Extreme Engagement

The project explores the parallels, intersections and divergences between whistleblowing, rebellion, and activism

Extreme Engagement: Whistleblowers, Rebels and Activists

For as long as human beings have lived in groups and formed institutions, there have been individuals who have stood out against the crowd as whistleblowers, rebels or activists, in order to expose corruption and wrong-doing, uphold particular principles or values, or to rebel against the status quo.  From the inside, whistleblowers have exposed the workings of institutions, calling attention to public and private procedures or outcomes which they perceive as unjust, dangerous, or impacting on the public interest in some way. Rebels have historically often gone further than shining a light on what they consider to be wrong: forming groups, conspiracies and factions they have schemed and plotted in order to overthrow the status quo. Activists are generally named as such because of their activities in the socio-political sphere: critical of official policy, often in authoritarian regimes where there is a dominant narrative that is accepted by the majority of the populace and promulgated by the mass media, activists operate to displace the dominant narrative with an alternative. What unites whistleblowers, rebels and activists is their thirst for change, and their willingness to act, often in ways that involve considerable personal cost, in order to achieve such change.


Whistleblowers frequently have some form of insider status, within spheres as various as politics, the civil service, the military, religion, commerce, banking, medicine, education, social and public services. They are driven to speak out or otherwise disclose the inner workings of organisations or institutions, so as to expose what they consider needs to be publicly known, in order to change it. Whistleblowing can expose corruption, reduce fraud, increase security, and, in its most extreme forms, save or cost lives.

To be a rebel or activist in private life is a normal rite of passage for individuals in most societies, particularly in adolescence. It may mean little more than testing one’s identity against the dominant ideology of family, tribe, political system or society, or it may mean attempting to live a life utterly outside dominant norms and values.  At a societal level, rebels and activists who band together, with a shared ideology that runs against the grain of the dominant model, frequently have political goals that they hope will form the cornerstone of the new system once the old system is overturned. At one extreme, this can involve taking up arms and attempting the violent overthrow of existing arrangements. At the other extreme, rebels and activists may employ passive resistance, hunger strikes or withdrawal of cooperation, content to exist as a totemic symbol of a better possibility and a rallying point for those who may feel the same.

A common factor underlying whistleblowers, rebels and activists is the drive for change, and the willingness to make enormous sacrifices in service of this change.  The nature of the desired change may be articulated with varying degrees of specificity and strength. Human history proceeds by change, as well as by sameness, and theories abound as to how significant the actions of individuals or groups are in these processes. The names of Spartacus, Wat Tyler, Jakob Rohrbach, Geronimo, Pancho Villa, William Wallace, Guiseppe Garibaldi, Zhu Yuanzhang and others echo down the centuries, but it is often an open question as to whether they were the actual agents of change or whether they rode the tide of economic or political forces which were more or less inevitable. So whistleblowing, rebelling and engaging in activism are all categories with an intimate relationship to theories of history, and theories of change, revolution and progress.

Organisational contexts are another rich seam. Why is it that some organisations are bursting with whistleblowers, whilst others – just as corrupt and vulnerable to critical disclosures – produce very few? Why does activism flourish in particular cultural and historical contexts more than others? What is it about some organisational cultures that make them especially efficient at binding members in to a shared and collective view about their goals and methods? And what is it about some individuals who are able to stand out against this shared mindset. This brings us to some interesting questions that relate to personal identity, as well as organisational culture.


What drives those who become whistleblowers, rebels or activists? What features of personality, character and environment are significant? The personal and professional costs can be enormous and life-changing, sometimes life-ending. Aleksandr Litvinenko, Marielle Franco, Arman Loni, Harvey Milk, and Martin Luther King are among the countless rebels and activists who have been assassinated. Many whistleblowers have gone to prison, such as Chelsea Manning, David Shayler, a former British MI5 officer, and Anat Kamm, a former Israeli soldier.

Even when the outcome is benign, the upheaval in the individual’s life is protracted and momentous. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is a former senior policy analyst for the US Environmental Protection Agency. Her whistleblowing experience inspired the passing of the first Civil Rights Law of the 21st Century –  the  Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (the No FEAR Act).  David Ellsberg is another whistleblower who, after much upheaval, achieved justice. He released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and was charged with theft and conspiracy. Due to illegal evidence-gathering and government misconduct, all charges were dismissed, and he went on to have a distinguished life full of honours.

Whistleblowers, rebels and activists can all pay a heavy price psychologically, in addition to the external and more visible consequences.  Their actions must originate in some part within their individual identities, but their journey may have taken some time and generated much internal conflict, as they wrestle with loyalty to, and membership of, a particular group, organisation or society. The outcomes of such extreme cognitive dissonance can have a profound effect upon personal identity. How do they cope with the knowledge that what they have disclosed may have the effect of endangering many lives?

Call for Contributions

This project explores the parallels, intersections and divergences between whistleblowing, rebellion, and activism.  We welcome contributions on any aspect of this subject, and not confined to those already mentioned.  From within biography, autobiography, film studies, law, psychology, medicine, economics, sociology, history, historiography, the history of ideas, the natural sciences and philosophy, we invite presentations on an aspect of human affairs that is especially topical and yet has a long history.

We also welcome contributions from anyone who has ever been a whistleblower, rebel or activist, or who has seriously contemplated it but drawn back because of the possible consequences. This would include those who have been civil rights advocates, those who have complained through governmental, commercial or legal procedures, as well as those who have complained through a public mechanism such as divulging information to the media.


1st Global Inclusive Interdisciplinary Conference
Saturday 7th May 2022 – Sunday 8th May 2022
Prague, Czech Republic