“The soul is the prison of the body.”
Foucault first said these words, which strongly echo his teacher Louis Althusser. Ideology does indeed contain and form our consciousness. There is no escaping ideology. We swim in ideology on a daily basis. It could be argued what we know as ‘oneself’ or ‘ones consciousness’ is little more than the emerging product of multiple intersecting ideologies. Foucault takes this to its ultimate conclusion that ‘the soul’ (call it consciousness or psyche) is the true prison of the body. The body which is free by default. This brief summary is the basis of the following observation; it is society, not the State, which has created an ideological prison of which the policing panopticon sits in the center.
For decades the cliche prediction has been an Orwellian dystopian of the State becoming totalitarian, observing and policing every detail of a citizen’s existence, punishing those whom step out of line. We have always feared the State, rightfully so after Stalinism, Maoism, and so forth. The Orwellian nightmare would occur through the State, sooner or later. Perhaps this was inaccurate, perhaps the Orwellian totalitarianism was outsourced to the people themselves. Foucaul’s suggests as much when he uses the panopticon as analogy of ‘an All-Seeing eye’ which constantly observes; no bars or chains needed, as the power of ideology itself would be enough to imprison the body and keep individuals in line. This has often been interpreted as a surveillance state, with NRA and the like. This is understandable, but what we are seeing now are the people ideologically policing the people. Whether it be in discourse or in political activism, people do not fear ideological deviation due to the State intervening, rather they fear the general public. It is the general public which will punish them for deviating ideologically, not so much the State itself. This is not entirely new nor am I the first to state this, but we increasingly see this panopticon policing taken to bold new levels as social media and the internet permeate our lives.
In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the main character Hester Prynne must wear a scarlet colored letter ‘A’ upon her breast, so she will be constantly reminded of her transgression and the townspeople will be reminded as well. In short, she is ideologically branded and stigmatized. Puritanism is not new to us, while before it took a religious form, it now takes a secular form, though no less religious in practice. Whether one calls it ‘progressivism’, ‘social justice warriors’, the ‘liberal left’, these names are inadequate and have become passing buzzwords. Recently I came across a term that seemed to capture the ideological regime overall, that being ‘totalitarian humanism’. This term best describes the ideology which is radically egalitarian, secularist, cosmopolitan, and has produced a list of ‘secular sins’ that if committed are worthy of public shaming, not unlike that found in Puritan Christianity. Again, this has been written about already, and there is no shortage of pieces criticizing the ‘bleeding heart politically correct’. I do not wish to add to that stack. What intrigues me is its totalitarian and self-policing nature that fits well the Foucault panopticon, and could lead to its own unique Orwellian future.
Recently there was an announcement of a website which allows people to publically claim another person as a racist. Social media has already allowed ‘doxxing’ and other similar ‘branding’ methods. While racism itself is generally distasteful, are we reaching a point in our technological development as a society that we can begin ‘branding’ others whom deviate ideologically from the ‘party line’ or group consensus? If an ideology produces a list of ‘sins’ which one should not commit, and those whom commit the sin are to be publicly shamed for doing so, those whom shame the ‘sinners’ feel self-righteous in their action; at what point does this cross the line from acceptable norms and unacceptable behavior into outright puritanism? Discourse is not advocated, as that allows a dialogue, and a dialogue requires two positions communicating. Dialogue is immediately shut down as one position is declared a ‘sin’ by the other, it is then condemned and shamed. This is not discourse. This is not a liberal exchange of ideas and thoughts. This is a religious condemnation of what is immediately deemed unacceptable.Furthermore, it is not the State persecuting those whom deviate ideologically, nor is it the Church burning those at the stake whom deviate ideologically as we have seen in the past. No, this is the general public, through social media and other means, policing themselves with all the fury and treachery of a ‘secret police’. At what point does our increasingly technological society, each connected to each, begin to become its own panopticon as it scrutinizes and overtly punishes the non-conforming?
Free speech as a law is not under attack. That does not mean discourse itself is not being constricted and gagged. In the panopticon analogy, the prisoner does not need a cell or chains, it is his own fear and ideological psyche which keeps him imprisoned. It is not the fear of the State or Church, it is the fear of his fellow countrymen and neighbor that keeps him inline. Have we become this already? Is the Orwellian dystopia inverted, not a totalitarian state but a totalitarian public? Not a totalitarian theocracy but a totalitarian humanism? Perhaps it is an inside-out prison, unlimited bodily mobility but highly restrictive ideological mobility. The more technology develops, the more it permeates and brings us within its apparatus, the more opportunity for this self-policing to reach new heights.
The answer to this constriction is twofold, first is that civil dialogue must be advocated above all. The immediate condemnation of a subject without discussing its contents is not dialogue, it is a form of puritanism. It engenders resentment and causes further schism. Even if this means discussing subjects which are uncomfortable or initially offensive. Second is that people must not fear deviating ideologically. One does not by necessity have to deviate, but also should not be afraid to either. It may result in backlash, and one has to be wise in predicting the consequences of such actions while maintaining authenticity to self. Identity politics and partisanship has bogged the individual down in false obligation that is more akin to shackles than duty. No single detail about ones identity should usurp the whole. No single detail about ones identity should indenture them to a single political party. As previously stated, freedom of speech is not under attack. It is discourse itself that is being constricted and lessened. It is again not a physical chain or shackle that binds, it is ideological fear that binds.
There is no need for a totalitarian state to rise up and police the details of our lives. We are doing that ourselves, to ourselves. Often it is in the name of progress or humanism or ending oppression or ‘being on the right side of history’. It does not matter what self-righteous cause is on the banner. A man will serve whatever god best justifies his actions. And if he feels his puritanism is justified and righteous, then he will never doubt himself. None of this requires theism, it only requires a cause one dogmatically believes in.