Why whistleblowing is the loneliest and most courageous act in the world

'Whose job is it to fix the bad stuff in the world?' asks Alice Dreger.

ALICE DREGER: The mob is very rarely turned. The best you can hope for with a mob is to calm them down a little, but they'll rarely turn. I think sometimes you have to walk and certainly choose your battles; you can't throw yourself against the wall constantly and survive.

The way I think about integrity is to remember that at the end of the day there's only one person I have to sleep with, and that's myself. And am I going to be able to, at the end of the day, feel that I acted with integrity, feel like I treated other people well, that I upheld principles that I really care about? And that on some days can be really, really hard, because it's not the evil people who challenge your integrity, it's the good people. It's the people you like, it's the people who most of the time do the right thing. And what ends up happening is, because we have interests in our lives, because we're interested in, for example, not unreasonably: making more money, wanting a more comfortable life, wanting to take care of our friends and family—those are the kinds of things that lead to corruption within systems, lead to misuse of resources, lead to people mistreating each other. And it's not really very hard to call out when somebody who is known to be awful is doing something awful; it's much harder when it's the good people around them cooperating or being complicit in that situation.

We see that, for example, with the MeToo movement where people are now exposing individuals who have been known to be creeps and awful people, but all the people around them decided not to stand up because it was too costly to them personally or because they have the attitude of 'it's not their job' to stand up.

So I think one of the things you have to ask yourself as you think about whether or not to call out bad behavior is: Can you get other people to do it with you? That will often help lighten the blow of the backlash. And then can you afford to lose what it is you might lose? And, for some of us, we can afford that so in my own life, for example, I've been able in many circumstances to go ahead and call out bad behavior because I have the resources to survive the backlash. But I always try to think of, at the end of the day and at the end of my life, when I look back, will I feel like I did the right thing? And that to me is really important. I was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family and so the message from my parents all the time, especially from my dad, was always: If you do the right thing you go to heaven; if you do the wrong thing you go to hell.

Well, I never had faith. It never worked for me, so I became an atheist very cognitively by the time I was about probably 14, and certainly by 16 and 18 I knew that I had no belief in heaven and hell. So then there was the question: How do you make sure you do the right thing? And for me, it was really clear, because my mother had said it to me, 'All the dogma in the world you don't really need. At the end of the day what you need is to know, did you treat other people well? Did you take care of injustice?'

And, for me, that was a very clear organizing principle, so for me, I'm not thinking about what happens after I die, I'm thinking about the end of the day and the end of my life, and thinking if I look back, will I feel good about what I did, or will I feel crummy about what I did? And Catholicism irritates me for many reasons, but one of the reasons it irritates me is because it has the confessional booth. And what happens when you've done something that lacks integrity is you go into the confessional booth and you tell somebody—who had nothing to do with the situation—that you did it, and that person forgives you. That's a shitty system. You can bleep it out if you have to. That's a system in which there isn't really accountability, where somebody is able to just let you off the hook. And if you're going to live with integrity you need to not have that ability to go buy the little ticket and get out of jail free, you know, do your seven Hail Marys and be on your way; you need a situation where you have an inner voice that says, "Well you did that badly and you need to make good on it." And then you go and you apologize to the person you hurt, not to the priest, and you go and you promise not to do it again—not to God but to the person you did it to. And then you have, I think, moral accountability—on the earth, which is where we live the moral experience. We don't live it in the afterlife.

Every time I've ever called out bad behavior I've been called bad. Every single time. When I called out the FDA on inappropriate behavior, when I challenged the Office for Human Research Protections, when I named Cornell and Mount Sinai Medical School as participating in problematic human subjects research on pregnant women; when I, at my local newspaper, revealed that city council made deals that they shouldn't have made that were not in the best interest of the taxpayers—over and over and over again I've been called bad. There was one time in my life that there were some kids that were acting incredibly violently at the bus stop and everybody turned to me and said, "Alice has to fix this because Alice fixes everything," because I'm the New Yorker in the Midwest, so I fix everything. I'm the person who is expected to be obnoxious and call stuff out, because I'm a New Yorker, so that's what I do.

So I ended up trying to deal with this, trying to call the school system, which didn't help, trying to deal with the family, which didn't help, and ultimately one day just lost it and dragged one of these kids home and presented them to the parents who were not at the bus stop as they were supposed to be. And the father throttled me in front of the kids, which was rough for me because it's one thing to be throttled, it's another thing to scare a bunch of kids. And I had to do a lot of soul-searching about the question of whether or not I should have bothered. Particularly because everybody in the neighborhood kept coming to my front door wanting to tell me how bad they felt about this, but they wanted to me to take care of them because they were feeling bad about this.

And I thought to myself, "Well, like at what point do we say 'it's not my job to fix all the bad stuff in the world'?" But maybe if more of us thought it was, maybe if more of us had that "New Yorker" voice in our heads rather than the "Midwestern" voice in our heads—the New Yorker voice, to me, saying "Do get involved," the Midwestern voice says, "Don't get involved. Don't get involved. Don't get involved."

If more of us had the attitude of, well, maybe it is our job to step up and stand up to injustice then the pain of it would be distributed better and we might get things done faster. The reality of standing up in terms of integrity is people often back away and say, "Well you have the personality" or "You have the resources and you have the privilege so you can do this but I can't do it." And the reality of whistleblowing and doing the exposing of injustice is that you're often alone.

  • Living with integrity means being able to fall asleep at night having asked and answered these questions: Did I treat other people well today? Did I uphold the principles that I really care about? Did I take care of injustice?
  • If you feel you need to call out bad behavior or blow the whistle on injustice, Alice Dreger offers this advice: "Can you get other people to do it with you? That will often help lighten the blow of the backlash. And then, can you afford to lose what it is you might lose?"
  • Choose your battles—you cannot fix everything. But, says Dreger, if more people called out injustice when they saw it, the world would be infinitely better to live in for all of us.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
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