10 June

Innocence, Surveillance and Our Perennial Dilemma

News that the United States government ordered the largest US communications company Verizon to hand over details of communications of all of its customers on a daily basis is as regrettable as it is shocking. That is to say, insofar as it is regrettable it is also shocking but it is not a complete surprise. It does, however, go to the very heart of how we understand Western Democracy and how we conceive of man as a legal entity.

Since the French Revolution European, as well as latterly other Western, societies, and in particular governments, have wrestled with their shared conception of human nature, the role of government and the basic realities of ruling. As a culture we have affirmed the inviolable integrity and value of every human being and have rejected discrimination. Yet routinely we have to contend with manifest iniquities, imperfections, shortcomings and vices that are a plain fact of the human condition. At times we almost give credence to the idea of ‘unto each his own perversion’. Many of us post-Rousseau would like to think that everyone is good, but in practice we have to accept that a lot of people do bad things, even very bad things.

We are uneasy when, as ordinary people, we are told that the government must watch us, for the indignity of scrutiny presupposes a distrust at which many take offence.  After all, are we not ‘innocent until proved guilty’? If people are willing to extend belief in basic goodness to everyone else without discrimination why should their integrity be implicitly questioned by a State that wants to watch its citizens in case they do something wrong? But how else is the State to promote the good and prevent the bad if it cannot hear what people are saying? Surely it has a right to listen to traitors’ conversations so that it can prevent treachery? The problem appears insoluble.

The philosopher A.C. Grayling has suggested that our modern affection for CCTV and government surveillance has something to do with our loss of faith. If God is not watching, and our private actions can only lead to our own pleasure or displeasure what incentive do we have to be good when we are on our own? In public we can be pleasant and law-abiding but in private we can be as narcissistic, iniquitous and as vile as we please. ‘Private’ tends to become defined as simply ‘when no one is looking’, and our actions only have consequence when someone else sees what we do or say, or notices the consequences.

As a secularist Grayling is no doubt alive to the significance his words on this subject must have. The religious traditions of Europe have long been aware of the inevitable tension between believing in the essential goodness of man as created by God and in deploring the consequences of Original Sin and of the personal sins of all. The Judeo-Christian tradition has developed a sophisticated understanding of robustness in characterising man’s goodness, and charity in considering his sins. While the apparent goal of secularism has been the reduction of conflict between different religious groups it is increasingly clear that a new conflict has been allowed to fester within man himself. In a world shorn of divinity man must still exalt and condemn himself at the same time. We both ‘deserve’ invasive surveillance by the State, and yet are simultaneously ‘deserving’ of a presumed innocence.

The problem is nothing new, and nor are its solutions. We have the resources to address the questions government surveillance throws up and the questions raised regarding individual liberty and, in many ways, our very conception of Man. Latterly, however, a powerful temptation has arisen to declare these to be new problems to be dealt with by new agencies and initiatives, all the while ignoring the insights of old and ‘out-dated’ religions.

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