See Something? Don’t Say Anything.

By Daniel Tippens

The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.

–George Orwell, 1984

George Orwell’s 1984 is, in large part, a discussion about the importance of solidarity between citizens. This becomes clear once one notices that much of what the ruling Party does is designed to engender distrust between its citizens. Ingsoc has placed televisions equipped with cameras in people’s homes, and cameras are hidden in the streets. It has passed laws requiring people to report on their neighbors, whether they are attempting to lead an uprising or simply having a thought that isn’t in line with the party’s ideology. If anyone breaks these laws, the punishment is disappearance, torture, and/or death. Mass surveillance, strict reporting laws, and harsh penalties for legal violations result in citizens turning on one another in order to preserve their own lives. Even worse, the punishment for falling in love is torture until each person betrays the other, begging the torturer to inflict pain on their lover instead. When one’s children might be spies for the Thought Police, how could parental bonds ever form? How could cohesion and trust develop between anyone, for that matter? Solidarity between citizens, in Oceania, has disappeared, and thus, it is impossible for citizens to come together in order to oppose the State.

An encounter I had on campus at the University of Miami reminded me of all of this. I had only been able to catch a few hours of sleep and spent the morning and early afternoon handling tedious logistical matters with which every graduate research assistant is familiar. Once I finished, having a quick smoke seemed like a good release. Knowing that the campus is smoke-free, I decided to walk to the parking lot — which, while still technically part of campus, would not have many people nearby — in order to burn down a cig. After taking a few puffs, a short yet gangly woman in her early fifties appeared, walking in my direction. As she approached, she glared at me and slowed her pace, squinting her eyes and furrowing her brow. After a moment of hesitation, perhaps considering whether or not to say anything, she committed herself to the vigorous termination of my smoke-break. “This is a smoke-free campus,” she said, her eyes now wide and unblinking, “Put out your cigarette now.” “Uh, okay, I will in just a minute,” I replied, taking another hit. “No, put it out this moment, or I’m calling security. You’re forcing me to walk through that smell.” She began to reach for her phone — perhaps she had security on speed-dial – and I asked her if she also would like to ban restaurants, from which waft odors she dislikes, to which she replied, “I’m calling security now.” I finished my cigarette, hopped on my bike, and drove off.

What struck me about this encounter, above all else, was the reason that this woman gave for wanting to call security on me, namely her disliking the smell of my cigarette. Aside from all the other reasons she could have cited — regarding second-hand smoke, for example, or the litter created by discarded cigarette butts — she simply hated that I was doing something that I enjoyed, because it caused her some momentary discomfort. That was enough reason to turn me in to the authorities.

All of us do things for our own pleasure or convenience that might cause others discomfort, and this is something we learn when we are children. Some of our peers will occasionally talk too loudly, reek from neglecting their hygiene, or pass wind in a classroom. Hell, some kids will even throw stink bombs in their high school hallways. When this kind of thing happens, we may call those kids assholes and even give them a hard time about it later, but no matter what, every kid knows that you don’t rat the person out to the principal. This norm ensures the maintenance of a healthy space between the authorities and the students that mirrors the sort of space that should exist between citizens and the government in a liberal society; precisely the kind of space that Orwell’s Oceania lacks.

In adult life, this norm of “citizen-solidarity,” as we might call it, is reflected in the way people behave when they see someone breaking a law that affects our more quotidian personal choices. Smoking marijuana is illegal in most states, and I might even have voted for the law that criminalized its use, but when I see someone smoking a joint in public, my role as a citizen is not to get them jailed so that they can spend their high trying to avoid getting beat up or raped in jail. Rather, it is to give people some wiggle room to break the rules, which means calling these sorts of petty offenders assholes rather than calling the police.

The same idea explains what is so troubling about police who enforce the law in an uncompromising and draconian fashion. My ex-girlfriend was once pulled over, on a small, low speed moped; the sort of thing that could easily be mistaken for a child’s toy. The officer who pulled her over said that it was for failing to have on protective eye-wear and asked for her license. Politely, she said that she did not have it on her, upon which the officer promptly arrested her, had the moped towed (which must have looked ridiculous), and threw her in jail, orange jumpsuit and all. I would later see a missed call and voicemail from her and listen as it said, “An inmate in this correctional facility would like to speak with you. Do you accept?” My ex literally shared a cell with a convicted murderer for the night, as we waited for her bail to go through.

Many laws — like driving without a license — give police enormous discretion as to how they want to handle things. The officer, I would later find out, could have done a number of far less harsh things to my ex than jailing her, which I hope we would all agree, is absolutely outrageous.  Qua police officer, he may have to do something (though in this particular case, I wonder even about that), but qua citizen, he should have been measured in what he did, thereby exhibiting the recognition that like everyone else, he too is a citizen, who might one day find himself on the wrong side of the law. Bringing down the proverbial hammer, as he did, suggests that there is no such recognition on his part and that he fails to understand the importance of citizen-solidarity to a healthy society.

We live in a society that has been trained to defer to the rulebook and the relevant authorities in virtually every dimension of our lives and in which we are loathe to confront one another at a personal level, in dealing with petty offenses. But the value of maintaining the implicit understanding between citizens that we are all in this together is just too important to let our own petty issues get in the way. The more we abandon the norms of citizen-solidarity, the closer we come to turning into Winston Smith.

(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)

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