What About Whisper Networks?

A new friend of mine, Anthony Magnabosco, tweeted this the other day:

This tweet hit me hard.

I immediately retweeted with a “Yes! This” and a string of my thoughts on the topic – contested by a commenter – which I’m going to flesh out here. I have long been uneasy about whisper networks in general, and have tried to avoid participating in them for years. They have sometimes (often?) seemed to be close kin to something else I’ve tried to avoid: gossip. Every single one of us has been involved in a whisper network, whether it’s been inconsequential chitchat or something very serious. They are everywhere in some form or another. In this post I’m writing about whisper networks that are intended to protect other people as a result of someone being treated in some sort of damaging way.

The context of his tweet is the situation surrounding Lawrence Krauss and the allegations of inappropriate behavior/sexual misconduct that have come out against him. There has been a whisper network about him for decades apparently. As the allegations have roiled both the atheist and skeptics “communities” – both of which I’m now part of – these thoughts have been on my mind for weeks now.

Let me acknowledge up front that I KNOW that sometimes whispers are, or seem to be, the only option for people who have been ill-treated, or worse. I don’t condemn anyone who has felt it necessary to start or be part of one – including myself – because I simply can’t judge the circumstances from the outside. The following are my personal thoughts on whisper networks in general, and it should be obvious that I am speaking idealistically and in broad, sweeping terms. I intend these thoughts & ideas to apply to whisper networks of ALL sorts, not just those surrounding sexual misconduct. They exist in nearly all areas of life to greater or lesser extent.

A brief & admittedly simplistic summary: Whisper networks benefit only a tiny fraction of people – the ones that hear the whispers. EVERYONE ELSE is left out of the theoretical protection of it. And when no one tells the person being whispered about that a problem exists then there is no warning to change course, and therefore no resolution to the problem. I say we, collectively as humans, have to change this. Bringing problems out into the open is why is important. From now on just say No to whispers and say Yes to speaking up!

I’m clearly speaking of eliminating the need for whisper networks a best case scenario. Obviously there are occasions now when it’s the only seemingly feasible option to seek restitution, or justice, or protection, or something like that. But if there is any way to safely avoid it, I say do so. I think we must prevent any whisper networks from forming that are not vitally necessary, in order to be able to make the changes that will make them ALL unnecessary.

I think we all know what whisper networks do, and how we feel they can help. And they do help some people. But what about the things they don’t, or can’t do? They don’t provide a solution because they don’t fix the problem and they don’t protect everybody – just a limited “lucky” network. They don’t put the problem person on notice for their behavior, and often any consequences are unknown to the person and therefore can’t serve as a deterrent or a warning. They are a stopgap measure – a Band-Aid.

They are a stopgap measure – a Band-Aid.

Victims of bad behavior of all sorts have their own prerogative to decide what they’ll do when something happens to them. I don’t think there is any “right” decision for someone ill-treated to make for his or herself. But there are decisions that are better for individuals, and decisions that are better for society. I strongly believe that each person should make a choice that tries to balance what is best for themselves with what is best for society – but that there is no way to know, or dictate, what that choice should be in any given situation. That will always be subjective. I never want to shame or blame a victim for the choices they’ve made, or might have been forced by circumstances to make, or needed to make for personal reasons, but to encourage people to consider the longterm effects of those decisions before making them.

For myself, when I am the victim of something bad (or the observer of something) my goal is to make a choice about speaking up or keeping silent that will minimize the risk of the bad thing happening to anyone else. I might not have been able to avoid it myself, but I sure as Hell don’t want someone else to have to go through the same thing. But I am the only one who can make that decision. For me, unless the consequences to myself – or really, my family – would be extreme, I want to always try to make a choice that will stop the problem. (Hey, I’m still an engineer.) That’s my goal and I think others share it.

So many people can’t safely speak up – so the rest of us who can? I think we really must at least consider it. That’s why I’m writing my book about being an atheist from an evangelical background – because I have the relative safety to tell the stories of people who are not safe, and the possible reach to help them be heard. (I’m talking mainly physical safety, though obviously there are other kinds.)

