The quote of the day has to be from this background story on the Spanish riot police (in El País‘s English section). After describing some of their training methods and behaviours, it concludes by explaining how the police themselves justify the infiltration of protester groups with the following chilling sentences (the bold is mine):
The police admit officers infiltrate protests to gather information. Their bosses use the data to make “critical judgments for educational purposes.”
Who is being educated, and exactly why, isn’t clear from the article – but we can surely assume it won’t be the protesters themselves.
Meanwhile, two cases today in Britain make it all too clear how we’re living in a “When You Get Seen Is When You Really Get Punished” (WYGSIWYRGP) society. Back to the medieval stocks of old, perhaps – only with a telling virtual makeover. First, we have a celebrity gentleman called Justin Lee Collins who’s been convicted of the following:
[...] harassment causing fear of violence between January and July 2011.
The court heard Collins began a “campaign of abuse”, keeping a dossier of Ms Larke’s past sexual experiences.
The sentence involves 140 hours of community service within 18 months and the payment of prosecution costs.
Meanwhile, in a quite different case, whose infractions were apparently much more publicly conducted, sick jokes on Facebook have just led to three months in jail.
Now if you click to the detail which the Independent publishes in relation the latter case (it’s really rather distressing – in fact, I’d advise you not to click if you don’t have a stomach for these things), three months in jail could appear to be really rather small beer. But a “campaign of abuse”, sustained over seven long months, can hardly have had less impact on the personal integrity of the woman who found herself its object. So comparing emotional like with like, why such a grand difference between how we sentence sick jokes on social media and how we sentence abuse carried out behind relatively closed doors?
Are we really back in medieval-stocks-land after all? Do we only care about rabid and vengeful public opinion? Is the number of offended, rather than the nature of the offence, the most important tool now to determine sentencing policy in our courts?
There’s a wider issue which worries me here, actually. Whilst in purely political terms I applaud the strategic sense of One Nation Labourism, I do wonder if long-term it mightn’t contribute to a singularisation of public spaces – a singularisation our current government is, any case, already promoting (which is why perhaps, in part, One Nation strategies kick the stool so cleverly from underneath it). And in my multicultural experience (I mean multicultural in all its senses), this would not be a good thing. Whilst I believe in people and nation states working together to common objectives, I don’t believe in the value of encouraging them to think alike. Nothing new ever came from a culture of sameness in the past. The 21st century is hardly going to prove that tenet wrong now.
A society which demands that in public spaces we all act the same – the same affectations, same mores, same sense of humour, same attitudes – is shortly a society where cultural dissonance will disappear. Not only will this lead us to condemn without self-awareness behaviours which begin to appear self-fulfillingly unusual, it will also lead to a more general impoverishment of imagination, ideas and creative hunches. In a WYGSIWYRGP society, surfaces become everything. And – conversely – what happens out of public sight loses its power to affect our opinions.
I do fear this singularisation. I do fear what it might do to our ways of thinking, to our legal systems. I do fear that the massive spiking nature of social media, where scandal dramatically stumbles over scandal and then disappears just as suddenly into the ether, is not properly appreciated by our judges and justice professionals.
For in a sense, social media is the short-term memory of our times. And this is not completely understood.
The long-term memory – what one man can do to a woman in the secrecy of their relationship – is quite another matter.
And yet where it’s difficult to relive, we punish less severely.
Even as the goldfish bowl of social media leads us to send people directly to prison.
So to take an example and lesson from the teaching profession, let us not commit the error of evaluation systems everywhere: let us not test and punish that which is easy to see but – rather – that which is right and necessary to investigate, understand and reveal.