ADVICE TO WATCH YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT IS HEGEMONY IN ACTION – from Quench Issue 138
I’d like to begin with two stories. The first is that of Josef K., protagonist of Kafka’s magnum opus, The Trial. The other is that of Paris Brown, the ill-fated youth crime commissioner for the Kent Police.
In The Trial, Josef K. is arrested on his thirtieth birthday. Neither the crime nor the identity of the authority prosecuting Josef K. is ever made clear; the novel’s antagonist is not a person, nor a group of people, but a web of inscrutable and seemingly improvised rules. It is also unclear who exactly these rules benefit, or, indeed, if they benefit anybody at all.
Like many of Kafka’s works, The Trial is grim, and designed more to prove a point than to tell any sort of story. The case of Paris Brown is a similar sort of affair, though not out of craftsmanship; while there was a point to be made, there wasn’t much of a story to tell in the first place.
Unlike K., Paris Brown was certainly guilty, although it was never entirely certain of what crime. Hired by Kent Police to serve as a sort of youth outreach officer, Brown’s job was to bridge the gap between an aging police force and an increasingly unmanageable youth. Ann Barnes, the police commissioner who hired her, claimed that she was not looking for a police officer, but “a young person […] warts and all.”
And, indeed, that was exactly what she got. Cast into a turbulent political climate, Brown was quickly torn apart by the media for a number of tweets she made between the ages of 14 and 16. The nature of the chaos that followed was the same as any other scandal, although Paris hadn’t really done anything scandalous. The Daily Mail accused her of being racist, homophobic, and of endorsing violence; most humorously, they pointed to a “crass” praise of a shirt adorned with cannabis leaves.
At the climax of The Trial, Josef K. is apprehended by two agents and sentenced to death. In a moment of dark humour, neither agent is sure which should carry out the sentence, passing the knife back and forth. Josef realises that it falls upon him to carry out his own execution as a result of their ineptitude. Though (thank goodness) Paris Brown was not killed, neither Kent Police nor the media were particularly sure what to do with her, or whether she’d committed any sort of crime (it was later decided that she had not), so it fell upon her to carry out her own sentence. Brown delivered a press conference in which she apologised for her “horrendously offensive” tweets: for using words like “fag” and for bragging about drinking—essentially for being the young person she was hired to be.
I think that this was one of Britain’s darkest moments in recent memory. The youth is constantly vilified by an increasingly desperate news media, yet we seem complacent in the process; a far cry from the era of punk music and rebellion against prior generations, everybody from the Guardian to the Gair Rhydd implied that this was simply the way things were, and, to some extent, the way things should be. But what sort of world do we live in where young girls are forced to give press conferences for tweets? After two World Wars and the fall of an empire, are we to believe that the British public can be genuinely shaken by the musings of a 14 year old?
Reporting isn’t easy and as any first year Journalism student will be able to tell you, it’s only getting harder. Editorial budgets are being slashed across the country and the face of the practice is changing. Journalists and editors are looking for exclusives in new and different places, with social media being one of the newest (and least understood) sources. Vice’s Gavin Haynes wrote that all Paris Brown’s tweets did is expose the generation gap between the establishment and young people. If that’s the case, then she was perfect for the job of youth police commissioner, wasn’t she?
What we are witnessing is not the media holding the powerful to account, but the powerless being held to account by the media. The people of the United Kingdom frequently complain about public figures being robotic, having speeches and interviews vetted by PR agencies; we value authenticity, as evidenced by our national cinema and our crippling addiction to reality TV. Yet the sort of authenticity embodied by the working class and the young is easy to criticise, because we don’t have the luxury of having assistance to make sure we’re fit for public consumption.
This messy affair proved that corporate and public
sector hiring practices are—as they always have been—fundamentally flawed. In the same way that a semester’s worth of study should not be assessed by a two or three hour long exam, attempting to gauge somebody’s suitability for a position (particularly in terms of how the public will see them) with just a brief interview seems practically impossible. Paris Brown could have been an excellent public servant and, in an alternate universe, perhaps she is. But beyond the failings of HR, the media’s response and the complacency of the public, hinted at something far deeper.
Beyond plunging thousands of people across the country into misery, the credit crunch and subsequent recession has damaged the confidence of an entire generation. Interviews, jobs, HR managers—these are the things that students are thinking about, because it’s drummed into our heads repeatedly that our careers are the only things that matter. How do your society memberships fit into your long term game? What do your friends say about you? Are you careful about who takes photographs of you? Do you control your own image? (Does anybody?)
Certainly, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that securing an income should be the first thing on anybody’s agenda, but is it worth surrendering the liberties afforded to us by our forefathers in order to do so? People have fought and died for less than the ability to speak their mind in 140 characters. The irony of it all is that those who hold the keys to our future—hiring managers, public servants and politicians—grew up during the “swinging” Sixties, the Seventies, and the Eighties, where recreational drug use and rebellion against the establishment was an accepted part of reality, if not the norm.
