What is ‘snitching’? When is it bad?

Anthony Parker of Third Eye Visions

Earlier this week the blind YouTuber Anthony Daniels (right), whose channel is called Third Eye Visions, did a video on ‘snitching’ and on whether it is OK to inform on bullies or on people who carry drugs or do similar less serious crimes. The video was an interview with another blind YouTuber, Brittany Embry (below left), whom he interviewed a couple of weeks ago; both of them lost their sight to shootings, in Brittany’s case (which she talked about in the previous interview) when she was 16 and still in high school 11 years ago. They talked about different situations where it may or may not be morally or socially acceptable to ‘snitch’ on people and the stigma around the subject in the Black community in the US. He also asked her if she would like it if someone who knew who shot her would inform the police and she said no, although she said she would want them to tell her.

I would draw a very firm line between informing on people who hurt others, either through acts of violence or through criminality which grinds a community down, and informing on people for petty, inconsequential rule-breaking. The latter is something people mostly do out of a self-righteous sense of being a “good citizen” and feel pleased with themselves for doing it, while getting a kick out of knowing the other person will get in trouble, likely out of proportion to the harm caused, which may well have been no harm at all. I include in this the people that send their dashcam footage, often of annoying but harmless driving behaviours such as pulling out in front of someone who has right of way or using their mobile phone while stopped at traffic lights, to the police; certain British police forces have published the footage on YouTube and reported that the person in the video got a fine and points on their licence, which will result in them having to pay higher insurance premiums or find a new insurer. We all agree that using a mobile phone while actually driving, i.e. in motion, is extremely dangerous (the new rules were prompted by some lethal high-speed crashes, one of them involving a truck driver who hit the back of a queue at 56mph, crushing a car and wiping out a whole family) and it’s right that people who do that and get caught be punished, but nobody should be suffering serious consequences for a harmless technical breach of the law because a busybody was pointing a camera over their shoulder.

At the other end of the scale, children (and especially teenagers) who bully others in school or criminals who harm others or terrorise communities should be reported and the latter in particular shouldn’t be able to hide behind a community by exploiting their struggles with the police and telling people not to ‘snitch’ on their ‘brothers’ or ‘homeboys’. If an innocent teenage girl had been blinded in a shooting in my community and I knew who was responsible, l’d certainly tell the police because the streets would be a lot safer with these people off them. The people who fired multiple shots into the car she and some friends were sitting in were trying to kill somebody. Brittany Embry has an unusually positive attitude to the incident and to being blind; she did not suffer any pain or any other deficits such as cognitive impairment or the loss of her sense of smell (common with shooting injuries that impair sight) and was happy to have survived mostly unscathed and credits it with turning her life around, and did not suffer mental trauma from it either, which a lot of people who suffer sudden or violent sight loss do. The next person this happens to might not be able to deal with it the same way, or might not get so lucky in terms of where the bullet passed and which nerves got cut. I know people who have been blind for years and have largely accepted it and have said they are not particularly interested in getting their sight back, but still find it difficult to talk of when they lost their sight or get upset as the anniversary approaches. That’s all normal.

Brittany Embry

They also mention the situation of what you might do if someone in your neighbourhood hides drugs on your property and you get caught with them; do you ‘snitch’ or ‘rat’ on them or not? This comes in between the two extremes of petty rule-breaking and serious harm, but surely the first course of action would be to say you do not know whose drugs they are or how they got on your property; if you have never touched the bag or wrapper they are in (which a fingerprint test would prove), they have no proof that you had anything to do with them. On the other hand, a person who expects you to carry the can for their offending or their life choices to take or supply drugs isn’t a friend, and why should you get yourself into trouble for their sake especially if you do not take drugs? In a similar vein, a lot of people would turn a blind eye if they saw someone stealing essential items such as baby food from a shop during a cost-of-living crisis such as we now find ourselves in. I see people telling us on social media, “if you see this, no you didn’t”.

The issue of bullying is a bit more complicated than they present it. They repeat the common misconception that bullies are weak and would not withstand being stood up to. This may be true when the bully and his or her victim are similar ages and at similar stages of development but at least here in the UK where children enter secondary school at 11 and leave at 16 or 18, bullies are often nearly fully-grown adults, twice the size of the children they abuse and would not be deterred by a 4’10” prepubescent boy “standing up to them” or even hitting them back. They have to be dealt with by adult authority and it’s quite proper to ask a teacher for help. We should not be calling this snitching; this is the derogatory term the bullies use.

The stigma against telling police or teachers or other authority is not limited to African Americans; in the UK the term that tends to be used is ‘grass’ but the principle is still the same. I saw it a lot at school. Bullies, gangsters and other low-level oppressors do not like people to talk about their wrongdoings or for anything to be done about it. If you are in a caring role, such as a teacher or care worker in a school or other institution, you should learn the language bullies use and then avoid using it; do not accuse anyone of snitching, mouthing off or anything else bullies like to accuse people of when they stand up to them or try to change the situation. Likewise, activists or others who want to lift their community up should not talk like those who drag them down. It’s right that we look down on tattle-tales or whatever else we want to call people who tell tales on people for fun or out of self-righteousness, but nobody should be accused of this when they speak up against someone who has caused someone else serious harm.

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