Parrhesia Inc

Advancing Whistleblowing

Parrhesia – what Modern Society can learn from the Athenians

‘Fearless Speech’ (2001) is an anthology of six lectures given by Michel Foucault whilst teaching at the University of California, Berkeley over the Autumn of 1983 and posthumously published after his untimely death in 1984. Foucault described three elements to the parrhesiastic process of speaking up: the speaker, the truth itself and the receiver. Those who speak up normally do so not only because they believe something is wrong but also because they believe that something can and should be done about it.  The receiver therefore plays a quintessential part in this process because the reception and consequent response afforded to both the speaker and the disclosure signals so much to the whistleblowing individual and all those who observe what ensues. Kenny, Vandekerckhove and Fotaki (2019) recently pointed out in ‘The Whistleblowing Guide, Speak-up arrangements, Challenges and best practices’ that the speaker is also communicating their intrinsic inability to right the wrong they perceive with its implied obligation on the powerful to take remedial action, and a recognition of their own vulnerability when they speak to the powerful about it.  Interestingly, they also note that the response, be it appropriate, inappropriate or even or nil, sends messages which determine the next stage in the whistleblowing process. Where the initial disclosure has been made internally, it often governs whether an external disclosure by the whistleblower follows.  Empirical evidence from current research certainly reinforces this conclusion. I would add that on my own journey, born of both my ‘lived experience’ and my academic observation, the response proffered is the most important of the three elements highlighted by Foucault. Organisational response is of critical importance to the whistleblowing process, both for the single case and for the wider message it passes to bystanders about the organisational culture that underpins it.  The way the Organisation responds tells the speaker whether it sees itself as culpable, negligent or incompetent and thus vulnerable to accusations of wrong-doing which might damage the corporate or personal reputations, and thus market value of the organisation. It also tells other employees and outsiders whether it, its (senior) people, practices and processes can be questioned and what consequence they are likely to encounter if they too follow that path. Even a silent response speaks for itself; a non-act is an act and thus a message is passed even if nothing is done.  It is the response that defines whether the individual voice has been heard, heeded and acted upon -and whether reprisals are likely to follow. It is the response, and the manner in which it is delivered, that determines whether, when, where, how and to whom the speaker speaks next: get it wrong and the speaker speaks externally outwith the control of the organisation – blowing the whistle externally. In so doing, both parties become losers: the Powerful (receiver) loses control of the information and the speaker; the Vulnerable (speaker) retains control of the information but loses control of the situation thus becoming vulnerable to accusations of disloyalty and the consequent wrathful might and resources of the Powerful.

Hence to the concept of Parrhesia an ancient Greek term meaning “to speak freely”. Its use implied not only the freedom to speak without fear, but also an obligation to do so for the common good, even at great personal risk to the speaker. As Classical Greek playwrights love to extol: ‘it is the Virtue at the heart of whistleblowing’ describing the essential idea of the intimate relationships between the Powerful and the Vulnerable, an exchange of Truth for Protection, and a moral and real commitment to act for the common good of both parties.  We encounter it first in 450 BC, when Euripedes used it in his play the Bacchae, as a medium to remind and instruct the (male) citizens of Athenian society in beneficial social practice.   The Romans adopted it in the form of delatores, and in later in mediaeval England it appeared under qui tam practices, which existed in English Law until 1951. In the USA it underpinned Lincoln’s Law (aka the False Claims Act) to  combat fraudulent logistics procurement during the American Civil War. It was the basis of the charge given to Quakers to “Speak Truth to Power” reinvigorated within the anti-nuclear pacifist movement of the late twentieth century; and is truly the DNA of the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Acts (USA) and our own Public Interest Disclosure Act (UK).  722

The Athenian parrhesiastic contract offered both protection to the vulnerable but also a promise of sanctions against the wrong-doers AND those who might visit reprisals on the parrhesiastes – the whistleblower.   It was not an act of passive protection and anonymity: it recognized the real possibility of vengeance sought against the individual and guaranteed active protection against those who sought to inflict harm because of their act of speaking out. Thus, the Powerful offered not only freedom to speak openly but protection to the Vulnerable for doing so – and a public deterrent to those who might contemplate revenge. It is this principle that the Athenians understood, and we in our modern, supposedly sophisticated, society have forgotten. We need to return to the Athenian principle of offering guaranteed protection to the Vulnerable from the Powerful with sanctions for those who break the tryst. It is time to  reinvigorate the concept of Parrhesia by sowing the seeds of the parrhesiastic contract into both legislation and organisational practice across modern society, and not just in the UK : this is a call to arms of Olympian stature on the global stage.