When we were young children, one of the most offensive labels that one kid could plant on another was “tattletale.” The tattletale was the snotty brownnose who couldn’t wait to tell the teacher about some playground misdemeanor. Or it was a sibling who tattled about something a brother or sister (usually older) over breaking some family rule. As we got older, the verb “tattling” was replaced by the more adolescent and powerful label “squealer.” Squealing involved more significant offenses and could potentially generate greater negative consequences upon the “squealer.” Passing into adulthood when voting, drinking, and careering entered the picture, the relevant term merged into malevolence as “rat.” A “rat” usually was often exposing the illegal and/or violent activities of criminal types. Curiously, although we did not condone or stomach the activities of the “rattee” we expended no sympathy on the rat either. And why is that? Because the rat (or squealer, or tattletale) has demonstrated a most socially unacceptable behavior: betrayal.
So much for the stroll down the human development trail. What is the point of this week’s newsletter? In a very violent world when apparently sociopathic ideologues can commit mass murder under the banner of their religion and culture, as Americans, we question why someone didn’t do something about it. We speculate, “Somebody must have known something, or seen something.” Why do they tolerate behavior that they claim to disavow? We may lament, “What’s wrong with those people?”
In the culture of the schoolyard and the interventions of K-12 educators, bullying has received much attention and study. Any school setting, sadly, likely includes aggressive bullies who make life miserable for their weaker, meek victims. Most kids are neither. This large population is referred to bystanders. They are typically neither very weak, nor characteristically aggressive. But as their label implies, bystanders are primarily passive. They neither hurt nor get hurt. Because bystanders are generally decent kids with some sense of conscience, they do not approve of the bully’s conduct. But they do not act on their feelings of sympathy for the victims. Why not?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the first paragraph of this newsletter dealing with the sticky subject of ‘informing” on others. Whatever we call it, reluctance to report the deeds of others appears to transcend cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and group dynamics.
So what’s the point of this newsletter? It is a difficult question to answer because it involves such a gray area. Perhaps the best answer can be framed with the concept of “boundaries.” Where lies the line that separates “doing the right thing” from the social need to demonstrate loyalty, as well as the emotional anxiety and fear that flows from courageous action?
Perhaps those who seem so different than us aren’t so different after all. There comes a time when we must speak up about a wrong in order to protect and honor the rest of us.
“In Germany, they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then, they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then, they came for me
And by that time, there was no one left to speak up.”