Malbreaux: The Politics of Truth

We must value whistleblowers as protectors of truth.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 2/23/18 1:45am

The ability to tell the truth and, conversely, the ability to conceal it are immensely powerful. Truth must be told earnestly; it must be told with a desire to inform without regard to the consequences. For the health of society and the welfare of the individual, it is crucial not only to tell the truth, but also to be receptive to it.

Of course, this idiom encounters several barriers in practice, namely in the form of people or entities that actively suppress the truth. In cases with immense opposition, telling the truth is not pleasant or easy. It is incumbent on the truth-teller to speak out fearlessly. This is the role of the whistleblower.

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who coined the word “whistleblower” in the 1970s, said that those who whistleblow protect citizens’ rights because they warn them of the destruction of their interests by “secretive and powerful institutions.” At first glance, a whistleblower seems suspiciously like a snitch. But whereas the snitch acts on the premise of personal gain, the whistleblower acts out of moral obligation. This difference is critical. A snitch tells the truth to eschew personal risk; a whistleblower’s truth-telling acknowledges and often embraces repercussions. Edward Snowden, for instance, was a proper whistleblower: A former contractor for the National Security Agency, he became an internationally-wanted fugitive overnight when he leaked classified documents revealing that the organization was secretly collecting phone records and surveillance data. Yet his actions grew not out of a need for petty vengeance or fame but out of an earnest desire to inform.

Interpreting this act of whistleblowing as a form of truth-telling is a testament to the power of information. A government agency had operated in complete secrecy while gathering invasive amounts of private information; by concealing that truth from the public, it had exploited unfettered power. Snowden’s unraveling of that concealment by means of truth-telling moved that power back into the hands of the people, incentivizing citizens to enact change. Shortly after the leak, Congress passed a law restricting NSA metadata collection. Yet Snowden was forced to leave his life in the United States behind to seek asylum in Russia. With such severe repercussions, it is fair to consider Snowden a proper whistleblower — he protected the public interest from pernicious overreach at his own expense.

Snowden’s truth-telling was accepted by the public as, in fact, true. That is to say, Snowden may not have been believed if he himself was not seen as an authentic truth-teller. Such being the case, two questions arise. First, who is allowed to tell the truth? And second, how does that affect public views of truth-telling and truth-tellers?

Trinity College professor Lida Maxwell cites the philosophy of Michel Foucault as a good starting point for understanding the role of the truth-teller. She argues that the acceptance of truth by others is “historically and politically conditioned in different ways in different times and places.”

Take trans gender activist and politician Chelsea Manning. After orchestrating the largest leak of classified information in history, most of which concerned U.S. military involvement in the deaths of innocent civilians, Manning, who was then-Lt. Bradley Manning, was arrested by the FBI after she revealed her identity to a clandestine agent. The day after her conviction, she indicated her preference to be identified as female.

Manning struggled to reconcile two different identities while in the military. On the one hand, she was an American patriot ordered to promote American interests and play the role of “soldier.” On the other hand, her personal convictions and identity did not align with this assigned role. She was a vocal critic of the United States’ democracy-promotion tactics in Iraq and even openly disagreed with those who outranked her, even punching a supervisor in the face at one point. She also frequently took to Facebook to complain about her frustration with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which led to disdain and ostracism from her fellow soldiers.

While Manning was a soldier, her voice as a witness to U.S.-committed atrocities was routinely suppressed or ignored. After she left the military, WikiLeaks provided her with a space to tell the truth. Maxwell argues that this is more than just an act of whistleblowing or truth-telling. Rather, it is an act of what she calls “transformative truth-telling.” In essence, she argues that Manning’s truth-telling was “not simply [planned] as an attempt to reveal facts that were hidden.” It was an intentioned response to “techniques of secrecy that constructed [Manning] as improperly public and not worthy of being heard.” A transformational truth-teller, then, differs from a whistleblower in the crucial sense that government accountability is not one’s only goal. Rather, the transformational truth-teller seeks to go beyond revealing truths, hoping instead to transform “the world in such a way … [to] appear as a proper truth-teller in it.” To get others to listen to the truth she told, Manning had to change her position in the world first.

With this change, Manning freed the world from ignorance. The “Iraq War Logs,” as they came to be known, revealed 15,000 civilian lives lost in the promotion of “American values.” And in the process of transformative truth-telling, Manning also freed herself from the silencing she faced in the military.

The world still has a long way to go with truth-telling. We can start by appreciating whistleblowers for the work they do in bridging information gaps by revealing the truth. We can also have faith in the fact that whistleblowers will always exist. Be it the case of a high-profile whistleblower or the case of someone confronting the everyday mundanities of life, the age-old advice to always tell the truth still holds true.