Saturday, January 29, 2011

Start Snitchin'?

In many ways, I think my grade school experience was rather normative, though in one curious respect it was a bit of a Bizarro-world. Tattling was not stigmatized. Rather, it was considered a legitimate action that would be taken against you should you violate a taboo. The degree to which one should fear being tattled on was rather arbitrary and capricious. Personal injury or property damage were often guaranteed to result in a report to authorities, but victimless offenses (e.g. use of profanity, academic fraud) could easily result in a swift appeal to justice. (It should be noted that the word "tattling" was rarely used. We referred to the process as "telling.") And curiously, there was never a sense of recrimination for "telling." The ability to "tell" was an inalienable right, and we wouldn't dream of questioning somebody else's ability to exercise this right. One morning on the bus a fellow classmate bopped me on the head with his bookbag, leaving a visible bump (to be fair, it was in retaliation for me throwing his stocking cap). Not only was it a foregone conclusion that I would "tell" the teacher, but several of my classmates urged that I also tell a volunteer parent who was visiting that day, just for good measure. I of course fulfilled my duty, and the assailant was properly chastised, and the next day we were all back to normal.

Only occasionally would I get a glimpse into another world where "telling" was somehow forbidden. Once my mom told me about an incident from her grade school days in which a fellow classmate had broken her glasses. When I asked her what kind of punishment was meted out to this classmate, I was dumbfounded when she told me that the teachers didn't know about it. "Why didn't you tell?" I inquired. My mom, perhaps consciously trying to avoid instilling a "Stop Snitchin'" mentality into me, never did give me a satisfactory answer.

Finally in Middle School I was assimilated into the larger cultural norm, and I became aware of the importance of maintaining a code of silence, one that not just schoolteachers but law enforcement officials have traditionally had to battle. In some respects, it is not difficult to see how such a tacit conspiracy should arise. Particularly in a population in which most members could at various points face some kind of punishment, it is in the interests of the majority to establish a climate where the threat of punishment for any and all is reduced. Also, when there is a perception of power inbalance, the population that is at the bottom of the hierarchy may have sympathy (however misplaced) with others in their cohort who are struggling with those above them (this would explain the embrace of the "Stop Snitchin'" movement in urban areas).

But viewing the situation objectively, is it better for a society to have a culture of silence or a culture of information? I think that in order to answer the question, one needs to first determine if the existing power structures can be trusted with information. Obviously, in the Eastern Bloc when the kinds of networks that arose led to every neighborhood housing spies in its midst, a culture of information was deleterious. But there is also a long list of positive changes that have been enacted as a result of whisteblowers knowing when it was the right time to sing out.

So perhaps a key reason that my elementary school culture defied the national norm is that the teachers and administrators succeeded in creating a climate where their arbitration was viewed as trustworthy, where there was no shame in viewing them as credible distributors of justice. And I think this may have been a key factor in American military operations in recent years--encouraging collaboration from native populations is easier when those populations trust you to justly make use of what they tell you.

But while an appearance of fairness and propriety might go a long way in reversing entrenched rules against the sharing of information, I think there is another factor at work that could succeed in chipping away at this practice. The taboo against airing dirty laundry in public is being eroded. Discretion is not as valued as it once was, but neither is personal privacy. In a world where people seem increasingly willing to go on-line and openly share both their own flaws and the flaws of those close to them, why would they hesitate to share the flaws of others who aren't that close to them? And in a world where private grievances and judgments can quickly become public (see: NFL players on Twitter), why would we be surprised when grievances and judgments are reported to authorities?

Some may lament this turn away from silence and resistance, but most would agree that a world where less crimes are committed and less malfeasance is practiced is a better world. And if one is sufficiently deterred from committing such acts in the first place because of an increased threat of being identified as a malefactor, might that be regarded as societal progress? Was my elementary school just a bit ahead of its time?


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