Indeed, Hayek claimed that government interventions lead us down the road to serfdom, but profit (rather, the lack of it) has done a great deal to neuter the intellectual and cultural curiosity of our generation. In aspiring to avoid zero-hour contracts and dead-end positions, we have become indentured servants to our own ambition. Jobcentres and unemployment lines have become the new prisons, with trials being conducted by those with no sense of justice—just a paranoid desire to avoid a potential scandal.
And so the media has become the highest court in the country. Now every news article, bad or good, is archived in the annals of Google. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act prohibits the republishing of spent offences by news organisations unless they directly relate to the matter at hand, but gone are the days where that matters. Indeed, contrary to common belief, perhaps the Internet is the best thing to ever happen to the press, as newspaper articles no longer become obsolete the day after their publication, as they used to. Instead, they are now immortalised, frozen in time and easily accessible whenever somebody searches an individual online.
Conversely, the implications for the historians of the future are hugely negative. No matter how you view the activities of young people, the self-censorship of the public means that it will likely be harder to gain a true understanding of what the youth of today thought and felt. This is partially down to the fact the laughable concept that everything you tweet or post on Facebook should be considered “published,” in a similar manner to a newspaper or television broadcast. Most people on Twitter are not public figures; while it’s certainly naive to assume that nobody outside of your list of followers will ever discover your account, it’s also completely naive to assume that everybody who uses Twitter has media training and the confidence or desire to speak in front of a wide audience. If you were to give somebody the same resources afforded to, say, the BBC, or to a local newspaper, then hold them to account to the same degree.
And yes, you can protect your account, you can adjust your privacy settings, and you can pretend to be somebody else. But have we really reached the point where people have to hide their real face in public, whether in reality or online? How does this fit into wider debates on the niqab? On the suppression of minority groups?
We have strong anti-discrimination laws in this country, and, indeed, strong anti-discrimination laws across Europe. But there is little provision to outlaw judging people based on their lifestyle choices, at least partially because it is so difficult to prove. It will—for as long as Facebook retains its position as the preferred method of self-representation for people of all generations—be impossible to stop people undertaking some routine detective work when hiring new members of staff, but to tell people to act as though they’re always being supervised should be considered a step beyond what we’re willing to accept. Otherwise, what use are office hours if we’re always at work?
The Tab’s Jack Rivlin charmingly described the shift in attitude following the proliferation of social media as “survival of the dullest,” claiming “students who get the best jobs are now the ones with dull, uneventful lives and airbrushed Facebook profiles.” If we’re going to deny individuals the ability to serve in a public position because they found a t-shirt with marijuana leaves on it entertaining—or, heaven forbid, they admitted to drinking under the legal age—can we deny Rivlin’s assessment?
The entire argument is eerily reminiscent to the North Korean Songbun system, by which the government classes its citizens and determines their opportunities—those loyal to the establishment, those who might waver in their support, and those openly hostile. Songbun not only decides who is trusted with responsibility, but also who receives adequate food. Yet the situation in the West is also an example of hegemony in action: if you don’t follow the line of the establishment, you aren’t fit to be a part of the establishment, nor are you fit to receive its benefits.
I’m sure a percentage of the people who read this article will believe I’m defending Brown’s perceived racism, or homophobia, or whatever other transgressions she might be guilty of. I don’t believe in any of those things, but I do believe in childhood. I believe that young people (even adults) sometimes make idiot mistakes, hold idiot beliefs, and do idiot things in an effort to fit in. I believe in free speech, and in a right to change for the better, because there are no bad people, only bad decisions. To ascribe criminality to that — or to otherwise blacken somebody’s name forever —seems to be little more than an indicator of Britain’s slow and sorry metamorphosis into a callous and unforgiving society.
Paris stepped down in April, but I write this now because the world is a changing place, and the United Kingdom’s role in the world is changing also. Though some believe it to be our responsibility to intervene in foreign crises and to assist the proliferation of democracy and liberty, that message seems lost in the face of our own hypocrisy. It is brazenly sanctimonious to tell our people to mind their words and actions while chiding other nations for doing the same, but more openly.
As Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and the markets prove, the eyes of the world are moving eastwards. In the face of double-digit growth, it’s easy to deride China for its suppression of certain thoughts and ideas. A recent article by Kevin Tang for BuzzFeed was critical of the PRC following the instatement of the so-called “500 reblog law.” Legislation now states that those whose posts on social network Weibo are reposted (essentially retweeted; Weibo is Twitter’s Chinese equivalent, as Twitter is blocked in the mainland) over 500 times can be sentenced to three years in prison, if the post in question is deemed “slanderous.”
In a move that would likely shock those in the United Kingdom, a middle school boy was detained for insinuating police covered up a death in a karaoke lounge. “If even a middle-school boy can be targeted, then how safe is Weibo?” asks Tang, a good question, and one worth asking. But if a 17-year-old girl can be bullied out of a job for running her mouth at the age of 14, are we really fit to ask those questions?