Archive September 2014
|Social Media, Police Culture and the Koh Tao Murders
Two young Britons were
killed less than two weeks ago on a beach in Koh Tao, a small island, Surat
Thani province located in the South of Thailand. There is no need to set out the
horrible details of the killing. It is sufficient to acknowledge that the double
murder was the result of a brutal and vicious assault by one or more unknown
persons. The young woman’s face was mutilated in the course of the attack that
claimed her life. Both victims were found dead on the beach semi-nude.
Since the murder the Thai police have sought to apprehend the killer or killers.
The process of investigation, from the handling of the crime scene to announcing
possible suspects, has been closely followed by the local and international
British tourists murdered on Koh
Tao: David Miller, 24 and Hannah Witheridge 23
At best it can be said the
investigation has been shambolic, with conflicting statements about motives, the
alleged wearing of a bikini by the female victim, evidence of the murder weapon,
identity of possible suspects, reports of sealing the island, mass testing of
DNA, including old and young migrant women, and participation of foreign
forensic experts to assist the local police.
Many others have reported
on the professionalism and competence of the police conducting the
investigation. What has been missing from the discussion is the role of the
media, including social media in reporting the story. This essay touches the
surfaces of what should be a comprehensive survey of contemporary efforts in
many countries to devise new policies and guidelines governing police and social
media. By social media, I am specifically referring to Facebook, Twitter, and
YouTube. There are other platforms but these are the main ones most people
currently think of when they come across the phrase social media.
Beach, Koh Tao
It is unclear whether the
Thai Royal Police force has a Police Social Media Protocols or Guidelines. From
the handling of the Koh Tao murders, one might safely conclude there are no such
guidelines for social media, or if there are such guidelines they have been so
loosely applied as to be meaningless. These murders have revealed that the Thai
police procedures, policies and guidelines are ripe for reform to bring them
into the digital age.
examples of Police Social Media Policies
This is a brief survey and
only covers a small amount of the available resource material about current
social media policies and practices, updates being called for to existing rules,
and specific examples of policies that, if in place in Thailand, would have
avoided a great deal of the problems the Thai police have found themselves
In the United States,
discussions are taking place as to formulating social media policy guidelines
for the FBI. American experts have written about
the need for new policies to take into account social media and view it as an
opportunity to enhance their operational and investigative capabilities. There
is also the danger of blending personal and working lives in a way that
discredits the police. The need for a media policy that takes into account
social media security and privacy that also define what can and cannot be shared
on social media by police officers and staff.
Attention in US law
enforcement has focused on using social media for tactical advantage in
policing, with an emphasis on using social media as an investigative tool in law
enforcement. The US Justice Department funded a study Social Media and Tactical
Considerations for Law Enforcement looking at flash mobs, riots,
and mass demonstrations. This is the other part of social media that enlarges
the police footprint through the digital world. That potential of social media
has already attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in Thailand.
It is another way to monitor the conduct of citizens online. The tendency has
been to increase the reach of Big Brother into people’s lives through social
media activity rather than restraining the scope of police power.
An investigation launched
in the UK into the misuse of social media by police is instructive as to the
nature of the problem. The Guardian reported that hundreds of
police officers are under investigation for breaching restrictions imposed on
officers who use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. In 828 reported cases
over a five-year period, police officers were found to have made racist and
threatening comments on Facebook and Twitter.
Another problem is the use
of social media during working hours of a police officer. One police resigned
over “‘excessive and inappropriate use of the internet during working hours’, in
particular online auction sites, internet banking and social networking sites.”
