. For example if the conflict is about financial management the conflict itself may drive away volunteers and bring down the activity level of the organisation in question. This brings down expenditures and the criticism that the organisation is careering into the red is resolved - although the organisation is not doing anything very effective it can now continue because the critics saying this have left.

"Accept me on trust" - when asking questions is a hostile act

Rather than asserting realities which can change rapidly "whistle blowers" are better advised to ask probing questions. However merely asking questions, raising things can come to be experienced as committing a hostile act. When asking for clarification is unwanted and gets ignored a whole set of feelings come to the surface and one finds oneself in a most uncomfortable situation that is really difficult to deal with emotionally. Firstly one is at odds with people but, in truth, their lack of response can mean any number of things. Firstly they might be mortified that you have suspected them of anything at all so they disdain to deal with you because of that. (Some people have the belief that it is self- evident that they can trusted to look after other people's affairs. They really cannot see why that other people should distrust them and get very very hurt when other people do not automatically accept their moral and intellectual worthiness). Of course another reason why people asking questions are made to feel uncomfortable is that they are about things that other people would rather hide. They want people to shut up about what they know and not to ask questions. In some cases to get at the facts (like doing a cash flow forecast) would require bringing in help and some actual work to clarify a situation that someone would rather leave vague or not know about. (Or in the case of a cash flow forecast - they may not even know what the words actually mean). They tell you at management committee meetings that washing the dirty linen in public is "sabotage".

To feel oneself distanced and at odds in one's day to day (work) relationships because one has asked questions which have remained unanswered is a good recipe for paranoia. What I suspect is happening in a mental health crisis is that a person becomes at odds with those around them and then becomes isolated. In those circumstances nothing other than fantasy is possible because, of course, the isolated person has lost the means to "reality check" . To reality check would entail a dialogue with other people who, in this situation, are not prepared to talk. Thus only guesses are possible about what is happening and what has gone on. Naturally, guesses are influenced by emotions.

It is very difficult for whistle blowers to remain balanced and objective. They can easily overstate or go off the rails in a way that ends up discrediting their own cause. If the befriending fails they may be ostracised and their anger and fear makes if very difficult not to interpret every situation as evidence of hostility and/or ill intent - or as evidence that even worse forms of persecution, like discipline will follow or continue. This may not be on the immediate agenda but defensive moves to pre-empt against imagined imminent attacks may provoke the very discipline that is feared.

The fear of discipline is very difficult for whistle blowers to deal with. When people lose their jobs they may have access, in the UK, to legal provisions whereby they can claim "unfair dismissal". But they are unlikely to get their jobs back. Moreover they will need to have been employed long enough to qualify for legal recourse in the event of unfair dismissal and most volunteers who are disciplined do not have this protection. What is more you will have to wait some time for a hearing and, in the meantime, if you have been dismissed your unemployment benefit will be only a fraction of the normal rate. Until you can prove otherwise you are the person deemed to have been in the wrong and, having been dismissed, you will find it difficult to get a job. It is all very well for generously paid civil servants and ministers, with adequate savings and friends in the city, to resign on points of principle - people who have committed themselves and slaved away for years on a part time or low paid job are unlikely to be in the same position and whistle blowing then can get scary. The continued uncertainty and emotion makes it difficult to remain balanced.

Getting at the truth

If a conflict evolves over time it may also be difficult to get hold of what has been going on.. Groups construct their own "realities" in a consensus about why their actions are and were justified. "Truth" is the first victim of conflict. In the evasions and smoke screens, in the cover ups and secrecy, in the lies, in the leanings on people to keep their mouths shut, it no longer becomes possible to get at what truth is because the openness, the directness, the ability to talk things through, all disappear.

