The problem is snitch culture, not “cancel culture”

Snitch culture is the social practice of treating it as normal or legitimate to respond to real or imagined wrongdoing by informing the police or employers in the hope that these authorities will penalize those accused by charging them with crimes or firing them from their jobs. The most obvious effect of the practice is to enlist ordinary people into the role of enhancing and intensifying the power of employers and the police. But the sinister seductiveness of snitch culture is such that people are drawn to it out of a desire to stand up to injustice or abuse, which is obviously an important and laudable aim. The tragic irony of snitch culture is thus that people think that they’re helping when they participate in it.

(To avoid misunderstanding, note that when I mention snitch culture I’m talking about the ‘vigilante’ spirit of seeking to encourage and assist powerful people to punish alleged wrong-doers, not the defensive response of people hoping for protection from dangerous attacks or threats, a matter I address below, in my concluding paragraph.) 

The most enthusiastic advocates of snitch culture are often “very online” consumers of corporate social media ‘platforms’ like Twitter. They can frequently be found openly boasting about the capacity of social-media consumers to get people fired from their jobs, simply by informing employers en masse and urging bosses to discipline their employees. To be sure, many of these snitch mobs regard themselves as part of the Far Right (“patriots,” as fascists call themselves in North America), eager to inflict harm on BLM protesters, feminists, trans rights activists, or trade unionists. But quite often, possibly even more often, the snitch culture enthusiasts see themselves as part of the broad Left (occasionally even the Far Left), as surprising as this may seem to those who are unfamiliar with social media consumption patterns. 

What makes this broadly lefist self-understanding possible for snitch culture enthusiasts is that, even if the form of their behaviour seems obviously alien to the values of the Left, as informants demanding that the police crack down on criminals or that employers discipline workers, nevertheless because the basis for their complaints is accusations of racist or sexist or anti-worker behaviour, they assume that the snitching behaviour itself must be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-worker. But the reasoning is clearly fallacious. Suppose I fear that my safety is threatened by burglars, and in response I surround my home with dangerous traps and landmines. This may indeed harm any would-be intruders, but it is at least as likely to end up harming me or people I want to visit my home. In the same way, snitch culture may offer some minimal forms of redress or protection, indirectly, but its main effect is to strengthen the most powerful adversaries of democracy, justice, and the Left: bosses and cops. It’s a classic case of trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

It’s important to distinguish the concept of snitch culture from a seemingly similar, partly related concept, constantly trumpeted on the Right: “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is what philosophers might call a “heterogeneous ensemble,” that is, a cluster of different things that do not share a common set of characteristics, but are grouped together arbitrarily, usually for ideological reasons.

Indeed, part of what people call “cancel culture” is actually snitch culture. But part of it is what Marx called “ruthless criticism” of public figures in public forums. And that type of criticism has an important place within democratic politics. There are, to be sure, pathologies associated with public criticism of public figures, such as the political vice of self-righteousness, and sometimes also disturbing excesses, such as suicide and self-harm encouragement, relentless bullying of individuals for transgressions that, though in many cases blameworthy and deserving of sharp criticism, are relatively inconsequential when compared to the actions of most CEOs or high-level politicians, and so on. We’re right to view some forms, some bases, or indeed some degrees or intensity levels of criticism with a healthy sense of distrust, or even contempt, to the extent that they undercut what we value as leftists, or as decent people more generally. As always, the Left is committed first and foremost to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, and leftists should continue to insist on the primacy of these democratic values, so routinely scorned by social media consumers. But we can never countenance a reluctance to embrace ruthless criticism of powerful people and (especially) powerful systems and institutions, because we recognize that criticism of the powerful is an indispensable ingredient of democratic politics, and it has to be resolutely defended by the Left and all the working-class social movements (feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the labour movement, and so on). 

It is, in short, necessary to distinguish between (1) ruthless criticism of powerful people and institutions, (2) appropriate levels and forms of criticism of wrong and harmful behaviour on the part of individuals, (3) snitch culture, and (4) a variety of pathologies of public criticism like self-righteousness, sensationalism, pettiness or bullying. This need for a differentiated analysis of where criticism can veer into either healthy and democratic directions (like 1 and 2) or unhealthy and undemocratic directions (like 3 and 4) should encourage us to discard the vague, misleading, unhelpful language of “cancel culture,” and replace it with less ideological, more scientific and ethically illuminating terminology, so that we may better distinguish the helpful from the harmful types of critical engagement in public life. Concepts like “snitch culture” can help in this effort, but ideological jargon like “cancel culture” is more likely to foster a drift to the right.

I think it has to be said, in the context of criticizing snitch culture, that the Left (and its social movements) in most countries today lacks the capacity to repel violent attacks or threats of violence, among many other types of immediate danger to vulnerable people. This means that attacked and endangered people cannot usually come to the Left for protection. Inevitably, they will sometimes turn to the state, often in the mistaken expectation that the police can help. Even though we rightly insist on the demand to defund and eventually to abolish the police, we are in no position to complain about people turning to the state when they’re endangered, as long as we fail to offer any viable mechanisms to protect public safety. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, snitch culture’s toxic encouragement of appeals to bosses or cops to crack down on our enemies, a form of toxicity that we rightly condemn, and on the other hand, working-class people turning to the legal system hoping (perhaps naively) to gain a measure of protection from dangerous attacks or other serious threats. It isn’t my aim here to equate all instances of recourse to the legal system with the noxious practice of “snitching.” But we have to commit to a culture that rejects the snitch ideal, the ideal that encourages people to actively seek out opportunities to urge bosses and cops to crack down on people — even people we despise and condemn. We have to build up our own methods, our own capacities, and our own ethical standards for responding, and in many cases crushing underfoot, people who promote anti-social, anti-worker, racist, sexist, and generally oppressive behaviour. (The last thing — the very, very last thing  — I would want to do is suggest that we refrain from trying to impose crushing defeats on the enemies of justice.) Bosses and cops are best seen as bulwarks of oppression that offer support to exactly these adversaries of justice, democracy and human decency. The power of corporations and the power of the police are a big part of the problem, not the solution, and we should aim to defeat them, not to offer them tips and information that support their rule and dominance over us.

(Steve D’Arcy is the author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)

Related posts:

Dead Letter: Rescuing Free Speech from the Liberals who Claim to be Defending It

Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt

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