L’horrible peur de la rupture… Social revision of anonymity

White guy caveat. I don’t really want to talk about the burqa.  For those interested in my hot take on the issue, I wrote about it a while back.

I want to talk about something else that stems out of that conversation: the increasingly common intuition that a person must not be private in order to be considered safe within society.

Let’s start with a heartwarming story of my world.  A few years ago, I was in Sydney and there was one of those filthy street performers occupying public space that could otherwise be used to allow pedestrians to go about their quests to consume more goods.  This particular street performer was wearing one of those morph suit things.  I was, as you would no doubt understand, completely revolted.  I have a very hypersensitive awareness of the Uncanny Valley.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about this revulsion until I saw two public reactions.  The first was to the niqab.  The hatred towards the niqab wasn’t the ordinary ‘I hate Muslims’ sort of thing: it was this utter revulsion at the idea that people wouldn’t reveal who they were.  The hidden, the anonymous, the defaced presented a threat in a world already sensitive about security and insecurity.

The second was the transphobic response to transwomen that was characterised in terms of inauthenticity or trickery.  Again, we saw the idea of insecurity — men with neurotic anxieties about their sexuality worried about urges towards other men — but that idea of authenticity shone through.  A person could only be authentic if they revealed their ‘true’ face.

This rhetoric plays out online.  Trolls are always anonymous.  The way to defeat trolls is to make them use their ‘real names’.  Cowards hide behind pseudonyms and false identities.  The real heroes were those who would risk real world reprisals for expressing their opinions.

People sometimes find my position on privacy incoherent.  They’ve got a point: my position is very difficult to explain using the concepts and language that we find so familiar.  I am deeply concerned about social pressure to perform in public spaces and the social pressure to allow the public into our private spaces.  Just as vampires were unable to cross the threshold, the public space was Out There and the private space was In Here.  Computers and the Internet and the mobile phones happened.  It’s common and crass to boohoo the advent of technology, but we shouldn’t accept it uncritically.  And we shouldn’t continue to use 18th Century concepts of ‘Privacy’ to discuss contemporary issues about the divide between public and private.

The greatest of all known electronica bands, Daft Punk, are famous for (imperfectly) withholding their identity.  They present as robotic nightmare creatures, devoid of human identity, dropping tunes.  Sia tried (but failed) to adopt a similar aesthetic for her recent albums as a statement about fame.  But if you tried to withhold your identity in public by wearing robot helmets or adopting identity-disfiguring haircuts, you’d quickly be asked to leave the public space.

This returns me quite neatly to the start.  It is too easy to fall into line with social norms about identity, authenticity, and public performance.  We don’t disguise our identities in public because we feel compelled to make it easier for others to engage in transactions with us, adopting those ideas of trust, security, and reputation.  But future skirmishes about the limits of privacy will take place over precisely these issues.  Should we make it easier for people to identify us and regulate us through social pressure?

As Australia’s best conservative, I’m really conflicted over this issue.  Social pressure is the best form of regulation.  We police each other through shaming, disapproval, and whatnot.  But that only works if we can identify each other in the public space.  But it comes at a cost no previous generation of conservative could ever have imagined: a social pressure to be constantly in the public space, inviting the sea of corporate data miners to have constant access to all of our information.  The natural response to this is to encourage more anonymity in public: wear the Daft Punk helmets everywhere you go.

Either way, the discourse is borked.

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