The police will likely
increase among their ranks officers and staff who may post on social media their
comments, photos, gossip and speculations. Having more police on social media
may also lead to a higher volume of careless, reckless, boastful, racist,
sexists, or xenophobic content. This type of communication would tarnishes
the police and may jeopardize an investigation. In Thailand’s Koh Tao double
murder case, there have been allegations of police and charitable organizations
(who removed the bodies from the crime scene) of uploading graphic photographs
of the murder victims. An independent Thai investigation ought to be commission
and its mandate would include an audit of Thai police social media accounts from
the date of the murders being reported.
guidelines from the Association of Chief
Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are instructive on the
nature of such guidelines, which include traditional and social media. Here are
some examples of the 2010 Guidelines:
Article 4.25: Newspapers
will wish to report deaths that have occurred in unusual circumstances. However,
there are limits on what can be published and on the approaches that can be made
to bereaved family and close friends. For instance, the Editors’ Code of
Practice, overseen by the PCC, states that “in cases involving personal grief or
shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and
publication handled sensitively” (Clause 5, i). The broadcasters’ codes have
An important issue at a
crime scene is the right of the press and others to take video or still
photographs. Article 4.38 establishes a guideline for the police to
- There are no powers
prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place.
Therefore, members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing
- We need to cooperate with
the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help
us identify criminals.
- We must acknowledge that
citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now
photographed and filmed more than ever.
- Unnecessarily restricting
photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and
it undermines public confidence in the police service.
- Once an image has been
recorded, police can only seize the film or camera at the scene on the strictly
limited grounds that it is suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the
photographer has left the scene, police can only seize images with a court
order. In the case of the media, the usual practice is to apply for a court
order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act for production of the
photograph or film footage.
The issues of social media and the
police forces are specifically addressed in Article 13, which covers not just
operational offices but staff, police IT specialists and possibly commercial
partners. As the Guidelines indicate, the rise of social media is a ‘growth
area’ and each force is to “determine the level and extent of police use of
digital technology to support community engagement.”
under a set of Media Relations Guidelines that is also instructive on how to
co-ordinate efforts into the investigation of a murder. One of the first acts is
to designate a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). A media relations officer is
appointed at an early stage of the investigation who works with the SIO on
statement to be released to the press and media strategy. And all statements to
the media go through the Media Relations Office after prior consultation with
Part of the problem in the
Koh Tao murder case is the chorus of voices coming from policemen. This added to
the confusion surrounding the investigation. Once a murder has occurred, the
police can release information about the location, time and date of report,
gender of victim and scale of the inquiry. But no details should be released
that would allow the next of kin to find out through the media that a loved one
was killed prior to be notified first by the police.
The traditional and social
media have reported multiple statements from many police sources as to the
identity of possible suspects in the Koh Tao murders.
“The Dorset Media Guidelines limit
this speculation. Never confirm to the media that someone that they name is
helping police with their enquiries, is under investigation or has been
arrested. Dorset Police does not confirm the identity of anyone who may, or may
not, be the subject of a criminal investigation and who has not been charged. It
is the journalist’s risk and not that of Dorset Police if they choose to
broadcast or publish information that cannot be confirmed by the
“Dorset Police cannot
comment on speculation related to an on-going criminal investigation
because of the risk of prejudicing that investigation.”
One question is who should
be responsible for drafting Social Media Guidelines for the Thai police? In
India, the Supreme
drafting such guidelines. In Thailand, including human rights groups, the law
association, judges, the police along with foreign experts would be a good start
to reaching a consensus as to what protocols or guidelines are appropriate for
Thailand’s police force.
In New South
Wales, the police also work under a
set of media policy guidelines dated May 2013. The NSW police force has a Police
Force Media Unit, with a mandate to make media release, hold news conferences,
to managing inquires from the media. In other words, the Australian police have
institutionalized as a unit within the police force, a unit responsible for
media management and co-ordination, and training of police officers in media
relations. The police media unit is the exclusive outlet, and this has the
advantage of closing down various police officers talking directly to the media
about a case.
In the NSW police
“Staff must not contact the media
in their capacity as Police Force employees to make any comment about any
incident, police policy or procedure without prior authorisation. This includes
contacting talk-back radio, commenting on social media platforms, and submitting
letters or emails to the editor.”
Had such a policy been in
place, the free for all atmosphere surrounding the Koh Tao murder would not have
Here’s a list of
information from the NSW Media policy guidelines as to what should never be
released by the police. Ask yourself how many of these restrictions, if in place
in Thailand, would have been breached in the Koh Tao murder case. Or indeed in
many high profile criminal cases in Thailand.
