Friday, May 25, 2007

Grass thy neighbour

Not Sassure rightly describes the government's proposal that "Council workers, charity staff and doctors will be required to tip off police about anyone whom they believe could commit a violent crime" as "monstrous". The idea that we have some obligation to inform the authorities of our suspicions about what our nieghbours and co-workers have the potential to do is, I hope, obviously ridiculous.

But I'd go further: I find the whole idea that we have a automatic civic duty to grass - even when our neighbours actually do something illegal - creepy, offensive, and the very antithesis of civility.

As with this, I imagine the people who think it's appropriate to lecture us on our duty to grass benefit cheats, or shop someone breaking a hose-pipe ban, are the sort who can't understand that values sometimes collide. Everyone understands that the reason children could denounce their own parents in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia is that the state could not allow any competing loyalties or affections, and that they had succeeded in brain-washing a significant proportion of the populace that this was right and proper.

But what should also be understood is that the inhumanity of this did not just lie in the fact that the 'crimes' they denounced would not be considered as such in a liberal polity. For there is something profoundly authoritarian about the notion that we always have a duty to inform on our neighbours, even when what they are doing is clearly illegal and immoral. Because to do this would destroy the social basis of trust, without which civil society cannot survive. I've no doubt that when there's a water-shortage, it is wrong to waste it on watering your magnolias. But if I see my neighbour doing this, I'm not going to grass because I have other obligations - to present myself as a potential friend, someone they can trust not to go behind their backs, someone who bears them no ill-will.

More controversially, I would not grass on them if they were selling illegal drugs, contrary to the state's insistence that it is my duty to do so. This is partly because it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to do so, partly because I know, contrary to government propaganda, that the overwhelming majority of drug-dealers wouldn't dream of selling their product to children. On the other hand, if a drug-dealer was selling drugs to children, I'd feel differently about it and probably would inform the authorities - after considering the other duties I have for my own family and their safety.

I am not advocating omerta, for this is symptomatic of a society where the rule of law is but a faint rumour. But the other extreme is a society where the duty to the state over-rides all other social bonds and obligations. What they both have in common is the idea that loyalties and duties are absolute. A free society rejects both of these absolutist positions. You may feel differently about some of the examples I've used, which is fair enough, but my point is we can work out for ourselves where the balance of our duty lies without being lectured by a government who seem unable to grasp even the most simple and mundane of human dilemmas.

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