I feel it is a personal moral imperative, and it’s sometimes resulted in very awkward and uncomfortable positions, being embarrassed, and on at least one occasion, putting myself in potential physical danger.  In two cases I personally observed truly positive change resulting from speaking up (and fortunately no danger to myself materialized) but in others I might never know the results. I’m not saying that I’ve always been successful with my goal, because that wouldn’t be true. And sometimes it just takes soooo much effort to put myself out there on behalf of someone else and it can also be really scary.

Anyhow, after my tweetstorm, I chatted with Anthony. At one point during the conversation he said something I agreed with wholeheartedly: “Whisper networks are odd things. You don’t usually know you are being added to one until you have been, and then what? At what point do you have an obligation to do something? And what can you do? Then when things blow up/go public, it’s a potential liability to admit you were even privy to the whispers. So I am starting to think “members” of these networks need to do something proactive beyond propagating the network or staying silent, which is why I think attempting to contact the “whisperee” might be the best thing to do.” I feel the same way as Anthony was feeling when he wrote that.

When whispers are equivalent to low-level gossip, there might not noticeable real world consequences if they remain secret. But when it comes to dangerous behavior the stakes are higher. Someone “in” the network might know to never invite the person to stay at their house, or be around their kids, or how to avoid a situation that could be a problem. But what about the people who don’t know? How many people are put at risk because they simply don’t have any idea that there is a problem in the first place? How many people being whispered about don’t recognize their behavior is unacceptable? How many people are damaged by whisper networks where the whisperers have accidentally played a round of Telephone?  This kind of situation can really get you thinking about the pitfalls of whisper networks: their potential liabilities, possible disregard for the safety of others, and the conceivable possibility of errors.

When people first hear whispers they are given choice that can be really difficult – pass them on, keep silent, or speak out – or maybe pass them on AND speak out. When I hear about bad behavior, sometimes it is so far removed that my knowing has very little effect on anything and it’s easy to decide just to ignore it. Other times it hits closer to home.  IF it is something I deem serious, there still might be nothing I can effectively – or safely – do, but if there is, I really want to try to find it. The farther along you are in a whisper chain/network, the more your choices vary from those who are at the beginning. Someone who might risk overwhelming consequences for speaking up, or reporting might only be able to whisper, but those of us farther down the line might find that we are in a unique situation to help solve the actual problem.

What if you know the person being whispered about? If you tell them what you’ve been told – protecting details and identities if necessary – then if they’re guilty of bad behavior they’re put “on notice” and given an opportunity to correct their behavior. (This assumes the behavior under discussion isn’t criminal in nature – if it is, off to the police you go.) But, if they are innocent, or there’s been a misunderstanding, they have a chance to clear their name or sort out the misunderstanding.  As Anthony requested in his tweet – please provide people that chance. Whisper networks inadvertently remove both of those options unless someone takes steps to break the chain. That is a real problem.

Whisper networks by themselves can protect some people, but they don’t help everyone and they never stop problems unless we stop whispering and take action. I aim to never start a serious whisper chain myself. (I’m not going to promise not to gossip – who on Earth could keep that promise?) But I have promised myself to do what I can to help solve the problem & stop it right there. And when I encounter whispers from others, that remains my intent.

I know many people will disagree with me, or say that I’m being naive or unrealistic or ignoring the plight of victims. (See my caveat above.) But I think we can make a change if we all say No to whispers and Yes to speaking out on behalf of ourselves and others from now on. 

When I was searching for quotes about whispers, this image came up & I loved the fighting spirit of the woman whose blog it was attached to: https://kittomalley.com/2017/09/07/i-do-not-whisper-i-roar-take2/


If you want to see my original thread on Twitter:


If you want to see the blog of the strong woman – Kitt O’Malley – where I found the lion image: https://kittomalley.com/2017/09/07/i-do-not-whisper-i-roar-take2/

Blogging for Atheist Republic

I just submitted a blog post to Atheist Republic – it will be published soon. My thoughts on “charitable” wishes for Stephen Hawking in Hell… Includes a brief email exchange between me & Richard Dawkins, who I am pleased to call friend.

