The New Panopticon

At a recent showing of The Incredibles, there were five of us searching for seats together. The theater was about two-thirds full. It’s easy to find two together, and even four, but to get five, one needs to find a whole empty row. We found one, and filed into the spaces. As I sat down, a small voice that I can’t get out of my head asked me, in hesitant English, “Are you really going to sit there?”

I looked around. The question had come from a man in the row behind. I was about to settle down into the seat directly in front of his young son. I am tall. His son’s view would have been blocked. The man’s open face looked steadily at me, without threat.

I had just gracefully been invited to consider the consequences of my actions, to consider whether my own comfort would be worth making it hard for someone else to enjoy the show.

Today, it’s easy to get discouraged as one reads news accounts, many of which involve actions that are allowed, but that are clearly wrong.

Redolent with recent success, the U.S. House of Representatives Republican Caucus today made such a choice. They have changed a rule, dating from 1993, that prevents indicted House members from serving in leadership positions. The reason? Many feel they owe it to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for having boosted their ranks. Some of his associates are under indictment, and he may soon be, too. Their reasoning is that grand jury indictments involve no proof of guilt, and that sometimes such moves are partisan anyhow.

DeLay was also the subject of October admonishment by the House ethics committee, a noteworthy event. This is a bipartisan body that has a tradition of not doing anything. It takes a lot to get it to move. It issued its admonishment at a time when there had been widely considered to be a moratorium on such actions.

The original 1993 rule was promoted by an earlier caucus of Republicans, in the era of Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL). It was designed to highlight ethical transgressions of the current leadership, and to showcase a Republican slate of members who said they held themselves to a higher standard.

One wants to have had the chance to quietly ask the majority caucus, as they pondered the rule change, “Do you really want to do that?”

Yesterday, when I recounted that quiet voice from the theater to a table of lunch guests, a few looked at me incredulously. How dare someone tell me where to sit? You just don’t do that. But, the man in the theater wasn’t telling me what to do. He was giving me the kind of reminder we all need sometimes, a reminder that there are other people in this world. Even when I am focused fully on private life, those around me are affected by what I do. The man reminded me of that, and reminded me that my actions were being watched.

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

The Panopticon never really caught on, perhaps because it seemed a bit harsh. But maybe there’s another reason. People in the public eye — politicians, celebrities, sports figures — do live in a Panopticon. Everyone can see everything they do. It’s easy to say that should tend to cause them to hold themselves to a higher standard. But one look at the newspaper will tell you that isn’t so.

The idea underlying the Panopticon is being disproved every day. The fear of scrutiny by others only seems to work so far. In the face of this, it’s tempting to lower our standards. But we get the kind of leadership we settle for.

What will it take for us to cease to be disappointed daily? I got a glimpse of it when I took my family to see The Incredibles. The quiet voice. But these were special circumstances. Who knows what moved that man to speak up, and who knows what moved me to hear it without getting my back up?

What quiet voice can invite those in power to stop for a moment, for once, and consider whether what they are about to do, while possible, may be wrong?

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