Dobbing and the community

Bookmark and Share | Chris Berg
The Age 21st January, 2007

Australia is a nation founded by people who were dobbed in. Perhaps that's why one of the first rules we learn in life is not to dob in each other: what happens in the playground, stays in the playground.

This lesson, quite obviously, doesn't come from our teachers or parents. Dobbing is one of the ways that they can know about our infractions of their rules, such as swearing and sneaking away at lunchtime to buy chips at the 7-Eleven. Our anti-dobbing tradition frustrates this, and means that parents and teachers have to police us themselves.

Whatever its historical basis, Australia's tradition against dobbing works well. Trust is a foundation of community. Without trust, individuals struggle to develop relationships with others.

We need to know that when we confide in another person, we can reasonably expect the confidence won't be used against us. When we invite another person into our home, we can reasonably expect they won't bring a baseball bat and start destroying our possessions.

Trust is vital in a market economy as well. When we buy an item we've seen in a store window, we trust the seller to give us that same item in a box.

We expect real estate agents to sell us houses that are actually on the market. In Nigeria, where, after decades of corruption and poverty, levels of trust are abysmally low, houses display placards stating this house is not for sale. One popular scam in that country is to sell houses the scammers do not own.

Trust is at the centre of every personal and economic relationship we have and without it, any community in the meaningful sense of the word is impossible.

Encouragement by the government to dob each other in discourages the formation of that trust. The extreme example of a government actively encouraging the breaking of that trust suggests how important it is. In totalitarian socialist and fascist societies, the state broke down civil society to such an extent that people would report even their own family members for any perceived minor infractions. Memoirs recall citizens being reported not out of desire to do the right thing but out of petty and unrelated personal grievances.

This indicates a further useful consequence of the anti-dob tradition: without being able to appeal to a higher power - parents, teachers or the government - we are forced to sort out interpersonal conflicts ourselves. In most cases, we negotiate with each other, and when we do so, we form and strengthen our relationships.

It also fosters Australia's egalitarian spirit. Individuals negotiate with each other as equals. Running to the government is un-egalitarian.

The government uses its coercive powers to force a solution to a disagreement. The solution may not be efficient or fair, but it will certainly suit the government. Naturally, then, governments are urging us to abandon our anti-dobbing tradition and call a toll-free number every time we see a neighbour doing something wrong.

We are asked to dob in water cheats, litterers and disgruntled taxi drivers.

The tax office is hoping that all those amateur accountants will monitor their friend's finances to detect tax cheats: he couldn't possibly afford that on his salary, could he?

Importantly, mislabelled seafood has its own dob-in hotline: 1800 737 147.

Many dobbing-in schemes are beneficial. Crime Stoppers is a typical example. Few people would object to reporting robbery or assault committed in their neighbourhood.

The terrorism hotline, mocked and ridiculed when it was brought in, is theoretically just as helpful.

Reporting crime or terrorism helps, rather than harms, the viability of our communities by making us feel safer and more confident in our person and possessions. As a result, no one complains. The thief knows that stealing is wrong, and the dobber knows that stealing is wrong. Everybody accepts laws against stealing.

But not everybody accepts all government legislation. Speed limits are a good example of this.

The Victorian Government has set speed limits, for example, at 50 or 60 km/h. Hop into a car for even a few minutes, and you will notice that almost everybody exceeds that. Most cars travel five to 10 km/h over the limit, and few tickets are given out to drivers who do.

In fact, drivers who obey the speed limit can often be more dangerous than those who go at the speed of other drivers. Most of us would be outraged if we were dobbed in by another driver for going 5 km/h over the limit.

Another example of a law that we routinely reject is jaywalking. The semi-regular police blitzes against crossing roads diagonally or against the pedestrian crossing signs are treated with derision by even strong law-and-order folk.

Dobbing in a thief is unobjectionable. But dobbing in a water cheat or a slightly faster driver seems un-Australian or anti-social. This perhaps makes sense: these latter laws are not as well accepted by the individuals and the community.

It's easy to sympathise with a home owner who waters on the wrong day, or splashes water on the roof of their car to give it a quick rinse. If we dob them in, its seems as if they're being punished for a crime they didn't really commit.

This is the cause of the furore over Dob in a Water Cheat: the disconnect between laws Victorians willingly accept and laws treated less seriously.

As more activities become illegal across the state - watering the garden of an even-numbered house on a Wednesday; telling a joke about religion; owning a cigar bar - the Government is going to face more of these reactions.

It's only when governments make laws that we don't fully believe in that our two desires - the need to build healthy communities and to obey the law - come into opposition.

Dob-in-your-neighbour initiatives undermine our egalitarian tradition and even our sense of Australian community.

If we have a problem in the playground, will we tell the teacher or sort it out ourselves?