Bob wants to know why tattling should be discouraged in kids if we want people to come forward to the authorities as adults. Dizzy suggests that we don’t want adults to report rule-breaking, either.

It seems to me that it depends largely on what rule-breaking we’re referring to and, perhaps more importantly, who is engaging in the rule-breaking and who is being hurt by it. We don’t want anyone to tell on ourselves, but we do want people to tell on other people at least some of the time.

We love our whistle-blowers. Sherron Watkins became nationally known and admired for being a “whistle-blower” at Enron before that ship went down. So much did we need some sort of hero that we largely invented one out of someone that wasn’t. Watkins never went to the authorities and only really made noise within the company in the context of legal liability and not moral imperative. But our need for a “good guy” and our admiration for whistle-blower converged and she became famous and admired based only on the appearance of tattling on the crooked bean-counters.

We also want witnesses to step forward when crimes are committed and the authorities try to protect them when they do, though such things require more resources than we are willing to spend.

Other times, though, people who come forward are condemned. For every Sherron Watkins there is a Linda Tripp. Words like “snitch” and “tattler” are attacks on people whose only crime is telling the truth. So what gives?

The question I think that runs through most of our minds is whether we are more likely to be hurt by someone tattling on us for doing something of equivalent severity or more likely to be hurt by the person doing whatever it was that that the tattled-on person was accused of doing. When people told on bullies in junior high, those of us that were pestered by bullies did not see any problem with that while bullies and their friends were critical of such telling.

When it came to Enron, Watkins is alleged to have told on big, powerful mean people that were screwing over there employees. We have a lot more in common with the people getting screwed than the folks screwing them over. Yay Sherron! Boo Enron! On the other hand, if a coworker turns in another coworker for coming in half-an-hour late last week, we see ourselves as more likely to get chewed out by the boss than we do being hurt by someone coming in late some morning.

People want the ability to get away with as much as they can. They don’t want to live surrounded by potential informants ready to report their every infractions. For the most part people hate speed cameras trying to catch speeders because we have more a fear of getting a ticket than we do of someone going 7mph over the speed limit getting into an accident with us.

Of course, we also want protection. We want the drug dealers down the street hauled away in handcuffs. We want anyone that witnessed a murder to step forward. We want anyone accused of doing something worse than anything we would do (or would be in the power to do, a la Enron) to get hammered to the wall. Witnesses and informants make that happen and we’re all for them.

Wouldn’t it be preferable, though, for witnesses of all infractions to step forward? If we were forced to enforce all of the rules, we’d have to get rid of the bad ones and the good ones would be enforced. What’s wrong with that?

In an ideal world, that might be the case. Sometimes, though, rules are really meant to be broken. Or I should say it doesn’t matter so much of the rules are broken some of the time. As a pirate might say, it’s meant more as a guideline than a true code. It doesn’t matter if I’m not in my desk at 8 in the morning, but you have the 8:00 rule to make sure people are there by 9:00. You have an understanding that traffic, trainstops, faulty alarms, and all that happen from time to time, but if it becomes a problem the rules are in place to put the hammer down. Tattlers throw a big, giant wrench in that productive general understanding.


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4 Responses to Tattlers & Whistleblowers

  1. Webmaster says:

    The line is wide and fuzzy.

    Especially in school, I remember getting both lessons. Some adults in the school felt that kids should “learn to handle their problems themselves.” What that meant, nobody was sure, unless it meant silently enduring bullying. After all, what “response” can you impose on your own that doesn’t violate school rules?

    On the flipside, if someone actually DID respond in any manner, they were punished for taking matters into their own hands, then strongly reminded that the proper thing to do was informing the teachers/principal.

    The lesson I guess maybe they wanted us to learn was “don’t get caught taking matters into your own hands but don’t involve the authorities because that gets your peers mad at you.”

  2. Peter says:

    Many of the people who report crimes to the police and testify in court are not mere bystanders, but people who were themselves involved in the illegal activities and had falling-outs with their cohorts.

  3. ? says:

    The question I think that runs through most of our minds is whether we are more likely to be hurt by someone tattling on us for doing something of equivalent severity or more likely to be hurt by the person doing whatever it was that that the tattled-on person was accused of doing.

    Valuable insight! Still, though, I don’t think it is directly on point about why adults object to a child’s tattling.

  4. trumwill says:

    Valuable insight! Still, though, I don’t think it is directly on point about why adults object to a child’s tattling.

    Same principle applies… is their kid more like the kid getting ratted out or is their kid more like the one being wronged? Which role were they in when they were younger? In short, who do they identify with?

    In the case of a foodfight (which is what got this whole discussion started), the real losers are the janitors. Difficult for a lot of parents to relate to.

    Another reason, as I mentioned in the comment section of Bob’s post though didn’t mention here, is that a lot of adult figures don’t want to go through the trouble of determining who is telling the truth and applying punishment.

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