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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Video Surveillance as White Witnesses

There has been a tremendous media kerfluffle about Mitt Romney’s 47-percenter comment several days ago. While speaking in an ostensibly private setting Romney asserted that there were 47 percent of us who could not be persuaded to vote for him because we lack certain core values such as a will to self-sufficiency. This 47 percent, said Romney, “will vote for the president no matter what,” believe that they are “victims” and that government “has a responsibility to care for them.” Most sobering, perhaps, is Romney’s assertion that his job “is not to worry about those people.” Ouch, that really hurts if Romney was planning to cast himself as a candidate for all of the people.

This politically painful moment came to light only because some member of the coterie made a video and then provided it to the media.  The source of the video has thus far succeeded in remaining anonymous, citing fears of lawsuit and professional concerns; the possibility of blacklisting comes to mind. Perhaps one of the most interesting debates arising from this is whether comments that were offered in “private” should have been spread “publicly.”  There are, I suppose, two ways to look at this. On the one hand, it is appropriate to expect privacy at a dinner party in a private home, which was the setting here. On the other hand, a person running for president of the United States arguably gives up routine notions of privacy from the moment s/he enters the race, especially when making remarks directly about the campaign, as was the case here.  So, seeing the dinner party as effectively public can potentially assuage any qualms one might have about breaches of privacy in this situation. In short, the public/private frame must be restructured or done away with altogether in order to make public consumption of the footage ethically acceptable.
Lest we be concerned about disrupting privacy norms, it is important to recall that privacy has never been uniformly available to all persons nor has it been uniformly understood or valued in the same ways. The association of privacy with notions of freedom and autonomy is an association promoted by those with power and authority, in short, by those who are by definition public people. Public people dwell at the center of the public square. They deploy power both by observing and by being observed; they dismantle and erect visual barriers by shaping laws, rules and norms. Given their heightened ability to see and be seen, public people long for the respite of privacy now and again. 
In contrast, private people, in this context those possessing little power or authority, dwell in limited spaces outside of or at the margins of the public square. They see little and are little seen in all of their actual attributes. Private persons are often barred from a fuller vision of the lives of the powerful and themselves are so little seen by the powerful as to exist only in the incompletely theorized, factually sparse articulations of the powerful (hence the tale of the 47 percent). Their relative inability to see and be seen sometimes makes these private people long for a broad, seemingly dispassionate gaze such as video surveillance. Such a gaze might tell them more about the powerful. It might also show private persons to be good workers, good parents, good citizens, and good people. While video surveillance may diminish the privacy of public people who frequently are at the center of society’s gaze, video surveillance sometimes provides much needed valorization for these less regarded private people. This is because private people are far more often lied about, lied to and deemed liars. Hence private people often lose in battles of opposing narratives with public people about what has occurred. In such cases, video surveillance becomes a mostly neutral, unlikely to lie, legitimizing witness.  For many of these private people, especially women, people of color or other relatively powerless people in society, video surveillance is the modern day white witness.

There was a time in this country when there were widespread racial requirements for offering testimony in official proceedings. Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and others were often formally barred as witnesses. For instance, during slavery and for some years after it ended, in many jurisdictions blacks who sought to testify in courtrooms or many other types of official proceedings were often limited in their participation, forbidden altogether or permitted only if white witnesses could not be produced. The white witness requirement became an article of federal law in the 1892 Geary Act that required Chinese residents to obtain certificates of legal residence and, if they could not produce one, subjected them to immediate and summary deportation unless they could offer at least one white witness to confirm that they had lived in the United States at the time of the passage of the Act. 

Even where there were no formal bars to non-white witnesses, attorneys routinely pointed to the non-whiteness of a witness as a reason to disbelieve his testimony. In some places along with a white witness requirement was a requirement of male witnesses. For instance, in Louisiana in the late 19th century only men could witness wills; this was premised on the civil law tradition. In such matters white and/or male witnesses were deemed superior because of their presumed ability to offer disinterested testimony and to understand the import and substance of the proceedings and of truth itself.  Such provisions diminished the rights of people of color and women in many cases, rendering them and their observations less valid. But not surprisingly this understanding about the heightened quality of white male testimony often made people of color and women desirous of having white men bear witness for them when such testimony was in their favor.  
Contemporary video surveillance video fulfills a similar valorizing function for people who would be little likely to be believed in a battle of divergent recollections. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the case of video surveillance in retail stores. While the presence of such technology may upset some people, I am oddly comforted by it. Fairly often I am the object of close human observation when I enter such stores. I am, more often than I care to acknowledge (it is embarrassing, really) followed by store security or subjected to insincere offers to “help” me that are intended as a means to hasten my exit. Twice in my life I have been directly accused of theft; the number of accusations is higher if I count innuendos indirectly suggesting that I had stolen something. In the case of the direct accusations of theft I had already purchased the item that was allegedly stolen.  In both cases I either was given no receipt or had misplaced the receipt before leaving the store.  

In the case where I had no receipt the goods, a bag of potato chips, were seized from me, compounding my humiliation at having been stopped and accused of theft.  In the second case where I had misplaced the receipt, I was marched back to a sales clerk from whom I had purchased the item where, much to my relief, she confirmed that I had indeed purchased the item. What if she had honestly forgotten me or had chosen to say that I had not paid for the item? I had paid cash in both cases (the use of a credit card would similarly have helped me, given the electronic record of such use) so I had nothing to confirm my account. Surveillance footage could in these instances have protected me, given the fact that popular imaginings about the propensities of people like me for theft may often supplant actual occurrences. Smarting from such treatment, and given that video surveillance, while ubiquitous, is not omnipresent, I now demand a receipt even for cups of coffee and or newspapers, and I safeguard the receipt immediately. I don’t resent video surveillance in retail sales settings; I am grateful for its confirmatory gaze. Video surveillance is my white witness.

Positing video surveillance as white witness may help to explain just what is disquieting about it. Like white witnesses, video surveillance can and does get it wrong sometimes. Because video surveillance, like the white witness of old, is often controlled by the powerful, it may be withheld altogether, or may be deployed chiefly in their favor, offering sometimes noncontextual, incomplete or even intentionally misleading views of events. However, just as in the case of white witness provisions of the past, the contemporary powerless private person sometimes has the opportunity of producing her own personal video white witness via sousveillance--making her own video.

Sousveillance is the observation or recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity. The term also refers to the recording or monitoring of real or apparent authority figures by others, particularly those who are generally the subject of surveillance. David Brin, in The Transparent Society, decries the loss of true privacy as a result of the increasing use of surveillance by those in power, and suggests that the only way to temper dangers of surveillance is to create a society wherein all persons have equal opportunity to engage in surveillance. In such a setting, we are all inferior beings, subordinate to the technologically superior video surveillance white witness who alone understands truth and can tell it. 

Perhaps there is something to be said for this shared oppression of video surveillance. It many cause us to acknowledge that both publicity and privacy as we have traditionally understood them are unequally available in our society.

This blog is drawn from the author’s working paper titled “Video Surveillance as White Witness.”