Saturday, 7 December 2013

In love with policing

Environmental crime – what does the phrase mean to you? During my years as an environmental scientist, one of the most interesting trends was a cultural shift from protecting the natural world towards detecting and punishing environmental crime.

The trend was a nuanced shift in vocabulary and attitude, but far from complete by the time I left. I came across one or two members of environmental crime units and they seemed to like the idea of being part of a crime unit, even if what they actually did was nothing new. A few years on it comes as not surprise to see environmental crime units springing up all over the place.

And in a similar vein:-

And so on and so on. I think a vast number of us love the idea of policing each other. After all, those who are policed are less of a threat than those free to do as they wish. It feels like a powerful survival trait to me. Do you want boring neighbours? Of course you do – it’s safer and doesn’t threaten house prices.

In a wider cultural sense, a great deal of modern human activity is akin to policing. Regulating, managing, setting targets, a host of licensing requirements, central planning - it’s all connected with policing human behaviour and most of us appear to accept it.

Do schools educate or do they police the evolving behaviour of children? Do children use what they learn to police their parents – just a little? It all depends on how we frame our ideas doesn’t it? How keen we are to tread that razor-fine line between analytical and conventional allegiances. 

It's not a nice, comfortable word though is it - policing?

Yet it seems to me that universal policing has been smoothing over political conflicts for decades. Yes I know there are many unresolved conflicts in the world, but after the horrors of the twentieth century there are numerous indications that global policing is seen as the only real alternative. Not just policing, but micro-policing at that.

A vast number of public sector jobs have some kind of policing function even if not acknowledged. Schools, planning, trading standards, HMRC, DECC, the EU, the UN - on and on into our brave new world. Even your new central heating boiler has to be registered with the local authority.

We have evolved a policing culture, in many ways epitomised by the dear old BBC. Because the preferred role of the BBC is cultural policing - it always was. We like policing each other because of the security it engenders and I’m not so sure we’d be particularly concerned if we knew how far it could go.

Orwell was wrong with his vision of 1984. What some of us have to fear is not so much brutal universal repression as benign universal policing which simply doesn’t need to be brutal. It’s cheaper for one thing.

Discard the brutality and most people will accept with equanimity the prospect universal policing as a secure background to their lives. Dull lives maybe, but dull is safe and in any event we have celebrities to provide a whole range of vicarious excitements.

Political differences are fading away as politicians of all persuasions fall in love with policing. Voters accept it as long as the velvet glove is thick and fluffy.

The traditional left has always been fond of policing and now the right has joined in too, because it works. It stifles dissatisfaction, limits horizons and provides guidance. Above all it offers that universal panacea for a basic animal need for which there is no possible substitute – it offers safety.

So if voters don’t want freedom, why offer it?


Sam Vega said...

Many thanks. Some interesting and profound insights in that.

Two supplementary thoughts.

First, it is odd how policing at all levels has increased, while the culture has simultaneously moved away from attributing personal blame for anything. We want to detect nasty stuff going on, but we avoid, or are wary, of explaining this in terms of human agency and responsibility. It might just be that the "police" among us have retained their eternal tendencies, but now find it easier to lock on to new targets rather than the old ones: criminals, sexual deviants, and the like, who have had their defences hardened by bien-pensant liberals.
Second, it might be worth revisiting the idea that a "policed" society is essentially dull, and requires extrinsic entertainment. I think that for many, it is the policing (and maybe even the evasion of it) that provides the thrill. For the local busybody or office dullard, nothing gives them a hard-on like a breach of elf'n'safety, or a whiff of political incorrectness to hunt down and punish.

Sackerson said...

I think it could all be connected with the transition from internalised social controls (culture & religion, i.e mores) to externalised ones (leges, fasces).

We are to believe in nothing but earthly powers and worldly authority. Ultimately there is to be no sin or crime, all such is merely down to mismanagement of the herd.

A K Haart said...

Sam - thanks and yes, there is an element of excitement in policing each other. We see it described over and over again in Victorian and Edwardian novels.

I take your point about not attributing human agency. I think this applies to insiders but not outsiders.

Sackers - good point. This isn't how rational society was supposed to be, but it's what we'll end up with.