I was interested in listening to Richard D Wolff’s podcast ‘The Game is Rigged’ which looks at the links between capitalism and democracy. For those of us interested in critical theory, he explores how to work towards deeper democracy in everyday life.
What was perhaps as interesting for me though was his comment that while he was teaching critical theory, his students were anxious that somebody was going to take their names down or have them investigated for listening to his lectures.
I’m interested in (and research from) the perspective of critical social theory, and this has sometimes meant encountering public perspectives that the security police might want to investigate, oh, I don’t know, anyone who agrees that it’s worth reflecting on society. People sometimes share that International Internet Monitoring may mean we are being watched.
I wonder whether or not the fear of being watched (by whom, and when?) means that we censor what we say, and what the consequences of that would be for dialogue, or interactive thought?
I haven’t worried about taking a critical perspective, asking questions or writing from a social view because it’s what I do. Universities hold classes that reflect on the social world whenever they teach critical theory and journals publish academic and student insights a lot of the time. But the fears of being observed remind me of an experiment Foucault shared about a prison.
This prison was designed so that people in the center could observe any prisoner at any moment, and the prisoners knew this. And so they were more inclined to do what they believed was right or ‘good’.
Setting aside questions about prison populations and the differences between who the law protects and who feels the impacts of an imposed order, this work focuses on the authority of the gaze. The very ‘right to the gaze’ is a form of authority that can change people’s behavior.
Sometimes, community gaze can be benevolent and can help to create a sense of safety. City planners often use the benevolent eye of a community when constructing public spaces. Crime is often carried out in isolated or lonely spaces. And yet it is clear that the power of the gaze can also be used to uphold a sense of authority.
Informing an intimidated public, on a regular basis, that spies are capable of looking into your affairs and monitoring exactly what you do is the perfect way to uphold authority. The more powerful and omnipresent authority may seem, the more people become afraid of speaking out or sharing.
To me, the real tragedy would be not the fear of questioning, or taking part in a conversation, but a lack of any interest in doing so. Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, and his subsequent work, The Lucifer Effect showed how a situation may have more impact than any individual actor may expect. How we respond, and the questions we ask may be our true power and our means of halting abusive or oppressive situations.
Zimbardo emphasized that during his experiment (the results of which astonished even him) some students took the role of prisoners, and others as wardens. The prisoners became anxious within a few days, and the wardens, aggressive. However, Zimbado points out that a rotten system always places the blame on individuals, disguising the impacts of the situation.
Questioning, sharing and interacting are the most helpful ways of bringing about change. We need to use our agency to declare how we see the world, regardless of who is watching or reading. If we don’t question, or if we are too afraid to question or speak out, then we allow order to be imposed upon us, and we lose our freedom.
This is why it’s important to reflect on authority, no matter how it is presented. And why it is important to carry on doing so. Social questioning or dialogue is not harmful but belief in a silencing and omnipotent authority just might be.