Update! Find it here: My Thoughts on Charitable Wishes for Stephen Hawking in Hell

Arabic, German, ASL … Klingon?! Oh my!

This popped up on my Facebook yesterday and I admit that my heart did a little dance:


The Official Klingon Course: Duolingo x Star Trek! I clicked on the link, downloaded Duolingo and soon after I happily messaged photo to a fellow Trekkie friend Bob Novella of Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I discovered the Klingon Dictionary at the book store in the late 80’s/early 90’s and used to spend as much time as I could perusing it and trying to absorb a few phrases because I couldn’t afford to purchase the book. So I’m delighted that my childhood dream will be much more accessible! As of just now, there are 18.1k users who have started learning Klingon!

Since childhood I’ve studied – to various levels of proficiency – the following languages: French, Spanish, German, ASL (American Sign Language), Scottish Gaelic, Egyptian, Modern Standard Arabic and now Lebanese. (Egyptian and Lebanese are spoken “dialects” of colloquial Arabic) and now I’d love to add a smattering of Klingon to the mix!

You are probably asking “Why?!” My language learning history is long and a little convoluted.

I’ve loved to learn languages for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure why, but when there was an exchange student at school, I was usually the first to introduce myself –even though I was extremely shy as a child. I wanted to know about another places! When I was about 7 or 8 years old I discovered that there were French language learning records & pictures books at the library. I wanted to learn and I took them home with me. I can picture the setup in my room right now.


I wasn’t able to learn a language at school until 7th grade but I signed up for French and loved it. I continued into high school and I excelled (until we got into the language immersion style classes – anyone else remember Mireille?) I realized that reading & writing in French was not the same as understanding spoken French – there is a slew of silent letters! I also discovered stage fright.)

Anyhow, as soon as I started high school as a Freshman I signed up to take Spanish concurrently with my French classes. The teachers gave me a bit of slack when I accidentally took quizzes in the wrong language and I was really happy. I stopped taking French when I moved from Pennsylvania to New York, but I continued with Spanish until I graduated, in Connecticut.

When I started at RPI the only language offered was German, so I took that and liked it even more! (Spanish had an advantage over French for me – the letters all had fixed sounds & were pronounced! German just seemed more fun. Three genders? Yes please!) I ended up taking a couple more Spanish classes at a local women’s college down the hill in Troy, NY – Russell Sage – just for fun, but I intended to get a minor in German and go into technical translation after graduation. To that end, I applied for a new foreign exchange program and was accepted at a technical university in Chemitz to study engineering there for a year, in German. I never got to find out how succesful I would have been because the exchange very sadly fell through.

During my undergraduate years at RPI I was part of the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars (LARSS) at NASA Langley for three summers in a row. The first summer I made some friends (whole I am still in touch with on Facebook) who began to teach me American Sign Language (ASL). Of all the languages I’ve studied, ASL is the only one that I learned in a natural, conversational setting, and it is still the only one I can use easily, even if not fluently. I spent three summers with the opportunity to hang out with students from the NTID (National Technical Institute of the Deaf) at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was an amazing experience and I might have gotten a fairly close up look of a B-52 bomber on the nearby Air Force base by going for a drive with Deaf friends who were able to use communication problems to slide out of a reprimand when caught going where we weren’t supposed to be. I learned to carry ear plugs with me at all times because some of those friends really liked loud music with deep base so they could feel what they couldn’t hear. (Also, Deaf people vary greatly in how much they use their voices. A Deaf party can be a raucous affair with loud music and a lot of voices – it could be a little overwhelming on the ears for a hearing person learning to sign!)

After I graduated with a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering, I went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland to study materials engineering as a non-graduating postgraduate student. (I received a scholarship from the Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York. It wouldn’t cover an entire program so I took a few classes and enjoyed my time!) I spent 10 months there, and in addition to developing a very fine generic British accent and learning a lot of Glaswegian expressions, I also studied Scottish Gaelic while I was there, though I never got to use it outside the classroom.

