Michel Foucault, a French rhetorical scholar in the late twentieth century, had a theory called Panopticon Theory. Panopticon Theory envisioned a prison of any number of inmates and only a single guard.
So it sounds kinda crazy, right? Like, huge numbers of inmates—potentially infinite numbers—all being tightly controlled by a single guy. Well, there are obviously a few caveats in the theory. The first is that the single guard has the ability to “punish” the inmates while they are in their cells. Whether this is like, electric charges, temperature control—whatever fun little torture you can come up with—is irrelevant. The main thing is that the guard can punish misbehaviour.
The second thing is that each cell is equipped with either a window or a camera through which the guard might at any point observe any prisoner at any time without that prisoner knowing. That ability to view without being viewed, paired with the ability to punish, is the crux of the theory, right here in this paragraph.
The Theory is usually presented with a series of codified rules for the prisoners. You know, don’t escape. Don’t have contraband. But it can extend to don’t talk, or don’t use the washroom or don’t think.
How can they tell what the prisoner is thinking? They can’t. But they can read body language and make a few easy assumptions and suddenly a prisoner is being punished. Which might give a prisoner reason not to even look like they’re thinking, whatever that means they have to do.
There are a few interesting facets to this theory. Some centre on the prisoners’ ability to communicate with one another, which is a whole other theory. How fast would behavioural norm spread throughout the prison? Which types of punishment story would force behaviour to change the fastest?
They’re all interesting questions, and ones I can’t immediately answer. There are libraries of theoretical works on them, most somewhere in the behavioural science section.
Instead of worrying about it, let’s hit the practical application, shall we?
It’s going to be very difficult not to make generalised statements in this extremely short summary of a very complex theory and all of humanity. Why write it? Because it’s a beginner’s idea that you should consider every time you watch the news or look on the Internet.
You should, by now, have realised what I’m about to say. Every single person you will ever meet is a prisoner, and nobody knows who the guard is.
The behavioural rules presented to us were religious. Then they were nationalistic. Then they were anti-capitalist, or anti-communist. Today? Today they’re multicultural. Diverse.
Nobody thinks of diversity or multiculturalism as evil. Nobody cares. What people are resisting is the inherent fascism of Panopticon Theory. Today, if you’re not in support of multiculturalism and diversity and feminism and whatever-other avant-garde extreme Left position, then you could lose your job to a petition by social justice warriors. You could have your picture thrown on reddit.com, or some other site filled with bored attack dogs, the prison guard’s subjects. If someone claims you were racist, posts your picture and maybe some bit of contact information, like even the city you live in, do you know how long it takes these people to find you?
Do you feel safe, at all, knowing this? That a slip of the tongue, or a joke, or even a firmly held, well-considered position can get your life inconvenienced or even ruined? How can they tell you were thinking it? Body language, and a few easy assumptions.
I’m not saying people are always or even routinely destroyed like this. I’m not an alarmist. I’m trying to elucidate new-comers on Panopticon Theory.
Grind through your memory for a moment here, though, and think about the things you see on reddit.com, or have seen on the mainstream media—University chairs forced to resign, people fired or let go, things covered up, judges passing hurried sentencing—and wonder how much of it is affected by the panopticon. That gives you a sense of the scale of the impact of this theory.
Panopticon Theory, in the end, is just a small branch of censorship. Just one tiny tendril of how a society begins to decay.