Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Don't snitch, Jack"

"Don't snitch, Jack," my sister-in-law said to my first-grader nephew on Christmas Eve after he'd tattled about some minor indiscretion by his older sister, Maggie. "Yeah, don't snitch, Jack," Maggie Lee chimed in cheerily with her high-pitched, sing-song voice. (She's in the fourth grade, she'd want me to mention).

Jack accepted his reprimand and went on about his business, but I've run the scene over and over in my mind ever since.

These are preacher's kids (my brother's a hospice chaplain and pastor of a small Baptist church in Denton County), and I'd dare say that if their family teaches the "don't snitch" meme, most Christian families in America teach their kids something pretty similar ("don't tattle, etc.). I don't know if they'd cite any specific theological basis for that philosophy. Perhaps they consciously associate snitching with Judas' role in the passion story, or Delilah's seduction of Samson -- if so, maybe my brother John can respond to tell us on his own blog. But I'll bet it's more deeply rooted than that, something we've all been taught from childhood, one of those values held so long we forget where it came from and why.

I know when we were growing up, if my brother or I snitched on the other one for some offense that merited a belt whipping, my father always gave one more lick to the snitcher than to whomever committed the offense. Let me tell you, it didn't take long for us to stop snitching after that policy was implemented a time or two.

Clearly my brother's household has carried that familial tradition forward in their own way -- his kids are being taught at an early age not to snitch, and I think that's a good thing.

A lot of overblown criticism has rained down on folks promoting the "Stop Snitching" T-shirts, accusing them of condoning murders and various heinous crimes. Even I've said before I don't think, in the end, that's the right message to take into the political arena, and I still think that's true.

At another level, though, the scene with Jack and Maggie tells me the "Stop Snitching" meme taps deep into the moral foundations of our society. What positive values does it teach?
  • Loyalty, obviously -- to snitch is inherently disloyal.
  • Trust -- if someone tells your secrets, they've broken your trust, even if those secrets were about some sort of wrongdoing.
  • Faith -- telling secrets to others is an act of faith in that person -- if they snitch, it's more difficult each time thereafter to have faith in the trustworthiness of other people, generally eroding human relationships at their foundation.
  • Prudence -- society expects us all to know and understand that when someone has put their trust and faith in us, those are treasures we need to be careful to preserve. Snitching commodifies trust and faith in exchange for whatever the snitch gets for their information (whether that's a sweet plea deal from a prosecutor or satisfying the vengeful spite of a first grader).
Snitching assaults all those values in a way that destructively undermines people's ability to maintain deep human bonds. (There are probably more I'm not thinking of, so if you think of any let me know in the comments.) The practice should be rightfully scorned, encouraged only in extreme circumstances -- pressure to snitch forces informants to weigh the gravity of the alleged offense with how much esteem they personally hold for the values bulleted above. These are hard moral judgments to make -- there is no "right" answer that's applicable in every case.

When police use a confidential informant to solve a murder or kidnapping, I think very few people would say the snitch did the wrong thing. The problem comes with the expansion of snitching in last three decades, especially as part of the drug war: the person who turns in their friend for selling small amounts of pot in order to avoid their own drug beef confronts a much different moral equation than the one facing a witness to a violent crime. (Of course, witnesses of violent crimes may have other non-moral reasons for not coming forward, like fear.)

That's why it's ridiculous to think banning the "stop snitching" t-shirts would help anything -- you can't ban the positive, right-thinking values that underlie the fad, and most folks wouldn't want to. It's a serious political mistake for the criminal justice system to place so many thousands of people in a position of making a moral choice where, predictably, many of them will find the government's position -- e.g., that they should snitch on relatively minor crimes like drug possession or low-level dealing -- more offensive than the criminality it hopes to stamp out. That decision doesn't just affect them, but also their families, their circle of friends and a variety of community institutions, creating division and distrust that comes to frame all those people's future interactions, both with police and one another. In the end, we've created a situation where significant portions the public become reluctant to assist law enforcement, essentially on moral grounds, undermining the legitimacy of government and harming public safety instead of im
proving it.

