There’s nothing worse than a grass. Or so goes the wisdom expressed in soap operas like EastEnders. Of course, there are worse things than being a grass, but such an overstatement does reflect a common taboo found in many cultures: no one likes a snitch, telltale, narc, informer or sneak.
Which is why the news that South East Water is asking its customers in Kent and Sussex to get in touch if they notice a neighbour ignoring a forthcoming hosepipe ban is unlikely to win it many plaudits. The supplier has placed a contact link on its website for people to report on miscreants they see flouting the instructions, inviting people to grass up neighbours they see watering the grass.
What a charmless, alienating idea. It’s not as though people are much enamoured these days of corporations that provide us with life’s essentials. Encouraging snitching is only going to instil even more resentment towards big business. And there’s nothing more likely to foster grievance and division in communities, particularly at a time when community cohesion is so gravely needed. The stakes are high: those caught breaking the hosepipe ban face a fine of up to £1000.
The cost of living crisis this year comes straight on the heels of a two-year Covid crisis, which necessitated a heightened sense of community throughout the land. It wasn’t so much the banging of saucepans in support of the NHS, but those acts of spontaneous generosity we read about: people helping the old and lonely with food deliveries, or keeping in touch with friends and relatives they had previously ignored. We heard about acts of neighbourly behaviour and acts of kindness in areas hitherto not-known for their amity. This seemed especially so in London, which like all big cities, had a previous reputation for unfriendliness.
Snakes in the grass and snitches in our midst are the last thing we need now. Or ever. There’s a good reason why there is seemingly universal taboo against being an informer. It threatens the integrity of the tribe, of ordinary people living in freedom of association and organically organising their social arrangements. It also transfers more power to higher authorities that rule over us and tell us what to do. Children realise this at an early age, which is why back in school no-one liked the kid who went running to teacher, or threatened to ‘tell on you’.
In adulthood, the conduct of the telltale or traitor to the tribe has potentially far more serious consequences. He is the Judas who sells out Jesus to those who put him to death, the Quisling who sold out Norway to the Nazis, the Benedict Arnold who sought to sell out the nascent United States to the British. Within living memory, treachery in Britain was still a capital offence.
The spectre of the political grass is also in living memory, witnessed at its most wicked in East Germany, where, as Stasi documents subsequently revealed, nearly everyone was reporting on their neighbours and families – even for the most minor infractions, like telling an improper joke. So it was, and so it is, the case in Communist China, which has a long tradition of encouraging children to denounce their own parents. The authorities, the police, and those whose services we are obliged to pay money to, are not always our friends.
Sure, the taboo is open to abuse. It is often deployed by gangsters and criminals to coerce ordinary people into silence and complicity. The mafia has a tradition of filling the mouths of informers they kill with bundles of cash, a gesture to warn those who might open their mouths for monetary gain. The IRA has also been harshly unforgiving of turncoats, which is why The Informer (the apt name of his autobiography) Sean O’Callaghan lived a life of such secrecy and seclusion after he repented and turned against his former comrades. And the manifestly untrue injunction that ‘there’s nothing worse than a grass’ (being a murderer is worse) arouses the suspicion that those who utter the mantra are probably criminals themselves, either assuaging their bad conscience or issuing a warning to potential informers.
Still, divide and rule is never a policy we should accept. It is resented for good reasons. Neighbours are people we should trust and rely upon, not just in times of crisis, but to do everyday reciprocating acts, such as picking up packages when we’re out or borrowing the proverbial cup of sugar. We shouldn’t fear or suspect our neighbours, and we certainly shouldn’t be exhorted and encouraged to do so by big business.
According to its website, South East Water loses 88 million litres of water a day through leakage. It, and other water companies should be expending more energy fixing leaks, rather than encouraging us to spy on the people next door.
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