Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Facecrime in America

[Part of the series: 2013 = 1984?]

"He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen." (George Orwell, 1984 - p.4)

Rather surprisingly, Hendrik Hertzberg asserted in The New Yorker this week, apropos of the revelations about the U.S. government spying program PRISM, "In the roughly seven years the programs have been in place in roughly their present form, no citizen's freedom of speech, expression, or association has been abridged by them in any identifiable away . . . . The critics have been hard put to point to any tangible harm that has been done to any particular citizen." (The New Yorker, June 24, 2013 - p. 26)

Nothing tangible? Really? Reach up and touch your cheek, Mr. Hertzerg.

As George Orwell knew, the first victim of government assault on free expression is that remarkable organ known as the human face.

1984 is replete with references to what happens when people experience so much repression that they can't trust their own faces.
[T]here was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression in his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him. (p. 15)

His face remained completely inscrutable. Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away. (p. 32)

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself - anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called. (p. 55)

[I]t was only a twitch, a quiver, rapid as the clicking of a camera shutter, but obviously habitual. He remembered thinking at the time: that poor devil is done for. (p. 56)

Not to let one's feelings appear in one's face was a habit that had acquired the status of an instinct . . . ." (p. 94)
"Prescient" is a word that one can get tired of hearing applied to Orwell, but it really is startling how completely he anticipated the work of Paul Ekman, who has documented the science of how the human face conveys -- and betrays -- feeling and thought. (His work is familiar to millions of Americans as it was popularized through the Tim Roth TV series, Lie to me*.) The images on this page are examples of Ekman analysis.

There was a time when we would have scoffed at the notion that this description from 1984 could be relevant to life in America:
There are therefore two great problems which the Party is concerned to solve. One is how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking, and the other is how to kill several hundred million people in a few seconds without giving warning beforehand. Is so far as scientific research still continues, this is its subject matter. The scientist of today is either a mixture of psychologist and inquisitor, studying with extraordinary minuteness the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tones of voice, and testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis, and physical torture; or he is a chemist, physicist, or biologist concerned only with such branches of his special subject as are relevant to the taking of life.
But today, the notion that we have any privacy -- and that we have the right to remain silent -- is rapidly becoming an object of nostalgia.

(How long will nostalgia be tolerated?)

(1984 page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.) 

Related posts

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

"In whom and in what should we be putting our faith?" If not in Manning -- and the Manning Principle -- then in whom, and in what?

(See The Path to Peace: Why Not the Manning Way?)

Posterboard and markers: $21.79
Leaflets: $7:50
Bullhorn: $99.99
Standing up for peace and justice when everyone around you is saying "Get a job!" and "GO F**K YOURSELF!": PRICELESS!

(See Dissent: PRICELESS!)