Snitch nation

We are fast becoming a nation of Pavlik Morozovs.

Little Pavlik, you may recall, was the 13-year-old subject of a dubious Soviet story about how a young boy’s loyalty to the state trumped his love for his parents. Pavlik was supposedly witness to his father, the chair of his local Soviet, giving aid to enemies of the people. The boy turned his own father in to Stalinist authorities, the story went. Enraged by the betrayal, Pavlik was killed by his own family and was posthumously dubbed a martyr for socialist values.

Though the tale was later proven to have been wildly exaggerated, Morozov’s actions were hailed by Soviet authorities for 59 years.

Loyalty to the collective over one’s neighbors and even one’s family has always been a socialist ideal, but it was never an especially American one. Ruggedly individualist, Americans have traditionally been uncomfortable with the notion that the authorities in some distant capital have their best interests at heart. Certainly not more so than do one’s neighbors.

While it remains hyperbolic to suggest the United States is fully embracing a Stasi-like culture of denunciation, the times are changing.

California is in the midst of a historic drought this year, one which is forcing authorities to institute particularly strict restrictions on water usage in arid parts of the state. As an enforcement mechanism, some California municipalities are encouraging their residents to become professional snitches.

“Some towns are even encouraging ‘drought-shaming,’ asking residents to rat out their neighbors breaking the new water conservation laws,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported approvingly on Wednesday. She noted that this encouragement from authorities is resulting in a “flood of incriminating photos” posted online featuring local residents violating the dictates of the state.

The tactic has been quite successful. “The snitch campaign has resulted in 3,245 water waste complaints in 2014,” read a dispatch from the city of Sacramento in April of this year.

The efficacy of snitching campaigns can trump concerns about violating civil liberties. In 2013, Ed Krayewski, writing for the libertarian magazine Reason, expressed his apprehensions about a Palm Beach, Florida plan to create a “violence prevention unit.”

“We want people to call us if the guy down the street says he hates the government, hates the mayor and he’s gonna shoot him,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw when asked about the proposal by a local paper. “What does it hurt to have somebody knock on a door and ask, ‘Hey, is everything OK?’”

“Bradshaw says his department knows ‘how to sift through frivolous complaints’ in regards to obvious worries about the prime opportunity this hotline provides for abuse by score-settling neighbors,” Krayewski reported, betraying his own justified skepticism about this claim.

These phenomena would seem to go beyond neighborhood watches which create disincentives to engage in criminal behavior, or “see something, say something” terror prevention initiatives adopted by major urban centers. There is something deeply troubling about state, local, or federal authorities encouraging citizens to inform on their neighbors.

The prevalence of snitching culture goes well beyond crime prevention. The public has for some time been primed to alert the authorities when even their sensibilities are offended.

Take, for example, the purge of photographs of women breastfeeding their children from Facebook. A simple Google search will reveal thousands of complaints of young mothers who had the images of them proudly nourishing their children stripped from their personal pages. Why?

“Please note that the photos we review are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other Facebook members who complain about them being shared on Facebook,” read a clarification posted by a company monitor after hundreds of complaints.

Complaining about content is fast becoming a national pastime. In this country, however, a culture which values at least the concept of free speech prevents that perfectly human instinct to belong to a greater whole by ratting on one’s neighbors still keeps the wolves of tyranny at bay. But the standard of conduct established in other nations, where a similar culture does not exist, is providing our aspiring censors with a model for change.

“Last week, a man in Scotland was probed by police for making dark jokes about terminally ill footballer Fernando Ricksen. Then, in a more high-profile case, two men were arrested on Monday for making ‘offensive comments’ on Twitter about Mikaeel Kular, the three-year-old Scottish child who was found dead in Fife last Friday,” Rob Harries reported for the U.K.-based Spiked in January. “Each of these so-called trolls was arrested after their posts were reported to the police by other social-media users.”

Make no mistake, the value Americans put on free speech is fast being suppressed by the minority’s need to protect ourselves from our own sinister thoughts.

“Stricter regulation of Internet speech will not be popular with the libertarian-minded citizens of the United States, but it’s necessary,” wrote Sean McElwee in a January op-ed in The Huffington Post. Quoting extensively from The New Republic to make his case, he asserts in his call to action that “hate speech is not going to disappear from twitter on its own.”

American free speech jurisprudence relies upon the assumption that speech is merely the extension of a thought, and not an action. If we consider it an action, then saying that we should combat hate speech with more positive speech is an absurd proposition; the speech has already done the harm, and no amount of support will defray the victim’s impression that they are not truly secure in this society. We don’t simply tell the victim of a robbery, “Hey, it’s okay, there are lots of other people who aren’t going to rob you.” Similarly, it isn’t incredibly useful to tell someone who has just had their race/gender/sexuality defamed, “There are a lot of other nice people out there.”

Those who claim to “defend free speech” when they defend the right to post hate speech online, are in truth backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right; no right is weighed in a vacuum. The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups.

All of this is to say nothing of the abhorrently un-American plague of restrictions on constitutionally protected free speech in places like American college campuses, where nothing so offends as does a nonconformist thought. In campuses across America, Orwellian “free speech zones” and “speech codes” are established providing aspiring informants with the parameters in which they can justifiably inform on their peers.

There is value in collective self-policing, a feature of health societies that will never and should never disappear entirely. And public shaming has a rich, if lamentable, Western tradition dating back to the stockades. But the rise of an informant culture in America is distinct from self-policing, and many appear to participate in the encouraged practice of informing on others more in service to a base desire to indulge in a little schadenfreude than anything else.

Whether these developments suggest that America is going down a dark path is perfectly debatable… for now. Fearless public discussion and debate is precisely what is at stake. This century has been characterized by regular demands that we all watchful eye on our neighbors. Maybe, though, it would be better for the pendulum to swing back a bit to an era when minding your own business was an admirable trait.