In every town in the UK, and I have to imagine in many other places as well, closed circuit television monitors our every move. Little cameras attached to buildings and lamp posts whir quietly as they focus in on exactly what it is that we are up to. They help to catch robbers, violent offenders, shoplifters, car thieves, murderers, rapists and all manner of other undesirables. More than anything though, their presence is intended to deter us from misbehaving; to keep us on the narrow path of socially acceptable behaviour. Don’t drop litter. Don’t piss in the street. Clean up after your dog. In short, toe the line because somebody is watching you, and there will be repercussions.
This was the job that religion performed back in the day. Personally, I think that this was its main function. Religion created social order through the belief that everyone was being watched by an omnipotent being who would get a bit moody if you started buggering about. In recent years though, we have seen a decline in religious belief in the western world, and whilst I do not prescribe to any particular field of spiritual enlightenment myself, I think that the overall effect has been detrimental.
I am currently living in a very religious society. People abide by the rules set out in their scriptures, everyone takes the notion of prayer very seriously, and there are reminders everywhere that we are being watched. Now whilst this in and of itself doesn’t particularly appeal to me, I have to say that it results in a very peaceful society with little by way of crime, and a strong sense of community. There are no (or very few) cameras mounted in the town centres or school playgrounds. There’s no need for them. Everybody already believes that they are being watched by a vengeful god, so what would be the point? “Who is watching you?” is a question that people don’t need to ask. And what’s more, the vengeful god can see you all the time, and even knows if you are having bad thoughts. CCTV has quite a way to go to compete with that, but in a increasingly non-religious society, it does what it can to stand in.
You see, in my ideal world, I am all for a society that values the freedom of the individual over religious doctrine, but the evidence seems to suggest that there are a great many people that cannot monitor or moderate their own behaviour enough to function properly in social groups. They cannot be trusted to develop their own moral code in line with others, and serve only as a blight on the community that is duty bound to contain them. In my utopia, everyone would have the necessary sense of humanity to get along together without becoming a massive pain in everyone else’s arse, but it is very clear that we will not be turning off to Utopia at the next exit. We will instead be treating ourselves to a rancid roadside sausage roll at Honest John’s Mobile Canteen. Don’t worry, Honest John’s finger did go through the paper this morning, but he’s rinsed it off and dried it on his apron.
Rather than a sense of something bigger and other worldly, we have whole swathes individuals believing that each and every one of them is the biggest and most important thing in existence, and that they are accordingly entitled to whatever springs into their heads. Fortunately for most of them, this is a widescreen TV and a set of clothes with a particular label on them, but the principle still holds.
More than this, they see no higher power to appeal to, so they are left in a state of wanting things without any recourse to either getting them, or of appeasing themselves that it has been denied by an intelligence greater than their own. The hopeless can no longer pray for fame and fortune, and seeing as most of them will never get it, all they have left is stamping their feet and shouting about how unfair it is. When faith in a deity was more common, they could ask for what they wanted, and be satisfied that whatever god they had addressed had moved in a mysterious way and said no when they didn’t get it. When a god said no, they listened. Without one, they have simply failed.
To function in the absence of faith requires an understanding of the world which is absent in many people, and this causes us some major problems. Without fear of the consequences imposed by an omnipotent being, a great many people will misbehave for no other reason than they feel that they can get away with it.
So, is there a solution? Well, I’m sure people are working on better surveillance as we speak, but I’m not sure that I would be happy to go down that road. God, when we had him, was an ultimately wise and fair character with no agenda of his own. The people who spy on us through cameras are only human. In fact, who’s watching them? No, we need a better solution. In fact, we have one already, and most of us implement it on a regular basis.
Children are cajoled into behaviour that we deem fit with tales of pseudo deities like Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, who they are assure will not come unless they behave in whatever way their parents decree to be acceptable. Father Christmas, we often remind them, knows if they’ve been bad or good (the judgemental bastard). Being good, whether they are being watched or not, brings rewards. Being bad holds the penalty of a giftless Christmas. The Easter Bunny is traditionally less observant, but I have no doubt that he would fuck you up given half a chance.
According multitudinous parents, the Bogeyman lurks in the dark to stop children prowling around the house after lights out, and the Sandman insures against the onset of insomnia. The television will make our eyes go square, and the wind, should it decide to change, will make them stay like that. The stork wards off awkward questions by performing its avian midwifery, and the tooth fairy takes away the distress of oral deforestation with cold hard cash. We fill our kids full of this crap so as to ensure good behaviour, an age appropriate level of knowledge, and to mitigate distress. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a less sinister version of what the church used to do to the entire population, before it went out of fashion.
What we need is a robust lie that children will continue to believe until they are old enough to have been shaped by it, and a universal agreement to keep the truth under wraps. Perhaps we could tell them that Google is watching them, and that if they misbehave, there will be dire consequences. To be fair, this wouldn’t be so far removed from the truth, and by the time they grow up, it may well be the case.
Look out Kids, the Googy Man is coming to get you.
Minister of stuff.