08 October, 2006

We Stand Accused

Almost every day, I am accused of being a criminal or some other kind of moral degenerate. So are you.

Our accusers feel this defamation is justifiable either in the public interest or in the interest of maximising their shareholders’ profits. I believe that, most of the time, they do not even notice that they are doing it. Yet they are degrading and demeaning all of us and, as a result, destroying he moral fabric of our lives.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. At work I need to exchange some graphic designs with an external design company but I can’t because all the graphics files are intercepted and removed from our emails. This is because the organisation I work for has a policy to prevent employees exchanging ‘unsuitable’ (weasel-speak for ‘pornographic’) material via email. Although I don’t traffic in offensive or pornographic images or deal with anybody who does, all of my emails and all of the emails of people who write to me are scanned for image attachments and, if any are found, they are interdicted. Of course, my employers don’t know that I am such a morally upright person but why do they assume that I am not, rather than assume that I am? Why do they presume that I am guilty, rather than that I am innocent?

Here is another example. I get home from work after a hard day of being accused of transmitting offensive images and I settle down to watch a DVD. Before I can see the film I have hired, I am compelled to sit through a minute or two of threats from the publisher about what will happen to me if I copy that disc for sale or redistribution. Every single time any of us views a DVD we are forced to endure these threats. They even disable the fast forward so you can’t skip them. Why? Why do these people assume that I need to be threatened all the time so that I won’t copy their precious disc? Why do they assume I have such low moral standards that I need to be warned about the consequences of theft every time I watch a film?

It’s easy to find other examples. Who hasn’t had to endure the degradation of scans and even searches at airports? The last time I flew, they even made me take my shoes off and X-rayed them separately. Why do they think I plan to kill and maim people? Do I look like a murderer? If not, why treat me like that? Who hasn’t been stopped as they leave a department store – typically the down-market kind – and forced to have their bags searched, just in case you had decided to throw away a lifetime of rectitude that day and steal something from them? If you want more, think of how the tax office treats you.

The usual excuse for this kind of insult to our integrity is that ‘there are a lot of people out there who aren’t as honest as you’ or ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ or somesuch. So, on the one hand we have businesses who would rather assume we are all criminals and treat us all like scum than risk losing some of their profits to actual thieves. On the other hand we have organisations and governments who think that saving a few lives or avoiding a little moral outrage is worth subjecting everyone to humiliating indignity and intrusive surveillance.

We live in a world where there are terrorists, thieves, pornographers, and worse. The people who commit heinous crimes should not be tolerated in a just society. But if we are worried about crime, we should be taking appropriate steps to combat crime. We should tackle the problems of ignorance, poverty, oppression and abuse that lead to crime. Putting bars on our windows and carrying pepper spray is not the solution. That just brutalises us all. Constantly accusing, threatening, warning and violating the dignity of people – just in case they might be thinking of committing a crime – is not the solution either. Effort spent in preventing crime by building a just and well-informed society, effort spent in tracking down and prosecuting the perpetrators of crime, is fine. Effort spent in trying to protect ourselves from crime by assuming everyone is a criminal and treating them like dirt is just paranoia run wild.

In a society where the automatic assumption by the people with power is that everybody is bad (‘just to be on the safe side’), the moral climate of that society has to suffer. There is no presumption of innocence except, ironically, in the courts. It is acceptable – it is encouraged! – to think the worst of everyone. However good you are, however good you have been, you will be treated as if you are seething with the most evil intent. The fact that ‘it isn’t personal’ makes it all so much worse because individual goodness counts for nothing. In the eyes of those who run the governments and the businesses, you are a thief, a paedophile, a liar and a terrorist. This is the society we live in. This is where our children are learning their moral code. This is the Hell we have made.

We have allowed ourselves and our loved ones to be demeaned and degraded every day in all kinds of ways for the sake of a tiny extra bit of safety and a few cents off the price of a DVD.

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