“Never release information
- Hinders or jeopardises an
- States or implies that a
particular crime has been committed (eg:“the victim was murdered with a blunt
- Speculates on the cause
of a death
- Goes beyond broad
statements of facts to reveal details of evidence which may later be disputed by
an alleged offender
- Prejudices a
- Reveals distinguishing
methodology used by criminals (beware ‘copycat’ criminals) or investigating
- Details or speculates
about a motive or absence of motive
- Details amounts of stolen
- Goes beyond broad
statements of facts to detail forensic or other examinations or identification
Social Media and the
police are widely discussed in Canada. A YouTube video provides an inside look on
the use of Google+ by the Toronto Police. Media experts in the police department
engage and inform the public through social media. This video approaches social
media not unlike the report commissioned by the US Justice Department discussed
above. The number of booksat the Canadian Police
on the subject of intelligence analysis and data mining in the digital world
gives an idea of how the new technology has shaped attitudes about policing,
investigative techniques, and police training.
Canada does have a lesson
for other countries. Social media policy guidelines can’t be formulated or
successfully implemented without first identifying the main elements of police
culture and management. Here are seven core values identified in a report titled
Police Governance, Culture & Management Prepared for the Task Force
on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP, Public Safety
solidarity, authoritarianism, suspicion, conservative, prejudicial, cynicism,
and blue collar.
The Koh Tao murder case
opens the door to an examination of ways to reform the Thai police force. The
narrow goal would be to write policy guidelines and make organizational and
management changes concerning police and media relations. The broader goal would
be to use the experience of Koh Tao as the basis to rethink police governance,
culture and management. To be realistic the culture of the police force mirrors
its social media policy. It would be difficult to sustain to adopt the police
social media policy from another country without alterations to the local
culture of policing. Depending on the police culture, it may be very difficult
to import a foreign social media model for policing without also importing the
foreign police culture.
The Thai police culture
includes reenactments by suspects with a seminar-sized group of uniformed police
officers photographed looking on. The Thai culture is to one of extending face
to the group of officers positioned by rank. It is difficult to fit a Social
Media Police Unit into that Thai police cultural picture. But ignoring this
opportunity to move ahead will certainly result in other Koh Tao cases emerging
again and again.
|Forever Young and Demonic Males
Scott’s conclusion is Americans, if judged by their TV, movies and fiction have entered a stage of perpetual adolescence. In examining this premise, a couple of points are useful when considering Scott’s analysis. Like a blind man describing a wolf by running his hand along a wolf’s tail. It’s not wrong; it’s just not a very good description of a wolf. And you run the risk of mistaking a wolf for a dog.
The divide between adults and juveniles isn’t just an American cultural issue. As with most states of being, it is better to avoid a binary view and see a continuum with concepts such as a complex network of various degrees of wisdom, maturity, experience, empathy, attitudes, or belief systems. The problem with isolating the issue as mainly about the consumption of modern film and TV programs is to miss the broader and deeper layers that go with adulthood.
Let’s start with some basic information about process of domestication. Homo species did not begin as domesticated animals. Domestication is a relatively recent event for dogs and for people. It required thousands of years to create a docile, dependent mindset necessary for people who no longer live in a state of ‘nature’ but live cheek by jowl in megacities beside millions of others. That concentration of strangers is abnormal. We never evolved to live with millions of strangers. The psychology had to be manufactured into broadly accepted social constructs first. Remove those social constructs and revert to the traditional adult member that evolved in our species, and you’d likely find that our cities would be far more like Mad Max rather than Hangover II.
Neoteny isn’t a word you come across every day. Think of an animal that occupies the state of being an eternal juvenile. The idea has both a biological and psychological component. Neoteny is reflected in biology when the animal retains traits that appear childlike. It is the difference between wolves and dogs. The domesticated dog has floppy ears, a curly tail, and puppy like snout and face. Compared to a wolf, the dog lacks the aggressive, adult look of a wolf. No one would think of training a wolf to be a seeing-eye companion for a human being.
