Surveillance as Violence

Image courtesy of French street artist Zabou @zabouartist

Image courtesy of French street artist Zabou @zabouartist

Violence is a complicated topic. For most people, it’s spoken about in terms of physical aggression - the use (or threat thereof) of force. However, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek also acknowledges “objective” violence - with no clear perpetrator, which is often widespread. Violence isn’t just force - at its most basic, it’s the removal of agency. In this post, I’d like to explore this broadening of the concept of violence and how it pertains to the United State’s culture of surveillance, as enacted by the NSA. More so, how that surveillance acts to remove the agency of the citizens it claims to protect.

To quote Zizek on systemic violence, it is “...inherent in the system, not only direct physical violence but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence”. Zizek accounts for how oppressed people become and stay oppressed. These forms of violence apply force - not physical but social, cultural, ontological. Such that the agency of their victims is partially or entirely negated. By creating a state of violence, the perpetrators can ensure an obedient, accepting public, or even an apathetic one.

This state of violence means that when attempting to act, one is restrained or entirely prevented.  When one pushes against this new culture of surveillance and observation, the systematic structure of government pushes back - on a far larger scale than we, as individuals or citizen groups, could hope to muster. Though it may seem that this is “just how things are”, this monolithic strength is the structure’s force through which objective violence is perpetrated. This facade of inactivity is deceptive.

The type of force I am talking about is not normally considered violent, as society typically views violence to be active or, to be more precise, an action which is gross or excessive. However, I would argue that the lengths taken by the NSA under the direction of the US government to systematically observe and collect data on it’s citizens are gross and excessive. This is not just systemic violence, this is overt, intentioned and threatening.

This threatening behavior enacted through the NSA by our government has a taxing effect on its citizenry. As does the frenzy of fear they impose and sustain in order to justify continually increasingly invasive acts of surveillance and security theater. This carefully constructed climate of fear has caused the US to become a nation so afraid of some nebulous, ever-changing ‘other’ taking our liberty we have become complacent with our government taking it instead.

Image courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist  Mike Luckovich @mluckovichajc

Image courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist  Mike Luckovich @mluckovichajc

America has seen this behavior before, during the Cold War when President Truman created the Loyalty Review Board in 1947 to verify the loyalty of government workers. The Un-American Activities Committee called many entertainers to testify before the House; those that refused were ‘blacklisted’ from Hollywood and sentenced to prison. And this wasn’t for any active subversion on their part; this was simply for wanting to maintain a level of privacy that was simply seen as unreasonable.

During the same period Senator Joseph McCarthy made great claims of communists working in the government and military. Thousands of Americans were accused of holding Communist ideals or sympathizing with them, and were believed to be working to disrupt the American government from the inside. Government employees, educators, union activists and entertainers - those with any measure of influence and power to “sway” the views of the common man - were called before panels, both government-controlled and privately owned. It didn't take much to get dragged before one of these committees - even the suggestion of left-leaning tendencies was given the same weight as in-depth evidence of subterfuge. Those who were convicted had their careers and lives destroyed, left with an indelible mark for future employment, and some even imprisoned.

McCarthyism caused many to fear being labeled as subversive and thus consciously work to conform to the idea of idyllic America. Those who refused to fall in line were ostracized, imprisoned, and weeded out.

We are seeing this again in the so-called War on Terror (the failure of any war on an inanimate object/emotion is another topic). Instead of appointing committees and panels, the US government has used technology to monitor and record, for prosterity, the communications and activities of not just American citizens and residents, but foreign nationals as well. These activities, carried out by the NSA, are only loosely legitimised by secret courts and have no accountability to the citizens they claim to serve. They are beholden to none and operating under outdated laws when they are even acting legally.

While there are no solid studies showing the long term effects of such surveillance, we can already see the ways individuals are reacting: they are adjusting their behavior and language to appear more inline with ‘acceptable’ opinions. They are self censoring their online behaviors and expressions. This is a reaction to the fear of an omnipresent threat. The threat of being seen as other, of being targeted for more severe surveillance or worse. This state of fear strips an individual’s agency to free speech and the pursuit of happiness when that speech or pursuit is at odds with that which has been deemed socially acceptable by the surveyor. This state of fear also encourages and feeds a propensity to demonize that which is ‘other’. We see this in the hate speech leveled at any who happen to be loosely associated with the public’s hazy perception of the ‘enemy’. Whether or not these become large-scale trends remains to be seen - but the real problems are just beginning.

Surveillance is objective and systematic violence which constitutes oppression. It is being enacted against the people, in the name of the people. Just like an abusive partner may claim they are beating their victim for their own good - our government is telling us that this abuse of our privacy, security, rights and trust is for our own safety. Our government is asking us to be complacent and to participate in our degradation.

Tiberius Hefflin

Portland, Oregon 97204