The ability to recognise "truth" is the stuff of mental health because mental health problems are being in touch with reality. But you can only get at this when people are prepared to be open. And they tend to be open only when there is nothing that they want to hide, or at least only when they are comfortable about talking. If you are a person asking difficult questions then your inability to make any headway, your bewilderment, your disorientation may actually be because you are being excluded from how things really are. Your bewilderment and disorientation (your "symptoms "in psychiatric jargon) is a result of your exclusion. In this sense your bewilderment and disorientation (your madness) may turn out to be the distress which arises out of other people's ethical failings as they keep you at arms distance. This was ever so clear with Soviet psychiatry which was a way of shutting up dissidents. Of course dissidents have reason to be upset and what happens is that their upset was used against them by describing it as a "symptom". When madness arises like this it is clearly an ethical issue. Antonin Arthaud, a famous victim of French psychiatry, said that madness was the price you paid for disturbing a vicious society by your investigations.

Inconvenient realities - investigation takes time and disrupts established work networks

What then is the "truth" or "reality"? Often what is understood to be the "truth" is more accurately described as a consensus held by a powerful group of people. Such consensuses can be very difficult to shift and there may be powerful pressures to discredit rival viewpoints raised by whistle blowers. The smooth running of a variety of interagency forums and partnership activities usually depends upon the stability of each of the agencies in the common networks. The smooth running depends upon being able to rely on the credibility of each of the organisations in the network. If an organisation in these shared networks were to break up, or if its credibility were called into question, then this might seriously inconvenience not only the staff and volunteers in the organisation that has broken up but all those working in the network. Staff in other agencies as well will be inconvenienced. There is, in short, an institutional framework of everyday work relationships with other institutions, officials and partner organisations. The wish to maintain the smooth running of the whole network represents a powerful force for inertia against a rival view. Human consciousness is inevitably selective about what it notices and the "inertia consensus" is likely to be held in place by a number of mechanisms like: giving prominence to the weaknesses of the person holding the rival viewpoint; accepting the reassurances and good news to buttress the consensus viewpoint.

The upset of the dissidents is noticed rather than the causes for their upset. An emotionally upset person is sometimes prone to over-amplify negative interpretations. This is well known. What now happens is that if the person is upset it is assumed, because they are emotionally aroused, that they are not capable of making a proper judgement at all and are ignored. (Balanced interpretations of the world are called "dispassionate". The truth is thought to be something that you arrive at without emotion. Emotion is thought to sway thinking. But then, of course, the people who win arguments are usually the people with power. They tend to be "dispassionate" because their point of view prevails so they have nothing to get upset about!). The emotional reaction of critics to a situation, is, in short, taken against them.

The German's have a phrase which I think is rather expressive. "Flucht nach vorne" means to take refuge in an attack. When a consensus is challenged by an individual or individuals whose investigations are disturbing to the smooth running of a network and its consensus there are several possible responses. The dissident can be ignored. They can be "befriended" or there can be a resort to a "Flucht nach vorne". In this "flight forward" probing and relevant questions get diverted away from the issues by attacking counter questions directed at the "behaviour" of the people making them . Why are you being so obstructive? Why are you being so confrontational? The questions directed at your personality and your "interpersonal skills" cover up an absence of a response to what the obstructiveness is about and what issues underlie the confrontation.

Regulatory agencies as allies? - Forget it!

Of course the members of work networks have agendas and priorities of their own. They have only so much time to look into things or do something about difficult situations. This is probably the principle reason why it is an illusion to believe that other organisations and legal regulatory agencies will step in. You can look up in the law books what is supposed to happen and the penalties if these things do not happen - the reality is a long way from what the law books say. "Stepping in" would take time and resources for lengthy and complicated investigations by officials who are usually based in offices in a distant city. Court proceedings would also take time and resources. These time and resources are not there - the regulatory agencies have only so much time and resources. They might see a problem exists but not want to act because there are bigger problems elsewhere which, in their judgement, it is more important to deal with. What they might do, therefore, is show their faces, after you having been waiting for months and months for their intervention, only to say that they don't want to rake over the past. They are there, they tell the whistle blower, to encourage positive change in the future, make suggestions that can be realised in paper resolutions of good intent and disappear for another year.

