For whatever reason, people are worried about clown attacks.
The topic should get us excited because it reveals a whole lot of intuitions about what people think is acceptable behaviour and how we should regulate that behaviour. Let’s start with the easy case.
There’s footage depicting (apparently) people dressed as clowns running towards random people, threatening them with knives. What should be obvious — we think that threatening people with menacing behaviour should be illegal and not tolerated — has become a less obvious peace of public rhetoric: we need somebody to deal with the clowns.
The clown aspect is entirely immaterial to the rest of the discussion in this case. The behaviour that needs regulating is the threat of violence, not the dressing as a clown. This was the position taken by the Western Australian police today after they arrested a man who dressed as a clown to chase teenage girls:
It is important to remember that dressing as a clown isn’t against the law, however should a person engage in activity that is criminal, anti-social or threatening towards other people, police will investigate.
Some people are drawing the line at a lower threshold. Dr Lisa Warren is a psychologist who runs a consultancy for dealing with threatening behaviour. Her take:
Any occasion where a person dresses up, behaves in a way threatening to others, [should be] always taken seriously […] What’s intriguing is a clown suit, a degree of anonymity, [makes it] easier to get away with anti-social behaviours.
‘Behaves in a way threatening to others’ is the part I’m interested in because what we find threatening is not always rational. I have a ridiculous list of phobias arising from me being an extraordinarily anxious person. As a result, I find a number of things threatening. But should this impose upon others an obligation to refrain from particular behaviours?
We can all see where this line of inquiry is going. In 2014, Tony Abbott claimed that he found the burqa ‘confronting’. But why did he find it confronting? What is the element that confronts us?
The number one reason given by people who claim their opposition to the burqa isn’t racist is that the burqa presents a security risk. Abbott said that Australia was a free country so people could wear the burqa… but not in secure buildings.
I have long hair which routinely falls forward over my face. I also have a beard. And yet nobody has ever asked me to reveal more of my face for security reasons. If I wear a hat, I could be anybody.
More importantly, facial recognition is a terrible way to deal with security problems. The debate about biometrics and profiling is entirely because most people look the same. Even if you have cameras in place to catch people after the fact, it’s still inadequate to match the person on the camera with the person sitting in front of you in court.
So what’s really going on? My take is that we are becoming a lot more comfortable in our demands that everybody else in our society make themselves available for scrutiny at all times. We need you to dress in a way that we, as a society, can regulate you. A few years ago, I wrote about how New Matilda tried to contact a teenage girl’s employer after she’d said made some horribly racist comments online. The editor of New Matilda, Chris Graham, stood by his actions: it was absolutely the role of the media to regulate the behaviour of others. This sort of informal, rough music regulation of behaviour is only possible if we don’t live in an anonymised world. If you do something that people disapprove of, we need to be able to punish you for it. If you frustrate people’s ability to identify you, then we can’t punish you when you do things we disapprove of.
I think it’s that aspect of the panopticon that makes us keen to stamp out people dressing as clowns. That and the sheer joy of hating on clowns.