Snitching in the criminal justice arena poses a variety of problems besides just this moral dillemma. As Prof. Alexandra Natapoff recently put it in Slate, "
The backlash against snitches embodies a growing national recognition that snitching is dangerous public policy—producing bad information, endangering innocent people, letting dangerous criminals off the hook, compromising the integrity of police work, and inciting violence and distrust in socially vulnerable neighborhoods." But I think, at root, while public policy arguments can motivate politicians to act, the public's unease with informants stems largely from these deeply held, largely positive values that normally should be encouraged.

"Don't snitch, Jack." There's a lot summed up in that little phrase. A lot to think about.

See Grits' past writing about snitching and police confidential informant practices:


John Henson said...

I just remember the time you . . . Oh, never mind. Actually, I'm not sure about the Samson-Judas angle and I'll do some research on that one. Interesting. I guess I wonder about the motive of the snitcher. Is the snitcher doing it for the common good or as a way of buttressing a feeling of self-righteousness? I believe there are some acts that must be reported--e.g.--seeing a neighbor hoist a limp body into her trunk in the late of the night--and other acts that are less important to report. The snitcher must be wise and discerning.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey, John, thanks for commenting!

Usually in the criminal justice system the snitcher snitches to avoid culpability for their crimes, or to reduce their prison sentence length. Since 99% of TX cases end in plea bargains, basically snitching today is just a routine part of how prosecutors "cut a deal."

If you see your neighbor load a dead body into their trunk, to the cops you're not a snitch, you're a "witness." But in a larger sense -- the sense Jinny used the word -- any time a disclosure would betray trust built into an ongoing personal relationship, I think you tap into the core source of the public's disdain for snitching, both by children and in the criminal justice context, if they knew what was going on. Most people, as you did, draw the line pretty high when describing the level of crime that justifies betraying personal trust.

Judas and Delilah, BTW, are the archetypal biblical snitches -- both worked for the government, betraying extremely close personal relationships -- but there are actually quite a few others, none portrayed in a flattering light.

Great to see everybody at Christmas. Give my love to all, and have a great new year.

Steamboat Lion said...

Putting aside the police informant scenario, and looking at snitching in the context of close relationships, trust needs to be a two way street. I trust you to keep my secrets and you trust me not violate our shared core values. If you do all bets are off.

I'm think your nephews are getting a very mixed message. This is wrong, but if your brother does it telling me is worse. Hmmmm.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It was actually my Dad, not my brother, who punished the snitcher more harshly than the offender, and I agree it sent mixed signals. I guess my point, though, is that those signals come from conflicting but equally legitimate values, which makes snitching a very complex dynamic.

Similarly, you say the person being snitched on agreed not to violate "shared core values," and that's true. And in theory, criminal law, or a parent's dicta, represent the "shared core values" of society or a household. But those are not always the shared core values of the snitcher and snitchee -- nearly 2,000 separate acts have been declared felonies in Texas, and not all of them are universally agreed upon by the public. In lieu of such consensus, both the judicial system and parents can use coercion to force a different set of decisions on the prospective snitch that are more about self preservation and less about value judgments.

Which brings us back to the example of the kids: Did Jack snitch on his sister because he was morally outraged at her behavior? Did he think to himself, "Maggie has crossed an uncrossable line; this must not stand"? I sincerely doubt it. IMO he was exercising a baser impulse, one his parents rightfully should discourage.

Thanks for commenting, and happy new year.

Steamboat Lion said...

Agree with your response to my comments. Which is good reason to be a lot more selective about the laws that we pass as a society or family rules we set as parents.

I saw some guys smoking dope today. Didn't call the cops. I suspect most people, even including many who think mj should be illegal, also wouldn't. But if I saw a neighbour beating his wife I'd call 911 in a flash.