Paranoid fantasy or paranoid reality? - when you are got at behind your back

I have become very sceptical about whether top down regulatory structures can ever fully help powerless people. The higher that one is in that structure and the "smaller" are the people and institutions that one is dealing with the less time that one has for them - even less when, higher up, the real senior managers decide everything must be rebuilt by a local government reorganisation.

"Little people", "losers" who are without power, connections and influence do not as a rule get to occupy the attentions of senior officials or well connected and influential people. The further up power hierarchies that one is (management structures) the less that one can know in detail about what is happening in the myriad of small organisations and individuals for whom one has, in some sense, responsibilities. It is one's peers and one's superiors that make claim on one's thinking time, who do and say things that one must pay attention to, otherwise life becomes uncomfortable. Indeed the higher up power hierarchies that one is, the more one realises that things happen by connections. It makes sense for a smooth and easy life to accept the opinions of your peers. But people who realise that this is how thing work can abuse their "well connectedness" for their own ends . They can use their (overlapping) work and social networks to lean on people, as well as to attempt to discredit their rivals behind their backs.

The big illusion - empowerment as a greater say in what bureaucracies do

There is a view that prevails that empowerment is identical to having a greater say in what bureaucracies do. Clearly one can be befriended and taken into a bureaucratic or any other work or social network . Then one can have the illusion, because one is included, that those whom one is supposed to "represent" are also "empowered". As I have said "little people" (to use a term from an arrogant American millionairess) usually do not get to talk to "important people" like chief executives and other senior managers. When they do, perhaps because they join a community organisation, it can probably come as a powerful ego size booster to be able to regularly drop the names of the manager you have been talking to on the phone and what you have been talking to him or her about. However there is a danger at this point that the unconscious agenda becomes one of being seen to know important people that one then actually begins to hog the space between other disempowered people and those important people. Indeed there is a danger that one develops a fawning and dependent relationship on the senior people ( according to policy Guru Anthony Giddens the government wants to open itself up more so that the "Third Sector" so we may be having more of this kind of thing).

To really say anything useful however people need to be critical and independent of the managers. As an unknown Taoist philosopher put it several thousand years ago. "To praise someone sometimes harms them. To criticise them may be helpful". When one is, however, financially dependent on the very same agencies and one's personal motivations are personal gain and influence, then the underlying agenda can quickly drift into staying on very good terms with one's paymasters, mimicking their style in office technology and big cars, being feted at luxury hotels and treating oneself in a more than generous way to the hospitality budget.. The offer to influence policy degenerates into setting up forums in which the managers can claim they have "consulted people" and are able to legitimise what they intended to do anyway. Whistle blowers are then frozen out of the cosy cliques with their symbiotic relationship to the local public sector managers.

When not for profit organisations become mickey mouse organisations

But that leaves the cliques having to deal with the people in their organisation who want to innovate, to look at new ways of doing things, who want to control the expenditure more tightly, who want purchasing and delivery and office procedures done in the ordinary commercial manner, to whom it matters when the sums do not add up on the accounts, who do not think it right to give advances on wages just because people were going on holidays, who are keener on proper procedures.....

.....And the local public sector managers must also decide what to do when the message gets through finally from the whistle blowers that all is not well in the organisations of the people who go to the meetings with them. What whistle blowers often discover to their distress is that, like the regulatory agencies, local public officials take a long time to believe the critics, they then take a long time to react and are reluctant to intervene. When this situation persists for months one can begin to believe that, despite the contractual obligations about monitoring and performance, the organisation that one works for is not expected to live up to a variety of monitoring and financial management standards or even that if they cannot meet the required standards then these standards are to be relaxed yet further.

