Another day, another story of busybodies calling the police to punish another citizen for doing something that the busybody doesn’t approve of. Or in this case, not doing something, namely, not keeping their children inside and under 24/7 monitoring. 21st Century America sometimes feels as if Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched was given the Presidential Medal of Honor, held up as a model citizen and sworn in as a deputy of the Department of Homeland Security.
Or is it instead that we’ve become a nation of Batmen, with social media our trusty utility belt? Vigilantes on patrol against the sort of malice that no law could punish but that leaves people reeling and downtrodden? Who else will punish the asshole car dealers who try to get an innocent pizza delivery man fired if not all of us?
I don’t think there has yet been a definitive history of how we stopped being a society where children could roam away from constant parental surveillance and where adult bodies could be unseen and anonymous in plain sight, but I’m certain that this past moment is uncomfortably twinned with a world where brutal injustices were glossed over as normal and white men from “the greatest generation” could go to sleep at night unperturbed by, unaware of, the racism, sexism, and discrimination that was everywhere around them.
However you could have hoped to go forward from that moment, I think going towards a world of ubiquitious attention to public bodies and everyday speech while leaving much of the force of structural discrimination unperturbed is not high on the list of aspirational possibilities.
21st Century Americans are in many ways becoming a kind of democratic Stasi, reporting on their neighbors and colleagues, assembling dossiers of suspicious or questionable action and speech. This would be one thing if it were social pressure, but it isn’t just that. In many cases, if you call the cops or report to an employer, the target will be dealing with potentially ruinous consequences. Both the state and capital alike encourage, protect and extend mutual surveillance.
Nor is it just reactionary in its content. There will be no fable here of McCarthyism, nothing that lets this story sift neatly into defenders and enemies of an open society. My Facebook feeds are crowded with messages forwarded by progressive friends: look what this person said! Look what that guy did! Hashtag that creep, report that guy to his boss.
That at least you could account to the rough and tumble of political struggle, that you can’t pursue justice and be endlessly genteel and forgiving. But my social media, written by educated progressives, are just as much full of other kinds of negative attention to public bodies. A quiet undercurrent of disdain for misbehaving, unruly bodies that have the bad taste to be visible: fat bodies, slovenly bodies, flyover bodies, bodies that don’t spell and talk good, bodies that look funny. Bodies that eat the wrong foods, bodies that go to the wrong places. Bodies that like the wrong movies, bodies that do the wrong things. We no longer look to a single column in the newspaper to inform middle-class manners, no longer go to charm school. Bourgeois etiquette is done by swarm action now, by flash mobs. And when we swarm over a target, it’s the equivalent of Edward Snowden releasing his memos: it says, “You also are being watched.”
The problem with a lot of our ubiquitious surveillance is precisely not that it is overtly hateful and hating. Instead, what makes so much of it easy to pursue is that it presents itself as a kindness. Here is some advice about not reading the Internet so much! Here is a way not to die because you read your iPad before sleeping! Here is some food you should eat instead of what you are eating! Here is a movie you shouldn’t have liked, ever! Here is a book you should know better than to have read! Here are some bad people that I am sure you are not.
Our new Stasi enlists us out with concern and responsibility. See something? Say something! is the security-state version. Bystander intervention is the progressive, communitarian one. The libertarian complaint about nanny-states falls flat because of the narrowness of its understanding of where surveillance and regulation live (they live everywhere) and how they derive their power (the state is only the beginning of it). You can’t hide from surveillance because to hide from surveillance is to hide from sociality and all its necessary affordances. The Unabomber’s cabin is the only destination for “privacy” envisioned in those terms.
What I do think we can do to check what our new Stasi is doing to us, with us, for us, is to restore some sense of the gravity of “filing a formal report”, as it were. There’s nothing wrong with watching and photographing and talking about the vast social landscape around us. That is and has been a necessary part of being human in mass society. But we do not now act as if there is much of anything at stake when we draw attention to a body, when we circle a face in a photograph, when we link and hashtag and forward. We don’t check to be sure that we’ve got it right, we don’t worry much about what happens next. It’s easy to say that the car dealers were asking for it, but hard to take note that the mock Yelp reviews for the dealership quickly turn into a swamp of juvenile and often ugly sentiment that uses the excuse of righteous ire as a opportunity to perform with unbridled id on a stage of momentary notoreity. The we that follows in from hashtaggery is just as likely to be a mob with torches as it is a polite delegation of neighbors requesting that the lawn be mowed just a bit more often, please.
If we’re going to be spies, let’s accept our moral agency. We’re not reporting up a chain of command and leaving it the hands of our superiors. We are reporting to ourselves. If we believe we do that out of love and concern–or in pursuit of justice–then we need to be better than we are at following an ethic of genuine care, and better than we are in thinking systematically about what we mean by justice.
Another part of Grasping the Nettle.