“There’s rats in the street, and rats in the jail
In the feds, rats wear wires in they cell
S**t Steven Seagal, I used to love his karate
But even he snitched, he told on Peter Gotti…”
-Tony Yayo, “Tattle Teller”
“Ruthless” is not my middle name. Although I cop to episodes of selfishness and inchoate rage, I am also a person who swerves to avoid hitting squirrels in the road, gives money to the person in the checkout line who is short $3.50, and believes that everyone should, on most occasions, be given a second chance (and sometimes a fifth). I have always been utterly baffled by the “players” of the world, from Machiavelli to modern-day politicians and ex-boyfriends who lied, cheated and manipulated to get what they wanted. I can’t imagine spending five minutes of my life plotting anything, or deciding consciously to say one thing while meaning something entirely different in order to achieve a desired outcome; this may explain my complete and utter failure as a player of chess and poker.
My belief in myself as a fundamentally kind creature is, and has long been, complicated by the spectre of “tattling.” In general, it is an unnatractive characteristic in children; everyone remembers the perpetual carrier of tales who reported every playground infraction and instance of excess crayon consumption to The Authorities. Mostly, we all hated that kid. From that early fear and loathing, most of us come to accept a standard and unspoken “No Ratting” rule which we carry into adulthood. One does not, as a rule, “tell” on friends who leave the high school grounds to smoke, on colleagues who punch in late, or on family members who call in sick to attend the opening day of baseball season. It’s not that there’s nothing to report; it’s just that everybody hates a rat, and our response to behavior that is, strictly speaking, “wrong,” but which appears to do no serious harm, is to look the other way. If tattling were a positive behavior, we would call it “fluffy bunnying,” or “kittening,” rather than “ratting.”
One can argue endlessly with oneself about how much harm is caused by various kinds of bad behavior, and get all Kant-y about “if everybody did it…,” but most of the time we just don’t “tell” unless there is a serious infraction like the abuse of a child or a bloody hammer behind the basement furnace following the mysterious disappearance of a heavily-insured spouse. If one is basically “nice,” and generally adheres to the “no-tattling” rules, how is it clear when one has come upon a situation in which one has an obligation to tattle, and to become the far nobler “Whistleblower” rather than just a rotten snitch? Where, between stealing paperclips and embezzling cash, does the behavior of another person rise to the level where it is right and possibly necessary to blow the whistle? In a case where the infraction is some shade of gray, how do you know whether you are really a pure-hearted whistle blower, or throwing someone under the bus to make yourself look good? To be sure, there is an element of common sense for a sane person making such decisions, but how do we even begin to assess “common” in this context? Just because taking 20 sugar packets from a restaurant sets off my Spidey Sense does not mean that it’s even on the radar for the person at the next table.
I have tattled on a co-worker three times in my life, the most recent occasion being…recent. In the first two cases the infraction involved theft, and although I did not personally like either of the tattlees, it was clear to me that their behavior rose to the level where I was a) morally bankrupt and b) legally at risk if I didn’t disclose what I knew. I felt bad about reporting on them because I knew that they would lose their jobs, not to mention that they would figure out who snitched, and hate me forever. On the other hand, I knew that I would have reported even a close friend for stealing (after a concerted effort to persuade them to come clean on their own), and that I gained absolutely nothing from my actions. I could sleep at night, still “nice.”
About my more recent snitchery, I haven’t yet cleared my conscience. The other person was not doing anything dangerous or illegal; the transgressions were merely disorganization and fairly shocking unkindness directed towards people about whom I care a great deal. I do not particularly enjoy the person, and admit that I would not have reported on the behavior if the guilty party was a friend (although I would certainly have tried to mitigate the damage in a private conversation). I also admit that it was cowardly of me to turn the situation over to a third-party rather than trying to resolve it on my own. It would have been painful, messy and miserable to have handled things on my own, but I could have made the effort. In my favor, I can state with some certainty that the behavior in question was harmful to the business of the workplace, and that I had nothing to gain, personally, by bringing it into the light of day. Based on this calculus, I can clear myself of throwing my coworker under the bus, which, by definition requires some element of personal enhancement, but I was definitely tattling, based on my own moral conviction that the Wrong should be Punished.
I still don’t think I’m ruthless. I think I am guilty of judging, and of a certain smug self-satisfaction about the fact that I am a lily white pillar of virtue, above reproach in comparison to the other person involved. That is neither ruthlessness nor Machiavellian behavior; it is merely self-centered, flawed and possibly regrettable. There will be no job loss or demotion, but there will likely be a “schooling” which may serve merely to make another person conform more neatly to my personal standards of conduct. Until I can decide whether I was “blowing the whistle” to make the world a better place, or simply tattling to get a quick fix for a personal annoyance, I don’t feel all that “nice,” and my sleep will continue to be troubled. Somewhere, on the scale between spotless virtue and childish pettiness, is…human. It’s a tough gig.