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Can We Talk About Surveillance?

'I don't like everybody knowing me too good.'
 
 
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This post first appeared on the Gadflyer.com.

There's been a lot of chatter about surveillance in the last few days, but nothing like this:

An Appalachian Ohio Welfare Mother:

"It's as close to a prison that I can think of."

A Seattle Electrician:

"It's a degradation of human beings, damn you."

Another Appalachian Ohio Welfare Mother:

"I don't like everybody knowing me too good."

When Americans talk about surveillance, I hear them say things that are more tangible and moving than what we hear when journalists, politicians, and policy wonks talk about our rights to privacy. I hear the nonprofessionals say things that do a better job of helping me understand what can be wrong with constant watching.

Don't get me wrong, I cherish the idea of a legal right to privacy. But I also long for a free-wheeling American debate about our unfolding surveillance society. To have such a debate, I think we need to freshen up the language.

People frequently put their feelings about surveillance in the terms of very personal affronts, humiliations, fears, and anger.

As I've written elsewhere, some of the women we talked to about living with surveillance brought up privacy concerns, but more spoke directly and personally about how they were frightened, degraded, and really pissed off. My own regrettable encounter with invasive government snooping left me frightened, degraded, and really pissed off. Talking about surveillance as a "privacy violation" is like talking about starving children as "juvenile nutrition deficiencies."

To bring the edge back into our national conversation about surveillance, we need to figure out how to talk about it in terms that actually connect to the experience.

So here's a fun activity for you to try at home. Grab a friend and talk about what it is that bugs you about surveillance: eavesdropping, voyeurs, drug tests, the selling of your cell-phone records and credit card data, and, oh yes, the Bush wiretapping initiative. The only rule is "Don't say the P word." If anyone does say "privacy," make them pay a quarter, not do a shot, or undergo some other relatively humane deprivation. See what happens when you leave the official vocabulary behind.

John Gilliom is a Professor of Political Science at Ohio University.