What do we call a person who is in a position to observe systemic wrongdoing, and, putting aside his or her personal and professional interests, brings it to the attention of those with the authority to stop it?
A rat, usually.
Miss Manners has problems with this nomenclature, in spite of the fact that this is the politest term generally used. Why should people be vilified for following their consciences?
Okay, she can understand why wrongdoers might not be charmed by informants. She can also understand why innocent bystanders are indignant if the informants turn out to be wrong or motivated by less lofty impulses than those coming from the conscience. She can even understand why the authorities to whom informants bring their evidence are embarrassed at having been revealed as less vigilant, and exasperated at the amount of trouble righting the wrongs will take -- although they should struggle to overcome these feelings.
But why does the general public look askance at whistle-blowers and their youthful counterparts, uncharitably known as tattletales? Aren't these people performing a service that ultimately benefits everyone by policing standards of behavior?
See? Already you hate them.
This lesson is learned early in life. Parents and teachers keep urging small children to report bullying and other injustices that they are powerless to combat. Yet when they do report such behavior, the cry goes up against their own transgression of having "told." Not only are the accused stung into this counter-accusation -- a reaction unfortunately often shared by the parents of the accused before any investigation of the facts has been held -- but others are quick to apply the socially devastating brand of stool pigeon to the hapless informer.
When the situation is fresh, the two actions -- the original offense and the reporting of it -- may be spoken of as canceling out each other. But a bad reputation for having told outlives just about any stigma for which one has been told on.
On the adult level we handle this more justly. Whistle-blowers who have proven to be both disinterested and correct are commended by society. Except that this tends to happen some time after they lose their jobs, their reputations and their friends.
Partly this may happen because whistle-blowers are cynically assumed, until proven otherwise, to be acting out of selfish motives and exaggerating if not inventing the wrongdoing. Nor is being obviously in the right an attractive position, located as it is uncomfortably close to righteousness.
A natural distaste for upsetting ingrained routines, however corrupt, may also be a factor. And even in our litigious society, there remains a prejudice in favor of settling things through a sort of frontier justice, without invoking the authorities, even in situations when that is obviously not possible.
Miss Manners finds the distaste for whistle-blowers a shocking misuse of society's powerful ability to regulate behavior by exercising its disapproval. This is supposed to be done in the interests of preserving standards, not of protecting its violators. When people do this, Miss Manners is tempted to tell on them.
Dear Miss Manners:
I recently attended a black-tie scholarship awards dinner. I noticed that many women attending the event placed their purses on the table. Is this correct?
Did I commit a faux pas by placing my purse at my feet? I've never placed my purse on a table during a meal, no matter how informal the event, so please let me know if I have been incorrect.
Miss Manners can assure you that you are correct in thinking that a purse should not be parked on a dining table. Especially if it is one of those whimsical evening purses in the shape of an apple or a chicken.
The correct place to park it is on the lady's lap. From there -- because the lady is wearing a soft evening fabric, and even high heels do not raise her knees sufficiently to have them serve as a barrier -- it slips to the floor. You seem to have put yours on the floor purposely, but the effect is the same.
The difficulty is in retrieving it. Ladies do not belong under the table, for whatever reason. It is therefore necessary to exclaim to one's dinner partner, "Oh, dear, I seem to have dropped my purse" and hope that he will stoop to the occasion.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin