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Friday, August 20, 2010

The power of labels

There is no shortage of slang terms for informants: "weasels," "rats," "stool pigeons," and, of course, "snitches." And none imply positive things about those who assist the police. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to "weasel" means "to escape from or extricate oneself out (of a situation, obligation, etc.), esp. dishonourably." A "rat" is "a man who is deceitful or disloyal in a romantic relationship," "a person who deserts his or her party, side, or cause," "a person who gives information, esp. of an incriminating nature, on another person to the police or other authority, an informer." And to "snitch" is "to inform upon or on a person" or "to take surreptitiously, purloin." Yet, despite the negative connotations of these slang terms, they (and particularly "snitch") are used synonymously with "informant" in journalism and academic debate, where at least the appearance of neutrality is valued. For instance, a search of news articles over the past year finds thousands of uses of the word "snitch." Many of course are found in direct quotations or a similar context, but some simply refer to informants as snitches, and thus import the negative connotation into a presumably neutral forum. A fair number of law review articles incorporate the word "snitch" in the title. And this blog is called, "Snitching Blog."

To some extent, of course, the use of slang synonyms is unavoidable as authors and reporters seek to avoid repetition. But I raise the issue because I wonder to what extent the use of a term like "snitch" improperly colors the debate over the proper role and treatment of confidential informants. Some, like Paul Butler, have argued that the term "snitch" refers only to a subset of confidential informants and do not include those civilians who assist the police out of a sense of civic duty. I don't disagree that were this distinction adhered to in practice, it would be valuable, but the use of the word "snitch" is sufficiently indiscriminate to raise concerns that in academic and journalistic discussion those good citizens are being painted with the same brush as criminals who turn in their accomplices.