The Wrong Definition of Wrong
When it comes to resisting, protesting, or otherwise dissenting violations of our rights—such TSA agents molesting us while innocently traveling, or police officers searching our homes, vehicles, or persons without a warrant, or the NSA recording and storing every single electronic communication or transaction or Internet activity of every single American—without probable cause, without a warrant, without any due process or court supervision of any kind—one of the most common and asinine statements I hear from those who have no clue what is actually going on is something along the lines of:
“What are you worried about, if you aren’t doing anything wrong?”
This really rubs me.
The problem isn’t that we’re doing something “wrong” and want to hide it from the government; the problem is how we are defining the word wrong.
In a free society, wrong is defined as harming someone, or victimizing someone, or otherwise violating someone’s rights. This can be in a direct way—such as assault, robbery, rape, kidnapping, murder, etc.—or, it can be in indirect ways, such as false advertising, breach of contract, misrepresentation, fraud, etc.
But when a society devolves to the point of defining wrong as being whatever the state dictates, even if at the behest of the people—be it the masses, or a simple majority, or even a vocal minority—then suddenly anything we do, anything we believe, anything we are, can be labeled as wrong, and even criminalized—and we can then be punished, persecuted, prosecuted, or even executed for it.
For example, it wasn’t so long ago when, in Germany, it apparently became wrong simply to be Jewish…
So, it’s not that we’re worried because we’re doing something wrong, and want to keep it secret; we’re worried because as long as we continue misdefining the word wrong as we are today, then we are all potential targets/victims of the state.
Surveillance Alters Our Decisions & Actions
When consideration of the state and its covert surveillance influences—and, indeed, alters—our thoughts, decisions, behavior, associations, activities, and even our very speech and/or written words, then we are no longer living in a free society.
A recent article by Falguni A. Sheth, entitled You don’t “have nothing to hide”: How privacy breaches are quietly controlling you, published over at Salon, reinforces this point. In her article, she states:
“When someone says “I have nothing to hide,” this is another way of saying, “I am not the kind of person that the government is looking for. I am neither suspicious nor a criminal. I am not someone who breaks the law.” But that translation only works if you have never been the object of false suspicion. Because, as we all know, all the information in the world doesn’t, can’t, always explain another person’s line of thinking. It may not matter to someone whose identity has never been subject to scrutiny—by police, by customs agents, by the TSA, on the U.S.-Mexico border, at routine roadside traffic stops, by campus police late at night—where and how the state collects their data. But for someone who already senses that they seem suspicious to the state merely because of what they look like—because they seem to resemble our public impressions of terrorists or violent criminals or scary people—such collection of data also has the effect of limiting my actions: I’d better not surf this website because I’m not sure how the NSA will interpret it. I’ll stop talking to friends outside the local mosque because I know the FBI is spying on it, and I don’t want to appear suspicious and risk being pressured to become an informant.”
What needs to be understood is that once we hand power or authority over to the state to violated the privacy of individuals, or a certain group of individuals, then no individual is any longer immune to, or protected from, abuse of that power or authority by the state.
And again: when consideration of the state and its covert surveillance influences—and, indeed, alters—our thoughts, decisions, behavior, associations, activities, and even our very speech and/or written words, then we are no longer living in a free society.
Looking Over Our Shoulders In A “Free” Society
In her wonderful book The End Of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf also illustrates how once an open, free society begins to close, and dictatorship begins to take root, it is the simplest of daily routine that begins to be altered, to be silenced, as people begin to fear the state, and whatever consequences may arise from their actions, behavior, or even words:
“The neon lights were flashing outside nightclubs in Vienna right through the Anschluss. British travelogues for Italy and Germany from the 1930s depict jolly fascists sharing a nice Marsala with the writers in an Osteria. More recently, the day after the 2006 military coup in Thailand, tourists were posing for snapshots next to armed guards; sunbathers were still at the beach. Most of the tourists didn’t bother to go home even after martial law was declared. Such scenes show that contemporaries often experience a brighter picture of what is going on than what the history to be written in the future will reveal. It’s as if societies continue to party upstairs while the foundations of the house crumble beneath them.
