Wednesday, October 21, 2009

CJ Sellers: the Panopticon In Action

An Activist Reaction to the Panopticon In Action
by CJ Sellers

First off, you may ask, what the hell is a "Panopticon"? Granted, it's a new word to many but it's far from a new idea. If you've read the dystopian novel 1984 or watched the ABC TV series "Lost" , you've understood it in a work of fiction where it induced fear, paranoia, and savage disloyalty to one's fellow man when used in a society.

A Panopticon is a method of containment and control that requires minimal effort or enforcement. Its origins are, of course, found in the prison system. To quote from Wikipedia: "The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience.'

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as 'a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.'"

Well, that seems alright in a prison system if it results in less violence, right? But what if something like it being used outside of the prison system right now? Are we complicit guards in a Panopticon where we are the prisoners?

The paranoid climate of a Panopticon breaks down the will to resist. I was reminded of this when I recently read "The Willie Lynch Letter" circulated during the time of slave trade.

An excerpt about how to maintain order amongst the slaves (and this is not the worst of it): "Let us make a slave. What do we need? First of all, we need a black nigger man, a pregnant nigger woman and her baby nigger boy. Second, we will use the same basic principle that we use in breaking a horse, combined with some more sustaining factors. What we do with horses is that we break them from one form of life to another; that is, we reduce them from their natural state in nature. Whereas nature provides them with the natural capacity to take care of their offspring, we break that natural string of independence from them and thereby create a dependency status, so that we may be able to get from them useful production for our business and pleasure."

And I saw this video about the beginning of "white supremacy" where one man was turned on another for the flimsiest of reasons but for great profit (for the wealthy, slave-owning minority):

I'm not asserting that the presentation in the above video is entirely factual, I have not researched its claims but it was thought-provoking. Knowing about the Panopticon, I can see how these situations are similar in some ways, how these methods--minor infractions to gross injustices-- work their way into our lives, insinuate themselves into our hearts and minds and dupe us into unwitting complicity as our liberties are taken from us one by one until we are successfully enslaved. We do it to each other and we do it to ourselves when we stop questioning, when we stop following the money, asking who has something to gain from this violence, or if it is just. (Whenever I am uncertain what is just, I apply the "Golden Rule".) Where there's violence and cruelty, there's almost always a racket somewhere in the picture, behind the scenes or right out in the open, we may be just too far gone to see it.

And I get now to a recent incident that inspired me to write this note. It may seem like a minor incident or maybe a minor complaint that I have, that's up to you. For me, it sets off red flags. I was reading about the use of social media to organize dissent at the 2009 G20 Summits:

Before the event and protest in London in April 2009, people were warned by the media that their online actions were being observed by law enforcement:
"Officers have been monitoring social networking sites, including Facebook, to try to stay one step ahead of the [G20] protesters as part of the crackdown, dubbed Operation Glencoe."

And here, after the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania G20 protest, a cautionary tale not to use social media to organize dissent:
"Watch what you tweet"

Good article but after I read it, I was incensed. Did you get mad or is that just me? I wasn't just mad at the FBI for their response, I was also annoyed at the writer for choosing a title that starts out "Careful..." Although these writers were probably well-intentioned or simply capitalizing on sensational news items, these cautionary articles reinforce the Panopticon by discouraging citizens from using efficient social media technology to organize their protests (for fear Big Brother may be watching). Especially the second one since the article advertises that the consequence of dissent may be an extremist response by law enforcement. The gist of the article is not, "Everyone get mad and do something about this abuse of authority". It's mostly informative but it does take a bias and the gist is a rather timid response with a mild call to the censors to disperse. Maybe they'll make a note of that and get back to the writer on it but I doubt it. It's written for an audience of activists and would-be activists. The effective result could do more than discourage citizens from using this technology to organize. More subtly, it may induce fear so that the unintended effect is a decrease in active dissent. This single event is not a direct threat by law enforcement to any of us. But as a result of such cautionary tales, a single incident where the police over-reacted may convince an inordinate number of people to pre-emptively self-police because they fear the police, so they may change their behavior and censor/stop themselves from using these convenient methods toward the end-goal of positive social change. Was that really the intent of the writer? I doubt it. But I have seen how these things can just take off and get out-of-hand. Fear is like a contagion. Reading this article, I instinctively want to wash my hands of it. And so I wrote this note to purge myself of all these dark thoughts, these misgivings. They converge in my mind and I feel a need to lay it all out, look it over, analyze, get some feedback... so comments are most welcome.

