Is Snitch Culture a Problem?

When the Editorial Board set out our priorities at the beginning of the semester, we looked to explore questions of institutional and individual responsibility. That is, with the unique backdrop of this semester, what is the college’s obligation to us? What is our obligation to each other?

Recently, these questions have resurfaced, amid an off-campus UMass coronavirus outbreak (there are 124 confirmed cases at the time of publication) and community tensions about “snitch culture” on our own campus.

“Snitch culture” has arisen because, when it comes to keeping our community in Amherst safe, the college has overtly relied on students to police one another by filling out a form to report students seen breaking campus coronavirus rules.

The goal of this reporting is, ultimately, to keep students safe. However, the line between protecting and over-policing each other seems to have blurred in recent weeks. Some now question whether student reporting truly is a beneficial safety practice or just an arbitrary mechanism of fear. 

To be clear, we, the Editorial Board, maintain that if a student is concerned about their safety and the schools’, they have every right to report and, in fact, should for the safety of the community. We are still in a global pandemic. And though we might try to settle into this new normal, we must not become desensitized to the severity of the situation. To demonize student reporting as “snitching” is to forget that this situation is quite literally a life-and-death battle — a battle that has not yet been won, as confirmed by the UMass outbreak. If a student sees something, they must say something.

That said, if students feel constrained enough that they have to break rules to live happy on-campus lives, then something must not be going quite right. Further, if the culture of fear created by student reporting is the only check on rule-breaking, then something is definitely going wrong. 

It might simply come down to communication issues. Seven weeks into the semester, the enforcement of coronavirus rules seems to have become somewhat ad hoc. Students know what rules they need to follow, but there is a lack of transparency on how (and how leniently) those rules will be enforced. Students don’t know what is necessary to report versus what the college will bend on, because at times it feels as though the college has been inconsistent in what it lets slide. The result is a campus of fearful rule-breakers, scared of crossing the line but willing to take the risk in hopes of being the lucky ones who don’t get caught. 

Solutions to ease the tensions produced by snitch culture could take a couple of forms, neither of which requires getting rid of the current reporting policy, which has too many safety benefits to wholly discard.

First, the college must make explicit where its areas of leniency are rather than relying on a lack of transparency to frighten students into following the rules. Having a clear idea of how many infractions or what type of infractions would lead to different outcomes (such as being sent home) would help students trust the reporting process more. It would also lower the social penalties to students who report others, as their actions can be more clearly seen to be of benefit to the campus without directly harming the reported student in the process.

Another step the college could take is to assess, via the reports, areas for improvement that would disincentivize rule-breaking. For example, if students are often reported for buying alcohol or Antonio’s Pizza in town, the college could make those available on-campus, depriving students of the need to leave the bubble. The college has already had success with these sorts of programs as seen with the Delivery Express ordering program available on weekends and Taste of Amherst, a Thursday occurrence at Late Night Val that brings in food from restaurants in town.  If breaking rules has become a necessary part of well-being on campus, then the college must provide safe alternatives to fill the gaps that rule-breaking is currently filling right now. While a lack of physical presence in the town is currently best for both the college and the Town of Amherst, Amherst businesses would likely appreciate the financial support of having the college purchase meals to then sell (or provide) to the student body, and students would likewise appreciate the ability to access something closer to their usual Amherst College experience.

As we noted in our first editorial of the semester, administrative fixes only go so far as individuals carry them. Snitch culture is a mechanism of protection for on-campus students and as such, is not something to be eliminated. Rather, we owe it to each other to find ways to adapt this student-driven reporting so that it engenders cooperation, not conflict.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 7; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 7)