Living in the Age of Ideological Surveillance
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In Iowa, Republicans have proposed a bill that would require teachers to keep a live video feed of their classrooms on so that parents could spy on their classes at any moment — something conservative parents and politicians have demanded, so that they can make sure that no teacher runs afoul of right-wing ideology in the classroom. “‘Orwellian’ has been drained of meaning through promiscuous overuse, but this is it exactly folks: a surveillance state devoted to enforcing the ideological inversion of truth,” Will Wilkinson wrote on Twitter.
The impetus for the law, Republican lawmakers say, is to root out a sinister agenda:
“One doesn't have to look far to see the sinister agenda occurring right before our eyes. The attack on our children is no longer hidden,” Chapman said during opening session. “Those who wish to normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children, including pedophilia and incest, are pushing this movement more than ever before. Our children should be safe and free from this atrocious assault."
Some Republicans are trying to clean up Chapman’s comments, arguing that, actually, spying on teachers is about highlighting their good work and clearing up any “he said / she said” disputes about what might have happened inside a classroom. Besides, if teachers don’t have anything to hide, what are they worried about?
Iowa Republicans aren’t alone. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has not only banned “critical race theory” as a pretext for banning thoughtful discussions of race, but he has encouraged parents to snitch on teachers, telling a conservative radio show about a dedicated email address where parents could “send to us any, any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.”
This latest encroachment into the classroom is coming after a spate of right-wing book-bannings (and to a far lesser extent, some left-wing efforts at the same), right-wing outbursts at school board meetings, and a general conservative freakout over kids learning American and world history. It’s also coming in a time of hyper-surveillance — not by the state (although by them, too), but by everyone everywhere.
It’s this erosion of privacy coupled with conservative efforts to rewrite history that have brought us to this moment.
In the age of smartphones and video technology, surveillance is all around us. It’s in the Ring cameras that look out from front doors. It’s in the “smart” home devices that we bring into our private spaces. It’s in the ubiquity of work-from-home (and everything-from-home) “solutions,” from Microsoft Teams meetings to online school Zoom zumba classes. It’s in each of our hands, as it becomes more and more normal to record others in public — sometimes because they’re behaving badly, sometimes because they’re doing something we deep weird or funny or unusual or objectionable.
Not all of this is bad, of course. But people across the political spectrum have justified punitive surveillance, and helped ferry us to a dangerous place. This is not to say that some surveillance isn’t justified. It is to say that we should be able to differentiate between those who, for example, have the state’s monopoly on violence behind them (cops, prison guards) and private citizens — or state employees charged with opening up lines of communication and discourse.
There is a strain of both liberalism and conservatism that essentially concludes that vast surveillance is fine, because if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide — and if you are doing something wrong, you deserve to be uncovered. On some college campuses, “bias response teams” are in charge of rooting out “bias incidents” — not crimes or even acts of harassment, but often statements from students, staff, or faculty that were deemed offensive or hurtful.
A bias incident can occur “whether the act is intentional or unintentional,” meaning that “microaggressions” (subtle, often unintended slights) are squarely within bias incident territory. All “verbal, written or physical” conduct is fair game, whether it transpires in actual spaces such as cafeterias and classrooms or in the endless virtual world of social media. Examples include “symbols, language and imagery objectifying women” (University of Utah); “name calling,” “avoiding or excluding others” and “making comments on social media about someone’s political affiliations/beliefs,” (Syracuse); “I don’t see skin color,” “I was joking. Don’t take things so seriously,” and “Thanks, Sweetie.” (University of Oregon). Given the expansive definitions of bias incidents, it is no surprise that some dubious complaints are filed: Last month, at the University of Michigan, a hall director reported a “phallic snow object.”
It’s also now broadly considered fair game to publicize the “problematic” comments, actions, or politics of a private citizen, sometimes by recording them. I’m not talking about abuse or acts that put someone else in danger (the woman who called the police on a Black bird watcher in Central Park comes to mind here — the man she targeted recorded her meltdown for his own safety). But too often, we see attempts to publicly shame someone for having bad ideas or behaving boorishly, not as acts of self-defense.
One of the scariest incarnations of snitch culture is the Texas vigilante abortion law, which allows anyone in the US to sue anyone else who they believe has “aided or abetted” an abortion — to snitch on someone who helped a woman in need, and then drag them to court, all of the snitch’s expenses paid. Already, pregnant women have been reported to the authorities for suspected drug use (when the culprit was eating poppyseed cake) and jailed for having miscarriages. The Constitutional right to privacy, which broadly protects our rights to use contraception, end pregnancies, and have consensual sex with other adults, is under direct threat in the Supreme Court.
We have adjusted startlingly rapidly not only to pervasive surveillance and the end of personal privacy, but to the justification for punishment arising from that surveillance.
We can differentiate between the need to check those in positions of significant power and the baser urge to punish those who have bad or even harmful ideas, or those who do things we dislike that don’t actually cause tangible damage. Police who complain about body and dash cam rules, for instance, can suck an egg — when the state hands you a gun and gives you the authority to use it, you take on a higher level of responsibility and there is a significant public interest in making sure that you are not breaking the laws that you and your friends and colleagues are charged with enforcing. But punishing people whose ideas are wrong but not immediately physically dangerous — even if the people disseminating those ideas have some cultural influence or educational authority — leads us down a dangerous path. After all, it’s those in power who get to decide which ideas merit penalty. When that’s progressives at a liberal arts college, I tend to agree with their assessment. When it’s conservatives on a Texas school board, I don’t. Which is why we need to maintain a set of consistent principles when it comes to speech and surveillance that transcends (most) of that speech’s content.
There are of course some lines, and defining them can get tricky. Fights over speech are almost always also fights over the content of objected-to speech. But I think it’s worthwhile for people on the left to take a very wide view of what people should be able to say without professional penalty (which does not mean without social pushback). That is particularly true in educational settings.
Classrooms need to be spaces where everyone, the teacher included, feels free to explore difficult ideas, and where everyone, the teacher included, is given some grace when they make mistakes. Teachers cannot teach well if they are also self-surveilling and obsessing over how one wrong utterance could ruin their career. Students do not learn well if they cannot ask whatever questions they want answered, and if they cannot trust their teachers and classmates to be honest and open brokers of information.
The truth is that students will not remember the vast majority of what their teachers say in class (I am sorry to all teachers, myself included). But some bits and pieces will stick, and teachers absolutely shape how a student learns to think. We should not be showing students that learning is scary, that difficult histories are verboten, or that they should approach education from a place of partisan politics first and intellectual curiosity a distant second.
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash
I had an 8th grade teacher who, I realize in very long hindsight, was probably some kind of John Bircher. Not perhaps what the adults around would have wanted (maybe?). But from her careful reading of the US Constitution, I learned a lot about how to think about the implications of a distant document. Fortunately, students mostly learn what they and their peers are interested in. Larger social forces led me in a very different direction and I am sure I'm not the only one who got a lot out a ideologically horrible teaching.