My personal opinion on this is: we writers, bloggers, talkers, parents, siblings, lovers, and friends, we conspirators toward a better world... "We the People" should be careful to avoid accidentally acting as Uncle Toms for our keepers when the result is a reinforcement of an unhealthy status quo. We should not listen to the well-intentioned advice to not use the Internet to organize dissent. The Internet has proven to be a powerful and effective tool for organizing! Whatever means we citizens have at our disposal for peaceful assembly, it is our right to use them. We are law-abiding adults, equal to our protectors by law and by our common humanity and if the law is being twisted and used against us, we must demand our liberties be restored to the letter of the law. And if unjust laws are made or exist, we have to fight them. Dissent is a vital part of our social and cultural evolution and an integral part of positive social reform but we see how it all but faded away when we needed it most (after the announcement of an illegal decades-long campaign for pre-emptive warfare targeted at a nation that never attacked us, which was clearly in violation of international law). The fear instilled in us by the politicians in league with the media after 9/11 resulted in a Panopticon where we were quite suddenly, and with little cause or provocation, afraid to say or do the wrong thing for fear we'd be labeled traitors or terrorists, or (gasp!) unpatriotic... and then the PATRIOT Act and other power grabs... and we were told that they may be reading our emails and our online posts... How about Bush's presidential order giving himself the right to seize the assets of any war protesters as he saw fit? (Do you see this resonating in the present although that was overturned?) We were made then to feel afraid to protest an unlawful war, a war that at that time wasn't even by definition, a "war", it was a "preemptive military incursion" into foreign territory, followed by an "occupation". As our politicians called for bravery and patriotism (to fight for murderous oil profiteering), we were told to be silent. And silence ruled the day. I can hardly believe it even now. I was there, I lived through it, but I am still as dismayed now as ever. And now I know how the German citizenry must have felt under the Nazi regime. They were victims too just as we were. Victims of a Panopticon of our own creation.

Bottom line, what the rich people want, or their corporations covet, what particular politicians or political parties push, are not always in the interest of public good and we citizens must have the cojones to say so publicly, at all cost. We must continuously remind and assure one another that peaceful protest is right and good for this country, even when wrong or misguided, we still have the right to join hands and stand together and loudly let the powers that be know what our position is. That we peacefully but loudly demand action and positive change is brave and it is patriotic. Those that peacefully but loudly take to the streets when our country needs them are the ones that care and we should applaud them, our eyes should fill with tears, and our hearts with gratitude as some do to see brave soldiers marching off to fight a JUST war. Those that peacefully but quietly sit at their televisions, hiding behind closed doors, or at their computers where they self-monitor their every communication as this country's state of affairs devolves around them, these law-abiding citizens are not patriotic, at this call to public service they are cowards and/or incompetents. But those that are of sound mind, able-bodied and give a damn know there's more at stake than a seized computer or a week from the job or even the job itself. They are the yippies of yore and now our G20 protesters, war protesters, and teabaggers. They are patriots. They're regular people who took that extra effort to make a difference in the world and you and I should thank them and stand by their side when their rights are violated whether we agree with their opinions or not. I wouldn't go to a G20 protest but I'm pretty mad about that social worker from New York City being targeted, aren't you?

But don't get me wrong. Even though that has happened, I don't blame the officers involved because they are obedient. When it comes to their job, obedience rather than stalling and questioning, I can see how that would be effective, if their leaders are wise and just. I have heard a lot of negativity towards the police lately. Too much and I think it's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, not well-thought-out. The critics may be coming from a different experience than me but I know first hand, not all police will do the wrong thing like we witnessed here in this article. MOST police will do the right thing and I personally believe that we can trust them to do the right thing because they are not some nameless, faceless entity, they are our neighbors and friends who care, as we do, and they will listen to reason because they are as reasonable as you or I. Whereas some will tell you to fear their response, I am telling you, don't fear the police when you know you are doing the right thing and you know you are within your rights. Know or have faith that if a misunderstanding occurs or someone goes too far, that the truth will come out and justice will be served because we have your back, we will be watching and we will demand it. We can create a Panopticon of faith in one another and faith in our willingness to do the right thing. Those that villainize our public servants ought to stop and think about the effect of their words. The soul of our nation is being cowed by who... the police? By the politicians? By the thugs and criminals? No, every step of the way, it's been us well-intentioned folks giving in, letting our hearts break, our spirits weaken, we have faltered and let fear rule the day. When I see an embrace of paranoia or scapegoating on either side, aimed at public servant or private citizen, I take offense and I won't tolerate it, I'm gonna say something and the bigger the offense, the more loudly I will say it. How about you?

Good articles, writers, but respectfully, be careful what you tweet? TWEET ON THIS! <=3


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