The Body of the Condemned

Internet is up to its favourite pre-Enlightenment habit again!  Public execution.

I shan’t link to this latest “action” because there is no need; you’ve read this story before.

Once upon a time, disease
a person/representative of a business said or did something vile. This vile something which might have otherwise gone unnoticed by large numbers of people was amplified. Now, herpes
large numbers of people condemn the misdeed by retelling and replaying it over and over.

In the barbaric town square of Internet, pilule
this is the logic: you have done wrong and your crime must be publicly replayed and now you must be ruined.

I understand that this sort of thing is immense fun. Apportioning blame to a single person or business for all the mystically incomprehensible shit in the world feels great. For one moment, we feel we have murdered evil itself.  For one moment, we feel we have dissuaded all other criminals by “calling out” this or that prejudice or crime.

The thing is, it doesn’t work.  Democracy know this so why don’t you?

The move from feudal displays of cruel execution to invisible incarceration and reform did not occur because we became Better People. It occurred because governments who were building more centralised control in the Enlightenment age found that public torture just did not work.

By the middle of the 19th century, public execution in Europe had all but ended. There is a good argument to be made that systems of punishment became no less cruel as they moved to the madhouse and the prison. There is a very good argument to be made that they also became far more effective.

FYI, Foucault makes it first and best.

In attacking the body of an individual to achieve justice, a number of unintended consequences are produced. The public torture—or as we have now the public censure—was eventually seen to achieve the very opposite of its intention.

Public torture allows the criminal and his crime to be redeemed in the public view.

Public torture is a spectacle enjoyed by hordes who can easily convince themselves that they are not so much enjoying themselves as doing The Right Thing.  How can it NOT be the right thing to gather and condemn?

But it is not the Right Thing. Not if the Right Thing is said to be the eradication of the misdeed from the social body.

So, if we say that such-and-such a person or group—say a business owner who has said something homophobic or a film director who has allegedly raped a child—is a “symbol” of a crime (and we do that all the fucking time) and must be “symbolically” and actually “called out”, we are allowing him AND the crime he committed the possibility of redemption.

Just as in the pre-Enlightenment town square, we allow the possibility in our acts of public torture for (a) the criminal and the crime (to which we have already openly attributed “symbolic” power) to be seen as a hero by some others in the crowd; back in the says of public execution, there would often be someone who would try to liberate the criminal (who we must remember we have made a symbol of a widespread crime) and (b) our own satisfaction that this symbolic hanging has somehow ended the crime.

We are surely quite familiar with the arguments about public execution as an ineffective means of social control.  Why can’t we see that this new form of public execution of ideas is just as ineffective?

I am not advocating for disciplinary practice of “criminals”. I am not saying we should put them quietly in prison. What I am saying is that this herd bloodlust, as fun as it is, is not driven by logic but by a belief in the power of the spectacle; of the public scaffold.

We feudal idiots content ourselves believing that a crude take-down or “calling out” of crime and prejudice will achieve something. We dance on the Berlin Wall thinking that this time, finally, we have achieved something.

All we have achieved is our continued belief that power can be easily seen and identified and crushed by the feeble power of our Internet climaxes.

Power is not in a pasta manufacturer. Power is not in a Coca Cola ad. Power is not even easily located in a rapist.  Power is disperse and is difficult to see and unless we make the effort to see it, we are powerless to overturn power.

But I do understand that public torture is fun.

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