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Artillery Row

A nation of curtain twitchers

Britain is becoming pettier, nastier and more tedious

Back in the days when I was a young, fresh-faced schoolboy, a classmate of mine was struck with a grave disease. He could not stop grassing. You dared not open your mouth in his company for fear that he would deliberately misinterpret what you were saying and run crying to the nearest teacher.

Any minor infraction made in this youth’s company would be immediately reported to the school authorities, even if he hadn’t even been personally wronged. I recall once getting in trouble for using a minor swear word in the vicinity of this grass (does “crap” even count as a curse? It still troubles me).

Abusing this trust results in legitimate exile and social stigma

This all came to an end one day, however, when the Headmaster delivered some of the best life advice I’ve ever heard. Knowing he was about to hear yet more snitching, the Head put his hands over his ears and ordered him to stop. “If you want to have any hope of making any friends, you need to stop grassing. I won’t listen to this anymore. Stop doing this immediately.” This young man unfortunately had one of those mothers who purposely sets out to make their children weird, and therefore had probably encouraged his grassing, so I always thought this was particularly excellent guidance.

The Head recognised that a habit of grassing, which is essentially a synonym for betrayal, makes it impossible for anybody to take their place in a community built on trust. For generations, pupils at schools, colleagues in offices, and citizens in towns or nations have, consciously or otherwise, organised themselves as a joint collective against the authority of the teacher, the boss or the state. Abusing this trust results in legitimate exile and social stigma. That’s why most young children quickly learn the unenviable cost that comes with grassing and don’t repeat the trick. It’s part of the process through which they take their place as social beings.

At least, this is how it used to work. Whilst grassing has long been seen as a shameful and embarrassing practice, it seems that more and more people are taking pride in being a snitch. Its proliferation, particularly amongst adults, represents an inversion of the norms that have helped define healthy civic life down the ages.

A particularly egregious example of this worrying trend circulated on social media a few weeks back, when a cyclist filmed himself approaching a driver using his phone whilst stationary in a queue of traffic. Admittedly the driver was technically breaking the rules, but any fair-minded person could see that he wasn’t going to do any harm. The self-righteousness of the cyclist, who made sure to note the driver’s number plate and proudly announced his intention to report him to the police, was astonishing. The driver retaliated with a description of the cyclist that, whilst entirely fair, cannot be printed in these august pages.

Aside from the cyclist’s sheer poor form, what concerned me the most about the whole episode is the amount of pride he took in being a grass. “CyclingMikey” says that he has “reported 1,387 drivers since 2019,” achieving “1,834 penalty points and £106,196 in fines”. How on earth have we got to the stage as a society where grown men are proudly presenting them as grasses, rather than having it bullied out of them as children?

Lockdowns took a battering ram to what was left of community spirit

I’m not advocating that people simply stop reporting crimes for fear of being branded a grass (not that reporting crimes has much of an effect these days). It’s hard to establish an objective test of what constitutes sanctimonious nosiness and what constitutes responsible citizenship, but with some degree of even-handedness, I suspect most normal people instinctively know the difference. It’s certainly possible to believe that people shouldn’t rat out their fellow citizens for minor rule-breaking that isn’t doing anyone any harm, whilst also thinking it’s not the best idea to turn a blind eye to shoplifting and other such offences. It ultimately comes down to having a sense of perspective and fairness — is the guilty party genuinely deserving of punishment, or are they being condemned on a petty technicality?

Why are more and more people losing this perspective and becoming grasses? The obvious place to start would be the coronavirus pandemic, during which people were encouraged by the Conservative government to turn in their neighbours for grave crimes such as chatting in the street. Lockdowns took a battering ram to what was left of community spirit. They forced people into isolation, inevitably loosening the social ties that might once have helped hold them together.

Lockdowns were also only accelerating a longer-term trend. As the state has grown ever-larger and the role of the community ever-smaller, the bonds of loyalty between citizens have weakened. In a 2022 survey, almost 50 per cent of people said they “don’t feel part of the community in which they live”. If you don’t feel part of your community, you are unlikely to side instinctively with your fellow neighbours, or even consider yourself to have any type of relationship with them at all. Running into the hands of state authorities for the pettiest of supposed offences — grassing — becomes easier and more attractive.

A culture that values victimhood and weakness, rather than old-fashioned virtues like loyalty and strength, would also seem to play into the hand of grasses. Most of modern “cancel culture”, which usually involves digging up alleged transgressions or sanctimoniously condemning somebody for unwittingly saying the wrong thing, would once have been described as straightforward snitching. Grasses have been transformed from annoying little rats into noble exposers of wrongdoing and prejudice — people to be celebrated and applauded rather than condemned and ostracised.

It almost seems too obvious to mention that this isn’t the mark of a healthy society. The proliferation of grassing reveals a pettier, nastier and more tedious country, one in which the faceless state is treated with more loyalty and respect than friends and neighbours. Snitches should get stitches.

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