Partly perhaps the reluctance to intervene is also due to the lack of time - as stated above in relation to the regulatory agencies. But if one gets used to the idea that organisation you are working for is not expected to live up to the normal standards it undermines everything you have tried to achieve. With the negative expectation, you end up in a self fulfilling prophecy. If the officials expect and accept that the not for profit project is mickey mouse organisation then it is likely to become one. This is because the people who want to do something about standards are seen as making a fuss about nothing. They come to be seen as troublesome people who keep raising difficulties that no one else really cares about. The next thing you know is that these "troublemakers" are being asked why they are so unfriendly and what has gone wrong with their interpersonal skills? Of course "striving for excellence" is PR bullshit which creates a great deal of dishonesty about real performance. But if you carry too far the indulgence in regard to poor performance, if it means that you don't expect anything from people "of that group" in organisations like that ( e.g. because they have had mental health problems and can't take any stress) then you will end up pouring money into a performanceless pit and you will end up driving to distraction (madness)the very people who want to do something about this.

There is a case for tolerance up to a point. But officials in the public sector are sometimes soft touches because they are frightened of the emotional casualties if they intervened too hard in organisations that include some vulnerable people. Looking in from the outside they see the rows and they suspect that the charge that people have poor interpersonal skills is the best explanation for what is happening. They see conflicts and, true to their training, they interpret what they are seeing as people with problem personalities, people who lack social and interpersonal skills who are being aggressive. Their first inclination is to feel sympathy for a strategy which would drive out the aggressive people with the problem personalities. They feel that if they tightened up on the organisation itself, or worse, let the organisation go to the wall, then the vulnerable people being bullied by the performance obsessed neurotics with the poor interpersonal skills, would be hurt. The last thing that they would want to do with vulnerable people struggling to better themselves in the community sector is to hurt them. The important thing is to be firm with the people who keep on raising problems and poisoning the work environment. These people, the whistle blowers, then end up as the emotional casualties instead.

Unfortunately "whistle blowing" in these conditions is not an event, it is a war of attrition, which can go on years, with many casualties before something is done. As people walk out, leave, or are slung out of an organisation that has gone bad, new people come along, not knowing the previous history, attracted by the surface statement of values, and the tragedy repeats itself. Also, as officials come and go, as local government is reorganised, no one has a long enough memory to see clearly what is happening - until one day the message begins to sink in, if it ever does.

Vajrapani's thunderbolt - when anger is needed and stubbornness is being true to yourself

If we are to change the world we need to be competent and we need the energy to break though which derives from our anger and frustration. Frustration and anger is not about being nice. I am not arguing for violence, far from it, but I am arguing for being truthful and sincere. The problem for whistle blowers in the not for profit sector is that the people they expect to be their allies have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved. Indeed the officials and people trained in social work methodologies are often dupes who can see no further than the fact that unpleasantness is going on - then relating the unpleasantness to the personalities of the people concerned - thereby pathologising the whistle blowers. I found it interesting while writing this piece to come across an article in a Buddhist magazine about a Boddhisattva called Vajrapani. Boddisattvas are beings who have dedicated themselves to the enlightenment of all sentient beings and their eventual release from suffering. Vajrapani is, however, unlike the other Buddha deities as he is incredibly fierce. He is, so to speak, rather like a spiritual thug and not averse to flinging around thunderbolts against the negative influence of others who are blocking the road to enlightenment and compassion. Paradoxical as it can at first seem, clarity and the release from suffering, is not about being lovey dovey and comfy- cosy-friendly. It is about seeing the truth of things for what they are and stubbornly holding out for the truth, however uncomfortable. If I am unfriendly then I am at least true to myself, and therefore, as Shakespeare put it, not false to anyone else. That, and not cosiness, is mental and emotional health - anything else is a lie.

At the end of this article I want personally and publicly to thank Jim Simms, full time official, at the trade union MSF, whose practical and psychological support got me through one of the worst years of my life. If there is one thing that I would recommend to all whistle blowers it is to get the support of your trade union.

Brian Davey
July 1999

Return to index page