At first, Nazi German would not have looked, on the surface, so unrecognizable to us: Germans still, for a time, saw an independent judiciary; lawyers—even human rights lawyers; working journalists—even political satirists; criticism of Nazis in cabarets and theatre; and professors still teaching critical thinking. There were hundreds of newspapers of all political colors; there were feminist organizations, abortion rights activists, sex education institutes, even gay rights organizations. These kinds of civil society organizations would become “co-ordinated” with Nazi ideology, or simply disemboweled—but as the shift was first taking place things looked in many ways, superficially, like an open modern society.
Americans don’t get this at all, but other countries who have experienced dictatorships either near them or over them do get it: Journalists in Brazil and Argentina know exactly what the difference is between publishing a newspaper in freedom and publishing the same newspaper while looking over one’s shoulder. The fact that we are unaware that a dictatorship can be incremental leaves us terribly vulnerable right now. Even educated American people think that if the press is publishing and Congess is legislating, all is well; but those things are often still happening right up to the point of no return in a closing democracy—and they keep happening, in neutered form, even after a violent dictatorship has been established.
A shift toward violent dictatorship does not need to look like people being fed into ovens; historically, it looked like that exactly once, and that was less than a decade after the Nazis gained power. A violent dictatorship almost never looks like that. At first, it can simply look like people weighing their words.“
Covert Surveillance Creates A Prison In Our Minds
I think lawyer, journalist, author, and civil liberties activist Glenn Greenwald summed it up best in his TED Talk entitled: Why Privacy Matters, which he gave at TEDGlobal 2014.
Here are a few choice excerpts from that talk:
“There is an entire genre of YouTube videos devoted to an experience which I am certain that everyone in this room has had. It entails an individual who, thinking they’re alone, engages in some expressive behavior—wild singing, gyrating dancing, some mild sexual activity—only to discover that, in fact, they are not alone, that there is a person watching and lurking, the discovery of which causes them to immediately cease what they were doing in horror. The sense of shame and humiliation in their face is palpable. It’s the sense of, “This is something I’m willing to do only if no one else is watching.”
“There is a very common sentiment that arises in this debate, even among people who are uncomfortable with mass surveillance, which says that there is no real harm that comes from this large-scale invasion because only people who are engaged in bad acts have a reason to want to hide and to care about their privacy … [t]he people who are actually saying that are engaged in a very extreme act of self-deprecation. What they’re really saying is, “I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I actually don’t fear having the government know what it is that I’m doing.”
“We make judgments every single day about the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we’re willing to have other people know, and the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we don’t want anyone else to know about.”
“…when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce … when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant… people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency…[covert mass surveillance] could used not just for prisons but for every institution that seeks to control human behavior: schools, hospitals, factories, workplaces. And … this mindset … was the key means of societal control for modern, Western societies, which no longer need the overt weapons of tyranny—punishing or imprisoning or killing dissidents, or legally compelling loyalty to a particular party—because mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle though much more effective means of fostering compliance…”
“…it is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and dissent exclusively reside, and that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.”
“…when you say,“somebody who is doing bad things,” you probably mean things like plotting a terrorist attack or engaging in violent criminality, a much narrower conception of what people who wield power meanwhen they say, “doing bad things.” For them, “doing bad things” typically means doing something that poses meaningful challenges to the exercise of our own power.”
“…the measure of how free a society is, is not how it treats its good,obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy. But [more importanly}, a system of mass surveillance suppresses our own freedom in all sorts of ways. It renders off-limits all kinds of behavioral choices without our even knowing that it’s happened.”
I believe it to be in the best interest of everyone to watch his entire speech. It’s not very long, and absolutely worth the time (Video 20:41):
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I would like to summarize with yet one more reiteration: As long as we continue misdefining the word “wrong” as we are today, we are all potential targets/victims of the state; and when consideration of the state and its covert surveillance influences—and, indeed, alters—our thoughts, decisions, behavior, associations, activities, and even our very speech and/or written words, then we are no longer living in a free society.