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/