The reaction to Edward Snowden coming forward as the source for the NSA leaks has been interesting and varied, from clear signs of support to accusations of him being a traitor. I think the most interesting (and possibly the most prevalent reaction) is a little bit of fear mixed in with some what-is-he-thinking-could-he-really-be-that-naive and a lot of judgment guised as that's-not-how-I-would-have-done-it (this last one is the most hilarious to me -- you would never have done it, so any analysis of how you would have done it in a non-existent reality goes beyond mere speculation to pure fantasy). Like Monday morning quarterbacks, these people have questioned his decisions from things like his choice of an extradition-lite hideaway to his decision to come forward (as if him outting himself affects in anyway whether the U.S. government knows who he is and is trying to track him down) to whether he was able to save enough money to live on or if he is now completely unemployable for the rest of his life.
For as popular as Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" is, particularly during graduation speech season, there is a pretty clear social norm that favors steady job white picket fence 2 1/2 children and people that dare violate this norm can be very polarizing. On the one hand, most seem to acknowledge that there are great men and women that have bucked the trends and led to important advancements to us as a species. On the other hand, people who buck the trend present a lot of problems for society, at the very least because there is no comfortable pigeonhole to confine them to. This discomfort is often expressed in terms of these people being "unpredictable" or "untrustworthy". From Megan McArdle with the Daily Beast, "Whistleblowers Are Weird":
Human institutions, from the family to the government, are founded by trust. You need to be able to trust the people you work with, at least to the extent of being able to predict their future behavior. You may think you don't trust that rat down the hall, but in fact, you do trust him quite a lot: not to come into work with a machete and hack you to death in order to secure your superior office chair, not to start randomly swearing at clients, and so forth.
Some of that trust is enforced by fear of the consequences. But a lot of our ability to make a credible committment to be trustworthy comes from the fact that we are hard wired to be loyal. . . . You would feel bad about yourself if you [broke that trust].
That's why psychopaths are so dangerous: they don't have any of the internal brakes, the shame and guilt, that keep the rest of us from blatantly violating the trust of people around us. Oh, of course we do betray people from time to time--we break promises, forget to call our grandmothers, and engage in the guilty pleasure of gossiping about friends. But the hallmark of these betrayals is that they are impulsive and unjustified. Psychopaths feel no guilt about doing these things--or stealing your money, your wife, and your dog. They are fundamentally untrustworthy, though also, thankfully rare.
This reasoning seems flawed -- the reason why the rat down the hall doesn't machete you is because he is hardwired to be loyal? She's correct that if you're worried about someone harming you, the world of possibilities includes both intentional bad behavior (which she suggests that only sociopaths commit because they don't feel shame and guilt and these "brakes" on bad behavior are both apparently necessary to avoid bad behavior and also infallible?) and the unintentional bad behavior of everyone else (which she suggests is always impulsive). She says that we need to trust people to predict their future behavior (says no statistician, behavioral economist, or psychologist ever because currently the best predictor of future behavior is not trust or loyalty but past behavior). But of the two possibilities of bad behavior, which is more predictable? The sociopath's? (Who is almost the quintessential economic rational actor.) Or the "impulsive and unjustified" (i.e. no apparent or reasonable triggers or other identifiable causes) behavior of the non-sociopath?
Nor does someone's trust or the apparent level of predictability of a person constrain his behavior. You can trust the rat down the hall all you want, but that doesn't mean that your trust in him will keep him from someday putting a machete in your back. The best you could say about him is that his past behavior doesn't indicate an above average risk of being a murderer and/or that the chance is already so low and there are so many competing dangers vying for our attention that it's simply not worth the effort of thinking about who exactly could kill you. At this point, though, we are simply talking about probabilities of behavior and "impulsive and unjustified" are almost by definition random and unpredictable.
What is apparently happening here is that McArdle and many others intuit that there is something particularly unknowable about whistleblowers and sociopaths. Uncertainty like this does in fact increase both actual and perceived risk. But there's nothing terribly "unknowable" about them. In fact, in a lot of ways they are less complicated than most people -- the one hyper-rational ruled by self-interest and the other an ideologue that can't be bought off by even a $200,000 a year cushy government salary. Which makes me think this is the real crux of the issue. The scary thing about a whistleblower or any other independent thinker is that he is not as constrained by social norms. This is evidenced for the whistleblower by his rejection of the picket fence and golden retriever lifestyle. For most people, it's possible to constrain their behavior with so-called golden handcuffs -- all the materialistic trappings of a comfortable life in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, including submitting one's will to one's employer, one's government, the police, and even one's parent teacher association. The norm is enforced as heartily as it is because although the majority acknowledges that they can gain big from independent thinking, they can't have everyone constantly questioning the most basic of social rules as it would lead to chaos and a weakening of the social contract. And people are incredibly and irrationally loss averse, so given the choice they would rather keep what they have than chance it on someone who who already comes off as a bit of an outsider (how do we even know he has our best interests at heart? how can we "trust" him to make the right decisions? isn't this why we have a government heavily dominated by administrative agencies so we could sub-contract out important decisions like this and never have to consider them ourselves?).
Thus, the uncertainty lies not in the behavior of the independent thinker, which is actually quite predictably independent, but whether he is right or not. The problem is that although we say that everyone is free to act according to his own best judgment, the "right" thing to do with that freedom as far as the majority is concerned is to marry, own a house, be gainfully employed, and have at least two children. Only then are you considered sufficiently invested in society that you become "predictable" to us, in that we know you have too much to lose to take any major risks ("freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"). And if its one thing the financial crisis has taught us, it is that one person's actions can ripple through the entire global economy. Of course that applies for good things as well as bad, but how can we know ahead of time which is which? This is particularly a problem when (most?) people (inaccurately and unreliably) gauge the rightness or wrongness of decisions by imagining what they themselves would have done in that situation, and the thoughts and decisions of an independent thinker are difficult for many to fathom. (Of course, despite this inherent uncertainty, there are people who feel very comfortable assigning themselves the role of arbiter of good and bad. These people form the rank and file of the social norm police).
Still McArdle does make an interesting acknowledgment that the things that make people seem different and even unappealing to us are the very traits that make them socially beneficial:
We may well end up grateful to Edward Snowden, and also find that we don't like him very much. Of course, Edward Snowden probably doesn't care. After all, if he cared about people liking him as much as the rest of us do, he probably wouldn't have been able to do with he did.