Here are some numbers I’ve extracted from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. There are around 250,000 wolves remaining in the ‘wild’ and around 400 million dogs in streets, houses, farms living as pets dependent on human beings. The adult wolf, in the wild, isn’t man’s best friend. He is aggressive, hunts to kill, attacks for food or when threatened. There are 200,000 chimps on the planet, and seven billion homo sapiens. Scaling the wolf population to 400 million or chimps to 7 billion is an interesting thought experiment.
What would life be on a planet with such numbers of wolves and chimps? Fill the BTS in Bangkok with chimps from different groups and run it between two stages, and open the doors and you’d find blood, hair, and severed limbs splattered across the seats and walls. Feral, wild creatures outside of their group turn aggressive and violent in the presence of strangers. We have no reason to believe that the innate nature of homo sapiens is little different from that of his close cousin, the chimp. Yet we ride the commuter train without violent attack. Either our biological and psychological conditioning has through accelerated evolutionary pressure fundamentally changed our nature, or that nature remains under a surface and the lid is held on for other reasons.
We can conclude that the changes to the way we process our reaction to strangers has made our species far less hostile. Whatever our current chaos—terrorism, wars, plagues, natural disaster—would be trivial compared to sharing the planet with the scaled up populations of wolves and chimps.
By all scientific accounts (which won’t match the holy books) for the vast amount of our 100,000 year run as a species we lived in small bands or groups that rarely numbered more than a couple of dozen members. The total homo sapiens numbers ranged from the hundreds of thousands to the low millions for most of this period. Evolution produces a biology and psychology that equips an adult with a high level of aggressive behavior. While within the small band or group, the adults may battle for Alpha status, the adults in the band normally don’t turn and maim and kill each other. But if you are a stranger, that is a different matter altogether.
Richard Wrangman’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence arising in primate bands and culture. Those outside the ban can be beaten, raped and killed. There is no taboo against the murder of a stranger. There is no social construct that renders the murder of a stranger into a ‘sin’ or a ‘morally’ reprehensible act. How can we reconcile civilizations if we are a species who possess such an evolutionary pedigree? Clearly, no society of millions of people could exist that rested the foundation that cold-blooded murder of strangers was permissible behavior.
A lot of public and private resources are spent on domestication programs, e.g., schools, universities, churches, and associations. The failures of these programs often fall into the category of psychopath, a person who experiences no regret or remorse in the act of harming or killing another person.
Another reaction is to blame the violence on a ‘foreigner’—someone who is not one of ‘us’, someone suspected of being less than human. In the recent brutal murder of two British nationals on Koh Tao, local police are quoted as saying they suspected a migrant worker had committed the murders. The Bangkok Post noted no evidence was offered to support the speculation. It is a hard pill to swallow that people inside your own culture are as capable as anyone to engage in savage acts of violence.
Neoteny is not limited to biology or the physical difference between a feral and domesticated animal. Psychological neoteny occurs when the domestication is internalized. We socialize the aggression out of human beings. We create social constructs from religion and ideology to expand our feelings about people who are not kin. Strangers become brothers in arms. You couldn’t have a modern army without first establishing the belief that the person in the foxhole next to you won’t slit your throat in the middle of the night. The aggression trigger is reset by instilling the prevailing social construct in a large population of strangers who overcome the strangeness of others and replace it with a feeling of unity and solitary. Domesticated and feral aren’t binary choices. There is long continuum with domesticated and feral at either end. Depending on the time, place, history and culture, large groups of people cluster towards the domesticated end of the spectrum. We are a species that tends towards the kind of large-scale social co-operation that comes from successful domestication.
We are, for the most part, juveniles living inside our group or culture with the psychological settings established by ideology or religion, and this defines the borders of our comfort zone. But we can easily descend into chimps on a rampage when our leaders target non-believers as non-human and command us to attack. This chimp-like aggression isn’t always easily tamed in every member of the community, and we have violent actors who are dealt with by the police, courts, and prison system. We can say these ‘adults’ lack impulse control. Or we can say the social constructs haven’t sufficiently repressed the inherent violence that is part of our biological and psychological heritage.
These are the traits of adulthood, a mature member of the species, feeding, fighting, fleeing and fucking as opportunity, reward and threat appear in his environment.
