Saturday, 11 September 2010

Why shopping your neighbour to the authorities is against your interests

A thought has been bothering me for some while. And it takes the form of a question:

Why are there so many people so willing to shop their neighbours to the authorities?

Hardly a day passes without at least one story where a member of the public reports another member of the public to the police or the council or the taxman or…

We read of ringtones, photographers, local councillors and smokers all grassed up by their neighbours. I want to explore why this might be so. And, dear reader, I will be (as is my wont) taking something of a utilitarian approach to the assessment. What precisely might I gain from reporting you to the authorities for some minor infraction of the rules?

Let’s suppose that you cut me up on Alwoodley Lane doing about 65mph in your BMW. And, rather than shrug and carry on, I take your number and (having safely pulled over to the side of the road) ring the police informing them of your appalling and dangerous act. What do I gain from that act? There are several possibilities:

Some sort of personal advantage – this might be the case if I know who you are and your problem might be to my advantage. Say, for example, you’re a Labour councillor and the act of reporting might create a nice negative story to my party (and my) advantage.

Future protection – your lunatic driving is clearly a menace and will end with some innocent motorist being killed or injured. And of course that motorist might be me – providing the needed self-interest

Advantage from ingratiation – I want (and believe this to be in my interest) the authorities to think well of me, to see me as being on their side against those who would break the rules. Rules that were introduced for the “good of us all”. Importantly, I see this – rightly or wrongly – as a form of insurance against the possibility of someone reporting me.

Advantage from collective protection – by reporting your bad driving, I am protecting the group (me and other road users).

What we need to understand is that the reporting of someone to the authorities is never done as a selfless act of citizen duty. Never. It is always self-interested – which explains the popularity of anonymity. And it shows no pity to the person reported – the very act of you grassing them up proves your moral superiority to them and, more importantly, their sin.

One of the most common appeals to authority is that based on offence – what someone says or done ‘offends’ you in some way. It is, of course, impossible to deny offence – I may not have intended offence but you saying you are offended means that ipso facto I am guilty of offence. And, even where you are not offended, you can complain about my words on the basis that someone might be offended – especially if that someone belongs to a defined minority of some sort.

But understand that this appeal to offence is – just as in the speeding example above – only resorted to when the individual seeks some personal gain or advantage from the act. Even if that advantage is merely being seen as a ‘good citizen’ by those in authority. And authorities encourage and promote such behaviour through setting up telephone lines, enacting complex codes of conduct, providing the screen of anonymity and mitigating punishment through the shopping of others.

So next time you are tempted to tell the authorities – be it the boss, the police, the taxman, the benefits office or some standards quango – think about why you’re doing it. Do you just want to “get” that individual so as to obtain advantage? Or are you cravenly sucking up to those in authority for your own protection?

If the former, I feel rather sorry for you as you aren’t a very nice person. If the latter, all you do is encourage more interference, more ‘shop your neighbour’ campaigns and more busybodies charged with interfering in how we exercise our freedom. I guess I’m saying – don’t shop your neighbours, colleagues or the lunatic in the black BMW. It doesn’t serve you well at all whatever you perceive as the short term gain.



Angry Exile said...

There's dropping someone in it for revenge as well:
'How dare you cut me up. I'll see that you get yours.'

And there can also be genuine concern:
'Did he cut me up on purpose or has he got some kind of medical problem?'

This last one could be at least partially selfless, though when you boil down human behaviour almost nothing we do, no charitable donation or act of philanthropy, is truly selfless. If we feel at all good about doing it we got something out of it too.

JuliaM said...

"...all you do is encourage more interference, more ‘shop your neighbour’ campaigns and more busybodies charged with interfering in how we exercise our freedom."

Have you ever read the comments section of an online newspaper?

You are encouraging such people by telling them what the likely consequences will be! That love that sort of thing, because they genuinely believe that it will never, can never, be applied against them...