So… a “thinking” post.
Last week I wrote a post about naming names when someone crosses a social boundary, and asked why there is such a reflexive response that to do so is wrong. In a Twitter comment in response to this, @UrsulaV said: “I wonder if it’s because we hammer into kids from a very young age not to be a tattletale and it sticks in bad ways?” And that got me thinking and expanding on her thought.
Every once in a while a youth gets violently attacked, or raped, or murdered, or commits a violent act themselves, and in the aftermath it’s discovered that other youth knew what was happening and did not speak up, and there is a lot of hand-wringing and analysis as to why this is so. (This happens with adults, too, but the public handwringing seems less intense to me.) Even a cursory google search shows how much has been written on this subject—it’s seen as a significant social problem, and so there’s everything from sensational comment in the popular media to in-depth research and analysis in academic journals.
After reading @UrsulaV’s comment I had some thoughts on all this. But I’ll start with a couple of disclaimers. First, my thoughts on this are some brief and random thoughts only, not the result of studying all this material and attempting to become knowledgeable on the subject. I don’t have the time or inclination to make this an area of study, and I’m not pretending to be an expert. Secondly, I do know that this is an extremely complex sociological issue—I get that—and that many things play into it in complicated ways. These thoughts address only a very small part of a much larger context.
So, with those provisos, this is what occurred to me.
We teach kids at a very young age that it’s wrong to be a tattletale. So what are we teaching them?
The first dictionary definition that came up online when I googled the word tattletale was: “a person, especially a child, who reveals secrets or informs on others.” A simple clear, definition: and the word “informs” is important. Read the Wikipedia entry on “informants” and note how strongly it is associated with people supplying information not disinterestedly, but for their own gain.
Most parents, I think, want to know if a kid does something that is cruel to others, or could cause harm to themselves or others. If Kid X is leading other kids into dangerous situations, parents will want to hear about it, so they can stop it. Parents see this as telling tales for the greater good, not for personal advantage.
On the other hand, parents are likely to see snitching in self-interest as something they don’t want their kid to do. THAT’s the behaviour most parents want to nip in the bud: telling tales to deliberately and maliciously harm someone else, or to advantage yourself in relationship to them. We want to protect kids from harm, so we want to know what is happening with them, but we also want to teach kids to be social creatures within a community, not sociopathic predators outside it, and so we tell them “don’t be a tattletale.”
I think this is a distinction, understood by adults, that often gets lost when the “don’t be a tattletale” message is given to kids.
This lack of distinction is carried on as we grow up, as the concept of honour plays into this. Honourable behaviour is seen as an important goal—we want our kids to develop a code of honour as they grow up. Superheroes follow codes of honour, villains don’t. (What exactly constitutes honourable behaviour, and how it is socially and contextually defined and enforced, is a whole other issue, one I don’t want to get into here.)
Popular media reinforces the necessity of honour, but sometimes gets sketchy on the details of what being honourable requires. An honorable person is often presented in the abstract as doing things for the greater good, rather than self interest, thus reinforcing the message that was initiated with “don’t be a tattletale.” But what are the details? Often “being honourable” seems to get reduced to a too-simplistic shorthand that doesn’t fully address the concrete contextual complications of how to be honourable, or the level of personal responsibility that being honourable requires, or the problem that being honourable can be very hard and uncomfortable work when it goes against social norms.
It seems to me that in practice, this lack of depth can lead to a conflation of “code of honour” and “code of silence,” and that is problematic. Effectively it says that to be honourable is to keep your mouth shut—don’t be a tattletale. This is reinforced by our unconscious inclinations: keeping silent is easy to do, compared to speaking against others and opening yourself to attack, which makes keeping silent attractive and discourages us from thinking too much about the implications of doing so.
I don’t know what the solution is to this lack of depth and distinction, or how that gets changed. “Don’t be a tattletale” may be intended as shorthand for “Think of the greater good, don’t harm others because you want to advantage yourself.” But it leaves out too much—we can’t just assume that kids (or youth, or adults, for that matter) understand it contextually. Maybe we simply need to trust that kids are smarter than we think, even when they’re young, and find better ways to explain these ideas more thoroughly to them, instead of trusting to verbal and conceptual shortcuts.