Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Riding the "EL", Panopticons, and the Uncommonality of Common Courtesy



"Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors."

"Please keep your belongings off the seat next to you so others may sit down."

"Please be considerate when talking on your phones or listening to electronic devices so as not to disturb other customers."

"Your safety is important. If you observe unattended packages, vandalism, or suspicious activity, inform CTA personnel immediately."

These are but a few of the affirmations that a typical customer encounters during their daily commute on one of Chicago's 8 train lines, known affectionately as the "El" (for Elevated tracks). There are subways and street level tracks as well.

This constant need for corrective instruction is indicative of how uncommon common courtesy is in our modern society that emphasizes individual satisfaction over collectivist modes of living. It is also a stark reminder of what English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham referred to as the Panopticon, in which the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience" is created. In essence, and by the very etymology of the word panopticon, the people never know when they are being surveyed or by whom so they begin to "police" each other. (It literally means the prisoners watching each other. This is where the allusion to the "inmates running the asylum" finds its origins.)

In one sense this preserves the safety of people traveling to and fro in public spaces and ensures the civility of open environments without using significant state resources for security. It encourages people to behave in a civil manner in public spaces owing to the specter of being reprimanded by the apparati of the law or, worse yet, rebuke and public humiliation by one's peers. On the other hand, prescient awareness of being surveilled by a state apparatus as well as one's peers can foment sentiments of distrust amongst and between citizens and even encourage some to "act out" as a form of protest against these systems, possibly escalating to the point of endangering the well-being of those in the immediate area. It has been my experience that the self-awareness and desire not to draw undue negative attention to one's self in public spaces is enough to combat this temptation in the vast majority of the citizenry.

What is the desired outcome for such systems in relation to those who are ordered by them? By those that design and operate them? Are they effective deterrents to acts of disorderly conduct in public spaces? Is there a bigger picture that maybe we're aware of? Not prepared to know?

If the gentleman's briefcase or woman's purse perched firmly on the empty seat next to them, or the iPod blaring chords of Black Umbrella Brigade at decibels that a dolphin would find objectionable, or the young hipster attached firmly to a train door on a virtually empty train car are an indication of anything, it is that no matter how much encouragement/instruction we receive from our omnipotent handlers with the melodic masculine voices, there's still a small partition in our souls that bear the immortal words of South Park's Cartman -- "I do what I want!"

Now, please stand clear of the doors. Doors are closing.

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