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).
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 improving 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:
- Is Grits Pro-Snitch?
- Who's a Rat?
- When you know the whole informant thing has gotten out of hand
- Here a snitch, there a snitch
- Snitch reforms in other states cited
- Requiring corroboration for eyewitness testimony might have saved Ruben Cantu
- What can happen when you snitch?
- Snitching undermines justice institutions
- Interesting links about snitches
- Failed 2005 Texas snitch reform
- Snitch rules protect apparently mendacious DEA agent
- Snitching keeps escort services in business
- A prison guard's aversion to snitches
- DEA snitch data lost
- FBI violates snitch rules
- Wichita Falls snitch makes false accusation
- Self-serving snitch at center of John Dillinger capture