Privacy and the Decent Society: Big Brother Is Watching You


Today I’m continuing my analysis of the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m looking at it through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of decent and indecent societies.

Margalit argues that in indecent societies, institutions humiliate individuals, and in decent societies they generally do not. To draw an analytic contrast, a society whose criminal justice system aims primarily to rehabilitate would tend toward decency, since rehabilitation tries to restore criminals’ dignity, which includes a capacity for reform and redemption. A system meant primarily to incapacitate criminals or to enrich the providers of criminal justice would be more likely to be indecent. Humiliation would be an essential part of what it does.

In my first post, which looked only at the opening paragraph of 1984, we saw that Oceania’s humiliation of individuals is pervasive and thoroughgoing. Big Brother’s regime tells casual, inconsequential lies about little things–like the name of Winston Smith’s apartment building–and calculated, deeply ramified lies about large things–such as whether Oceania is winning the war against Eurasia.

By dominating the whole domain of information exchange, from the trivial to the highly significant, Big Brother’s regime means to reduce the individual to a reflexively obedient subject who adapts his whole corpus of beliefs to mass culture, relinquishing private opinion. This situation, not far from the real one in North Korea and in large parts of China today, surely would reflect an indecent society by Margalit’s definition. Any regime that simply instructs its populace what to believe rules over subjects, not citizens–humiliated, not diginified persons.

(Bookish aside: If you are interested in this idea, Hegel develops it as the “master-slave dialectic” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche expands on it as “master-slave morality” in On the Geneology of Morals. Hegel’s book is very tough sledding, but anyone can pick up and enjoy Nietzsche’s book.)

As Winston Smith passes through the doorway of his building and makes his way toward his apartment, we begin to see up close some of the instruments of a regime bent on humiliating its subjects in this fundamental way:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. . . . It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Notice a detail here. Size matters. Have you ever even seen a poster of anyone’s face wider than a meter? Even a face depicted twice its normal size, perhaps 20 inches wide, would qualify as large. Orwell’s meter-wide poster of Big Brother leaves conventional ideas of dimension behind. It is an instance of what we used to call giganticism when discussing the Soviet Union.

big bro
He’s gigantic

A repressive regime signals its overwhelming power, or at least tries to, by emphasizing its overwhelming size. The whole idea of a military parade, for example, is to produce a spectacle of numerical superiority. When the current U.S. president asked for a military parade two years ago, many of us in the defense establishment recoiled at the idea. I think much of our unease was based in the suspicion, acquired from watching Russia and North Korea over the years, that these kinds of penis exhibitions are humiliating for all parties involved. Decent societies don’t roll out the tanks to raise the country’s morale, still less that of its rulers.

It’s a pity Orwell didn’t live long enough to see the Jumbotron, or even the “humble” roadside billboard (standard size in America: 14′ by 48′). He would have appreciated their dimensions, and he might have quailed at how listlessly (and sometimes enthusiastically!) we accept these monsters in everyday life. If you wanted to hold a Two Minutes Hate in real life today, the Jumbotron just might be your tool of choice.

It is when we enter Smith’s apartment that we encounter the summum malum of Big Brother’s ability to monitor and repress–the telescreen:

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

We will come to learn a list of horrors, many of them prefiguring our own internet, about the telescreen. It is always on, for example. The feature I want to dwell on today is its physical setup as an integral part of the wall.

Integrating the telescreen with the wall removes any visual signs that screens were once ancilliary fixtures in our homes. A TV was once an appliance that you could take or leave (although how many of us would leave it?). The telescreen is part of the very walls around you. Whatever unsettling things Freud may have said about your mother or your libido, he was on to something solid, I believe, when he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that the home represents the mind itself. Whatever belongs to the home is part of you.

Some of our most formative assumptions have to do with what we consider normal and what we don’t. This is the point of the telescreen being built into the wall: it’s as normal to have a telescreen as to have a home.

Much of any goverment’s propaganda aims to condition the citizens to think of extraordinary circumstances as normal. Before 1947, for example, the United States had, when necessary, a Department of War. In 1947 Washington created its replacement, the Department of Defense. Today we simply accept the DoD as a permanent part of our government. And that’s because of a word. “Defense” is a consitutional duty which must be attended to all the time. It is a normal part of living in a dangerous world.

Before 1947, it would have been more evident to the casual oberver that we hadn’t always thought of ” defense” in this way. Raising an army to defend the nation’s interests had always been something we improvised in response to war, which is more or less the paradigm of extraordinary circumstances.

Recall how long it took Lincoln to generate the forces of the Union Army. The Army that became an unstoppable behemoth began with pathetically haphazard, unprofessional, poorly informed efforts. To take another case, the image we have of American industry during World War 2 is one of factories humming at an insuprable capacity. This, though, was the result of an astonishingly quick adaptation to new circumstances. The factories that won the war mostly stayed in place and became the core of the military industrial complex, a phrase that now sounds slightly conspiratorial to breathe aloud. Why? Because “defense” is such big business, it must be thought of as normal. There is no industrialized country on earth than can afford to let arms sales be thought of as unusual. Military-grade weapons are a vital sector of a “normal” economy.

I am not quite at the point where I want to draw a direct connection between a militarized society and one that accepts a government mandate to ignore history, but I believe Chapter One will pull me toward this connection soon enough.

I will close for today by noting the main commonality between the poster of Big Brother that Winston passes in the hall and the telescreen that forms part of a wall in his apartment. In the poster, Big Brother’s eyes are “contrived” to hold the viewer in their gaze no matter where the viewer goes. The telescreen does the same. These are both achievements in surveillance that recall Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon–a phsyical space whose setup enables a watcher to monitor all the inhabitants from a single vantage point. If it ever came about, Bentham thought, the panopticon would become a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

In my next post we will watch Winston Smith try to rebel against this horrible power. He does it by writing.



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