When we (my husband Tom – then boyfriend) moved to California, I began studying to be a sign language interpreter at El Camino College while I was working as a materials and processes engineer at TRW Space and Electronics in Redondo Beach, CA. I made it more than halfway through the program before injuring my forearms at work (remind me to mention another time how I came to own an ergonomics consulting biz) and never completed the course. But I learned a lot about translation and got good enough at signing in ASL that when I met up with one of my NASA LARSS summer friends about 13 years later, we were able to converse fully in ASL – something we’d never been able to do as friends previously. I still hope to get certified in ASL at some point. In any case, it’s a language that still pops up regularly whenever I try to recall vocabulary in my current studies… I used it in my Arabic class the other day!

A number of years later when I had gone back to work as a Materials and Processes Engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp (formerly TRW) I took an Egyptian Arabic class at UCLA one summer, on a whim. I had visited Egypt years earlier, in 1998, and had thought Arabic was a beautiful and interesting language. When I completed the summer, I realized that UCLA Extension had a Certificate Program in Arabic Language and Culture. For a several years I took Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) classes every weekend and some nights after work and earned my certificate in 2006. I spent a month in Cairo (more pics here) at the International Language Institute after I earned my certificate, in order to get some colloquial Egyptian practice. (Tom joined me for two weeks and we visited Alexandria and Luxor while he was there. I made him take a beginners class in Egyptian.)

After that trip, a few years passed, then we moved and I was able to take a couple of Arabic classes at Saddleback Community College and eventually found my way to California University of Pennsylvania’s Global Online B.A. in Arabic Language and Culture. I spent a few years working on that degree and received my B.A. in 2015, though I’m still not fluent in MSA or any dialect, but I can read and write and understand a lot (particularly when I’m not rusty.) During my internships for the B.A. program I had the pleasure of working at Access California Services for Director Nahla Kayali, and my then-supervisor Rida Hamida and many other wonderful men and women providing social services in the Anaheim area. (Rida Hamida was a driving force between establishing the designated Little Arabia section of Anaheim’s business district a few years ago.) I worked with elderly Iraqi (and other) refugees and learned so much about the resilience, heart and stamina of those who have to flee their countries and settle in a new place and often start from scratch, with nothing, to build a new life.

My Arabic studies have spanned more than a decade and it’s been a bumpy road, but I’m still determined to become fluent in at least one dialect and eventually be able to use the language with sufficient facility to do humanitarian work, or help with interpretation and translation. It’s a long road, but I’m sticking too it. I’m back in class again right now, at Saddleback College, studying colloquial Lebanese conversational skills and I’m loving it! I’ve just downloaded this app to check it out: Keefak.


My all-time (so far) favorite method of acquiring conversational speech in another language other than getting to be immersed in the language environment is the Pimsleur Method. Hands down my favorite. Check it out here: Pimsleur Language Courses (Ebates gives a discount for purchases, btw. I do NOT get anything for mentioning these – they are just my personal favorites!) For Egyptian Arabic, I’ve found Rocket Arabic to be the best for me as some of the style is similar to Pimsleur, but there are a lot of online parts as well. I do not recommend Rosetta Stone for Arabic – I had to use it in my degree program, and it teaches an extremely formal version of Modern Standard that is hardly useful for conversation and very difficult to use even for advanced leaners.

Anyhow, my love affair with languages is really just beginning – so much farther to go and so many more to learn!


The Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Operation: Annihilate” was filmed at TRW in the Cafeteria building. I’m convinced that recognizing the location of my interview did much to give me nerd street cred during my interview there years ago, when the managers took me on a tour of the campus.

I’ve been told quite a few times that my Arabic handwriting is lovely and I hope that is true! I write in the Egyptian style because that’s how I first learned to write.

I had the pleasure of assisting Jörg Elbe with a bit of this German translation of Kenan Malik‘s excellent article: Rethinking the Challenge of Anti-Muslim Bigotry

My small contribution was in helping to find ways to express the concept of “bigotry” in general and also specifically the case of bigotry toward Muslims. The term in English is used to cover a wide range of meaning! It was an enjoyable and satisfying task. Here is the full article auf Deutsch: Die Herausforderung der Muslimfeindlichkeit ueberdenken