Snitching for Her Majesty

It is known that every totalitarian regime will sooner or later become dependent on informants for its own survival. The USSR was a prime example of this, but other totalitarian states have developed similar architectures of informant networks over time to sustain their repressive dominion. Great Britain is of course not a totalitarian state; yet the simple fact is, that there are so many latent totalitarian practices in British society that it is enough to make the mind of anyone coming from the Eastern Block ring the bells in alarm.  The incremental creation of the informer state culture is one of them.

Image courtesy of MoreInterpretations, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of MoreInterpretations, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Over the course of my studies at St Andrews University, I have received numerous emails from the wardens of our college hall, asking for information that would help identify the various perpetrators of any kind of mischief that recently happened. The statements included threats of punishing the collective, e.g. by using money set aside for entertainment to finance costs incurred by the mischief. Usually, they ended along the lines of: “don’t let others spoil our community; don’t let your money get wasted”. I henceforth ask how different is this to the propaganda language of the former Soviet Bloc, the Russian diversant model or the Stasi reference to subversive forces? The people of Central and Eastern Europe have their historic memories of snitching in the name of the communal spirit; the similar image being quietly painted in the UK is worrying at the very least. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to illuminate things in our own culture which we might otherwise accept without question.

I can almost picture the kind reader shaking her head now – how is the internal correspondence of a small student hall in a small student town at all important at the national, or indeed international, level? Frankly, the problem extends well beyond the geographical area of our little coastal town. As the “made from crime” campaign serves to illustrate, the use of citizens as informants is a deeply ingrained phenomenon of British society. In public transport (“report anything unusual”), public spaces (e.g. “report smokers”), but even public toilets (“report deficiencies in service”), Brits are encouraged to turn on one another and denounce their kin to the authorities. Even the much celebrated Neighbourhood Watch creates an environment where snitching thrives. That is not to say that these initiatives are fundamentally wrong or evil, and many have proven over the years as fantastically beneficial to the society (e.g. the neighbourhood watch). However, what I claim is that they are certainly not right nor righteous. In fact, they can very easily become a slippery slope en route to police state creation, as such practices become internalised over time and subsequently built upon by new policies of tighter control. Such practices, once normalised, no longer raise an eyebrow from the subjects and thereafter become exceedingly dangerous as they are removed from the scrutiny of the public eye. In the language of Galtung, this is cultural violence at its best.

Two crucial features strike unease in my mind particularly. One is the fact that notification is in all cases given anonymously, and the informer can thus wash his hands of the case and evade responsibility over having meddled with someone else´s life. Not only does this create a dangerous precedent as the citizen voluntarily delegates his agency to the state leviathan, it further fails in ways of educating citizens to cultivate interpersonal contact over isolation. Shielded behind the veil of anonymity, moderation and pro-social behaviour of toleration are the first to fall. The second feature is that citizens are conditioned on every level to embrace the normality, or indeed desirability, of such profoundly antisocial behaviour as snitching certainly is. As evidenced in Russia of the 20th century, the best informer is the willing informer. The Soviet Union celebrated activities of informers as civic virtue and a key component of citizenship. What is particularly frightening is how closely this model resembles the notion of the British “concerned citizen”, whereby an attempt is made to frame the issue of “reporting” in similar terminology.

The British state is obsessed with control, and the fact that this is culturally hidden makes it all the more sinister.  Indeed, the government´s valiant refusal to issue national ID cards as a practice of police states seems like little more than a masquerade for the public, given the incremental penetration of surveillance mechanisms throughout the UK. In 2009, a rather worrying figure was published, stating that the UK has currently more CCTV cameras than any other state in the world, including states we would normally associate with totalitarian control (e.g. China). As it were, it is estimated that the UK has approximately 20% of cameras globally, amounting to 1 camera per every 14 people. An average person gets caught on camera 300 times daily[1]. The German Democratic Republic at the height of Stasi power was able to exert relative control of 1 informant per 70 citizens[2]. Is Britain already half-way down a slippery slope, heading towards an Orwellian police state?

Leading back to the issue of “snitching”, can one really make such easy comparisons between the two quintessentially separate regimes: the democracy of Britain and the autocracy of the USSR respectively? Essentially yes, as I claim that the immorality of the practice exists independently of its background regime, and the comparison between the two is thus fundamentally sound. To provide an answer, we have to look at the very basis of snitching: what is it that makes it so morally reprehensible? My response is that it signifies the betrayal of kin to authority that holds power over them, and as such applies to democracies and other regimes equally. Whether it be in halls of residence, in ordinary employment or at the supreme level of the state apparatus, fact is that the authorities (regardless of regime) always wield power over their subjects. Most importantly, this power can be readily utilised to make the subject’s life miserable, or at least fundamentally impact on the subject’s well-being. Unequal power relationships therefore ought to foster a sense of solidarity among subjects of the same power status. If each is vulnerable equally, a proto-Marxian class sentience ought to arise. That said, the very idea of snitching implies an information transfer from an agent of one power class to another, with the implicit consequence of lowering the well-being of the target. As such, it matters very little whether the target will be tortured and executed in extreme authoritarian regimes, or whether some other misery will be implanted upon him in democracies. Snitching is the transgression of at least two universal moral prerogatives: the betrayal of a fellow and the intentional inflicting of harm on him.

I now move to what I consider the ultimate objection to my argument: surely acts of murder, theft and other such deviant acts should be reported – after all our judicial system itself relies heavily on civilian information gathering and witness testimony. Here I propose a crucial distinction already coined in the continental law system as means of differentiation: a break-down of the offence category into two subcategories according to the severity of the transgression. Essentially, one category includes offences of lower societal significance (usually also limited by a level of financial damage incurred), while the other encompasses criminal actions of higher societal delinquency (such as murder or the like). In Roman law, this would be equivalent to delictum and crimen respectively. Applied to the article, I assent that crimina ought to be reported, while claiming that delicta should be treated in a different way.

The different way I write of is that of interpersonal communication. If you observe or know someone engaging in wrongful behaviour, don´t go running straight to the authorities. Try to reason with the perpetrator – give them a chance. That way you approach them on an equal power basis, giving them the opportunity to change and repent their actions. That way, people will be more on the lookout for each other, rather than against somebody. That said, if that fails, you will always know where to turn to. This approach, unlike that encouraged in British society, strengthens communities, rather than fraying them.

The above are a few notes jotted down by the “concerned citizen” that grew up in a country where snitching was the norm under communist rule. These phenomena can go unnoticed, and their moral implications overlooked by people born into the system, but having grown up in a society that had slipped down the slippery slope of systemic snitching, the alarm bells are perhaps more audible.

[2] Hewitt, S.; Snitch, a History of the Modern Intelligence Informer; (The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd: London, 2010); pg. 105

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