Love Thy State or Thy Neighbor? Snitching in a Time of Pandemic
On April 18, New York City launched a text line where citizens could post pictures of social distancing non-compliance. The mayor promised that police would respond immediately. Any violation could result in a fine of $500. Much to the mayor’s chagrin, the line quickly filled with obscenities and even reports on the mayor’s own activities! Yet many Americans are eagerly reporting on their neighbors.
This Sounds Just Like the Stasi!
In totalitarian states, the state is valued above all else. In the absence of a church community, Atheism or personality cults function as a state religion. In the wake of WWII, many people in the USSR and East Germany were raised without a father. To the socially alienated, the state was “papa.” Snitching brought rewards: cash, a better job, a better apartment, or higher societal status.
Our nation was founded with different values. The government was instituted to serve the people. As President Lincoln put it, our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” As a result, our nation is at its best when we live in strong local communities, elect accountable representatives, and enjoy the protections of the Constitution.
So Why are Americans Ready to Snitch on Each Other?
Americans are willing to snitch on each other for the same reason that many are attracted to socialism. As Timothy Carney explains, “The less we’re connected to one another via community institutions, and the more isolated we are, the more we grasp for something big to protect us. For young Americans, that’s often the state.”
People are alienated. Americans today are less involved in their local communities. They’re less likely to know their neighbors. The lady who reports “someone” down the street for receiving visitors doesn’t know the “someone” is an elderly woman whose son is dropping off much-needed groceries.
The eagerness with which governments have set up snitching lines and apps, and the large numbers who have been eager to use them, is a wake-up call. Let’s get to know our neighbors and invest more deeply in our communities. Strong communities have a sense of duty to one another. Shared convictions and positive peer pressure provide strong encouragements for people to do what’s best for the common good. “Snitching” is a poor substitute.
But Don’t Rule-Breakers Endanger Us All, Especially the Vulnerable?
The coronavirus presents a grave risk to the elderly and to those with pre-existing health conditions. Proverbs 3:27 says “do not withhold good from those to whom it is due.” Isn’t it right to tell the truth to authorities to protect the vulnerable?
Before You Pick up the Phone … Check Your Heart
But just like the brother telling on a sister to get her in trouble, we must examine our hearts. Is this a neighbor who has always irritated us? Is the business a competitor? Is our concern rooted in jealousy: Why should the neighbors have a pool party for their teens when we can’t?
Tattling can be a subconscious way to grasp at the control we want but lack. We can’t stop the virus or guarantee our family’s health. But, by golly, we can call 311 and make an anonymous tip! Instead, trust God, and be at peace. He is in control. “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him” (Psalm 28:7).
Before You Pick up the Phone … Count the Costs
Is reporting really necessary? The vulnerable know the risks and are staying home. American hospitals are now much more prepared for coronavirus; many are practically empty. While we should comply with necessary health precautions, many governments are now reopening their economies. A large concert is one thing, but that woman going for a 2nd jog isn’t critical to report.
Denouncing others can lead to more harm than good. How helpful is it for a local business to receive a large fine, leading to more and layoffs? Or for a neighbor to be questioned and detained? Those same officers could be on patrol deterring real crimes.
Ultimately, snitching violates American values and breaks down community and trust. At a time when we desperately need more of both to successfully weather this pandemic together.
Before You Pick up the Phone … Consider Other Options
If you think someone or a business really is endangering others, don’t submit an anonymous “tip.” Confront them yourself, in person. If a violation is such a big deal that it’s truly worth addressing, then it’s worth taking on some discomfort for yourself. Follow the guidelines we were given by Christ, and refer to the conflict resolution guidelines in Matthew 18, with an attitude of gentleness, not contention.
2 Timothy 2:24–25 (ESV): “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
Precautions are still wise and necessary to protect the vulnerable. But such safety measures must be balanced with the other priorities of a free society, including freedom, mutual trust and goodwill. Trusting God and each other, we will overcome this pandemic more successfully together.
Marni Chediak is a graduate of Stanford University. Before becoming a mom, she worked in various management positions for AT&T and General Mills. She has been homeschooling her three children in Southern California for the past nine years. She is currently a Challenge director in her local Classical Conversations community.