The Heart of a Tyrant
The Panopticon, free speech, and the American dream
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
― George Orwell
For every paradise I can imagine, I can conjure a hundred nightmares. The one I keep coming back to this week is the panopticon.
The 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the concept of the panopticon. He demonstrated the idea by designing a circular prison with a single guard tower at the center of it. None of the prisoners can see what the rest of the prisoners are doing, and they can't see the guard. But the guard, at the center of the prison, can see all the prisoners. Bentham's argument was that even though the guard can't be physically observing all the prisoners at once, their behavior would still improve because they could be observed at any time.
The panopticon is often used as a metaphor for the surveillance state. We live in a world of constant observation. Cameras observe us from every angle, glassy-eyed and unrelenting. Our purchasing history, phone numbers, locations, and personal information, are stored in databases away from our own eyes. Whenever we go on the Internet we leave digital traces of ourselves, a smear like an eternal ghost, across a dark landscape. We know that Amazon's Alexa is constantly listening to us. They've given Ring doorbell footage to the police without consent or knowledge from the owners.
According to Bentham this should make us all a more reasonable, well-behaved, and ethical society. We used to tell people that it was God watching our most private thoughts. It was God who snuck into the space between our pillow and the headboard, pressed his eyes between our fingers, and had his watchful angels stroke our hair. He knew our heart and he knew our mind and he knew each errant thought.
But at least we knew that God was fair and just. We knew that God's judgment was perfect, and he was never wrong. We knew that God could not be bargained or bribed with. He would not succumb to corporate interests. God could not be bought and paid for, or have ulterior motives, or loyalty to someone who had no interest in our well-being.
People are often indifferent to this surveillance. They feel as long as they're doing nothing wrong, or don't draw attention to themselves, they have nothing to worry about. After all - they're not evil, and they're not doing anything illegal. Only bad people get punished, is their rationale. And if this surveillance gets rid of more bad people, then all the better.
These kinds of people often use the phrase "Telling on themselves" when referring to someone saying something they think is evil or wrong. It's the language of a surveillance state. Like the person has just informed on themselves. They've revealed their secret ideas and their secret heart and they've shown themselves to be corrupted.
But it's not God that is watching us. We have no idea who is observing us from behind the cameras, behind the Amazon Alexa, going through our records and databases, in the center of the panopticon. The guard observing us may have been a prisoner himself, beaten and humiliated and bribed with an extra crust of bread. Maybe he's got swollen eyes and an angry heart and he's looking for someone to hurt. Maybe he wants to see us destroyed.
In my nightmare vision of the future the cameras don't just record your movements or your speech or your search queries. They record your heartbeat, your eye-tracking, the subconscious tics in your facial movements. They peel back your skin and skeleton, plug into your electrical pulse, and read your innermost thoughts. Imagine a future where if you think something the state doesn't like they can shut off your bank account and your car, send you you to jail, or force you to go to some kind of corrective rehabilitation.
This sounds like a fantastical nightmare, but it really isn't that far off from what we're seeing now. Several conservative activists have had their bank accounts closed down. People with Only Fans accounts and sex workers have their transactions denied. Hosting domains will shut down your website if they find it offensive. People have been fired from their jobs for expressing opinions on social media.
I'm sure everyone who follows me on Twitter is sick to death of hearing me talk about free speech, but the people who want to regulate speech actually want to regulate thought. They want to scrub away dissent from the surface of the earth.
I used to think the benefits of free speech were self evident to everyone. If you talk to most Americans they'll agree that free speech is a good thing. "Except"... they always seem to have an exception, something they find unacceptable. It's different for everyone. A little pet trigger, if you will. They believe they've found something so important that it shouldn't be allowed to be questioned. A precious little lie that they hold and nurture close.
Inside our hearts is a little tyrant with its fangs against the neck of love.
Wouldn't that be wonderful if you could walk into a room and demand everyone speak how you want them to? Act like how you want them to? The power would be intoxicating. You wouldn't have to suffer any discomfort you didn't want to. That's the power of emperors, warlords, and monarchs.
In many people's secret dreams they believe that they should be god. They think the world would be a better place if everyone just shut up and listened to them.
They want God's power without God's sense of love, justice, or truth. They want to be God so they don't have to look into the offending eye of someone who might contradict the fantasy version of themselves that's pure, good, just, unrelentingly right.
They want to be God not for your benefit. They don't particularly care if you're happy or fulfilled as long a you're quiet. And when they get tired of the silence, they want you to sing their praises. They want you to don the jester hat of their sacred ideology and sing its praises.
Not everyone gets to be god, though. Almost nobody does. Even the people who contribute to the enormous surveillance machine of control will usually find themselves swallowed by it. People aren't usually willing to share power.
The camera doesn't demand goodness. It can't be the arbiter of goodness. It demands obedience. Sometimes even when it gets obedience, it might even destroy you for fun. Or because you're inconvenient. Because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because you have something that someone else wants and they're envious. Because it wants to make someone into an example, because it doesn't like your smile, because it needs to fulfill a quota, because it was irritable that day and needed to hurt something.
After all, who is regulating this camera? It's only regulated by itself.
We want to destroy the panopticon because whoever sits at the center is not God. They just think they are, which is an attribute they share with toddlers, drug addicts, narcissists, political activists, and serial killers. And if we don't destroy it quickly enough we might find it nearly impossible to escape.
We'd be forever subject to the whims of a tyrant. A tyrant that cannot be questioned. A tyrant who does not have to answer to the people. A tyrant that grows more corrupt by the day.
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