The child, the snitch, and humanity’s needs, By Uddin Ifeanyi

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Reading Time: 3 mins read

I find Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon strips as enjoyable as they are absorbing. The dialogue, as with most successful such strips, is heavily nuanced. You often do not have to step too far from the face value of the main plot to mine a deep vein of commentary on received opinions. But in Calvin’s case, Bill Watterson (the cartoonist) goes over the top in his rendition of the characters. In part, I guess this follows from the fact that Calvin’s interlocutor, Hobbes

the tiger, is as imaginary as a cartoon character can get. Regardless of the reason, nearly always, Calvin’s facial expressions are priceless. The price in the strip, which had me read it more than once, yesterday, was all of one word: “Stoolie”. Susie, Calvin’s classmate, had been summoned to the principal’s office, apparently. And this strip opened with Calvin anticipating her return. She gets back, and Calvin wants to know what transpired at the head’s. “Have you been expelled?” “Did you rat on me?”. The leer on Susie’s face was answer enough, long before the teacher calls for Calvin. Whatever the rule infraction was, Susie had outed Calvin.

“Stoolie” was one of the more colourful invectives Calvin hurled at Susie. And “whistleblower” is one of the many less odious synonyms for “stoolie”. In discussing the omertá, as a governing principle of (Southern) Italy’s myriad crime syndicates, we nearly always come down hard on the concept. In the absence of a gangster willing to violate the code of silence, it is well-nigh impossible to successfully prosecute cases against the mob. Yet, as a governance arrangement, what Wikipedia describes as the “importance on silence in the face of questioning by authorities or outsiders; non-cooperation with authorities, the government, or outsiders, especially during criminal investigations; and wilfully ignoring and generally avoiding interference with the illegal activities of others” has deeper roots in human society. The occupants of kindergarten playgrounds despise none so much as the snitch. No responsible pre-teen wants to be so described. Moreover, this revulsion is no more learned than the hour-old baby monkey’s fear of the snake.

In the governance of modern societies, where the long-arm of the law is increasingly abbreviated by the breadth (sheer number of economic actors and the activities they are involved in) and depth (with the help of technological advances, “black boxes” now sit at the heart of more human activity than ever) of economic activity, unusual insights into businesses have become a prerequisite for both the design and implementation of better regulations and better law enforcement. And where the conduct of these businesses run counter to their expressed purposes (and often, then, in the teeth of the law), whistleblowers have also become a sine qua non. Despite the benign definition of these changed spaces, one difficulty persists: and this is that as with the traditional “snitch” and “informer” synonyms, the whistleblower’s job description has not changed. Neither have society’s responses to it.

Varied, these responses have always been, including the Mafia’s recourse to conspicuous acts of violence as a warning to would-be stoolpigeons. But arguably the most daunting of these responses has been the difficulty experienced by “successful” whistleblowers, especially in advanced economies of securing a job after their exposure of wrongdoing helps bring down a clutch of high-profile executives and the businesses they run. It helps that in the design of whistleblowing legislation attention is now focussing on remunerating whistleblowers (percentages of whatever monies the law is able to claw back from these businesses and their proprietors as penalty for the rule infraction). But it will take more to make this a profession worth anyone’s while. For, as with the kindergarten example, our response to whistleblowers appears to go back in time to a point where social cohesion mattered more to the survival of human groupings than did fealty to the truth, law, and/or justice.

Today, the governance challenge (including the design of optimal whistleblowing legislation) invites us to square this need for cohesion (still evident in the efficiencies that only the modern workplace can provide) with modern humans’ growing need for a more just and equitable society. In other words, a society in which our kindergarteners (the Calvins of our world) no longer instinctively cringe at the idea of a snitch or the significance of his or her profession for the betterment of our humanity.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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