The Panopticon and the fat penguin… again.

That was my favourite ever e-mail title, from one of my favourite ever people as it happens, and it delighted me not just in its esoteric nature but also in that it described the body of the e-mail; an architectural enquiry about Bentham’s theoretical prison and details on a surfboard design, so perfectly.
I’m delighted to have had a different combination of circumstances bring that delightfully eclectic phrase back to mind.
In London last week I spotted something that surprised me on my journey home. Just outside Waterloo station I watched a nun of quite remarkable corpulence struggling to climb out of the back of a taxi. I’ll freely admit, my initial reactions are as prejudiced as the next man: a short queue of fat jokes formed in the forefront of my mind, jostling for position with some half-formed, self-righteous thoughts about religious hypocrisy and how many poor folks had gone hungry in order to form the graceless black and white spectacle before me.
I’d like to think that I’m learning a little, however, and as I trudged onwards towards the next step of my commute home, I found myself thinking more in terms of the fact that if guns don’t kill people, people kill people then the corollary is that food doesn’t make fat people, people make fat people. Every time that we allow junk food to be aggressively marketed at the poor, that we give a child a sweet to stop them from bothering us, that our lack of sensitivity drives someone to seek comfort in the habit of food, then we’re doing it too. Everything that leads us to accept that a family sat for hours every night in front of the wazzock-lantern, silently and distractedly shovelling Doritos and marshmallows into their maws while rich men sell them things they don’t need is a place that we’re happy to see our society go makes us culpable.
This somewhat bleak train of thought continued on the train as I wrestled with the Independent crossword (and who, on the train without recourse to a dictionary, is supposed to know that a shebeen is an old, Irish drinking haunt, by the way?) and found myself staring at the ceiling of the carriage in search of inspiration.
I didn’t spot inspiration (or a definition of shebeens) but I did espy a sticker informing me that for my safety, the carriage was fitted with CCTV cameras which I hadn’t noticed up to that point.
I wasn’t surprised, I know that we’re the most filmed society on the planet and that many of us in the UK log more screen time than the average soap actor in some countries but I did find myself reflecting on how those cameras made me feel.
Not protected, certainly, no safer. Had some knife-wielding hoodie materialised straight from the collective imaginations of the train’s Daily Mail readers I wouldn’t have felt that I could point out the CCTV cameras and cry “put the knife down, you’ll never get away with it!”
If anything, I felt intruded upon.
This sceptred isle is probably now the closest thing that a society has ever achieved to building Bentham’s theoretical prison – a Panopticon: a prison in which the inmates can never tell if they’re being watched or not and so are compelled to behave at all times.
Bentham was using the idea as a thought experiment to explain human morality and behaviour – his theory being that morality arises from our belief that God might be watching. On the train that evening, though, I found myself wondering about the nature of who’s watching. Because if you lose your faith in God as omniscient, omnipotent and loving, then why behave according to His will?
Who’s behind the cameras of our current society? The police force (but in many more cases, the private subcontractors) of a government who we have been shown time and time again are petty and corrupt, serving big businesses who will screw anyone for short-term profit, in theory watched over by a democratic process that appears not to work and that is in the hands of a populace that appears to be, to borrow a phrase from John Kennedy Toole, ‘a confederacy of dunces’.
If morality is a function of our awe of God, then what feeling is engendered by the scrutiny of a higher power that doesn’t rate our respect, let alone our awe? If you’re a disenfranchised youth then why not boldly rip up a tube carriage in full sight of the cameras? And if you’re a rotund nun wheezing to exit a taxi beneath the cold, unblinking, electronic eyes of a society that doesn’t care; all communiqués for the kingdom of heaven going unanswered, then why not indulge in a bit of chocolate biscuit-related, symbolic cannibalism?
After all, no one’s looking.

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