Scott wrote in his article, “I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” That should be no surprise. Our social constructs are intended to maintain a juvenile vision of the world. Without them, our world of seven billion people wouldn’t be one anyone would wish to live in.
Then Scott raises an existential question about adulthood and violence:
“Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?
“Before we answer that, an inquest may be in order. Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?”
What killed adulthood wasn’t a TV show or a movie? Or what has happened in the United States over the last fifty or two hundred years. We have created an illusion of adulthood because calling people over the age of eighteen children is thought patronizing or demeaning. We don’t really want the mature, aggressive adult wolf or chimp. We want the softer version of the housedog that obeys and wags its tail when you come home.
And now for Scott’s conclusion, “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.”
Where the analysis goes off the rails is to associate childhood with perpetual freedom and delight. The reality is we’ve long cultivated a juvenile mindset, as that person is comfortable being a dependent. And once a person accepts dependency, he or she is far easier to control and manipulate. Political leaders in number of countries including England and Australia have publicly expressed their anxiety in their young men traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS. As the rest of the world watches ISIS use social media to recruit fighters from around the world. They hope to attract more young male recruits by circulating YouTube videos of beheadings. The message is clear. Leave aside the domestication of your country, and join us on a jihad to kill the infidel foreign journalists, AID workers and other non-believers. They make their murdering into a righteous cause. A certain personality will find an attraction in that act of murder and the ideology that justifies and condones it.
That anxiety is about the return of these recruits to their home countries. The fear is once back in London, Toronto, Sydney or KL, their mindset has been fundamentally altered. Their social construct is closer to the ‘wolf’ or ‘chimp.’ The home country domestication has failed in its mission and the new psychology is one based on our most ancient and primitive nature, where violence, aggression and murder are widespread.
The problem is illustrated in a Bangkok Post article with Kuala Lumpur as the dateline: “Police have arrested at least 19 suspected militants loyal to the IS this year and say they uncovered their plan to bomb a Carlsberg brewery near the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the IS militants in a statement in August, saying their actions were ‘counter to our faith, our culture and our common humanity.” A case is being made that we should prepare ourselves for many more such stories coming from an increasing number of countries.
The need to maintain our social constructs that reinforce a dependent-like state, one that falls short of the fully autonomous adult, may be the price to be paid for social co-operation among strangers.
“Humans have been evolving toward greater ‘psychological neoteny’.” Dr. Bruce Charlton, a Newcastle University psychology professor, said what looks like immaturity — or in his terms, the “retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood”— is actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological neoteny. Physical neotenization in humans has, likewise, caused psychologically neotenous traits in humans: curiosity, playfulness, affection, sociality and an innate desire to cooperate.”
Adulthood hasn’t died. American culture hasn’t killed it. Our adulthood has been resized to accommodate billions of people. Our ancient adulthood equipped us to live and interact inside an environment and way of life long since vanished. Our ancestor had much more detailed knowledge about the natural world. They survived in the wild through their knowledge about hundreds of plants and animals and terrains. Throw a modern person into a jungle and the ignorance of nature, which is the default state of the domesticated, and our fate becomes obvious. Domesticated man can only survive through co-operation with thousands or millions of others within a system much larger than any of us, a system which no one person fully understands or could explain in sufficient detail to rebuild it should it be destroyed.
We have inherited our emotional reflexes from vanished world where higher levels of aggression, fueled by self-reliance and independence, provided an advantage. That aggression, in part, served to enhance the breath and depth of our knowledge about the untamed world. In 2014, an argument can be made that our emotional gearing suffers from over specification. Not enough time has passed for our emotions to naturally evolve to fit the demands of a life our vastly more limited knowledge about the world and is sufficient to support a repetitive life of routine.
Adolescence (Lord of the Flies) can be aggressive and violent as any adult. The crucial difference is the control over the child by the parent, who is the adult. We’ve evolved a redefinition of adulthood. Whether the end result is called immaturity, juvenile, or childlike is beside the point. Those are categories that distinguish human traits that fall short of what is perceived to be adulthood.
We are forced by the sheer scale of numbers to accept that domestication is necessary and is bound to mirror the values in our culture. There is an important caveat— our historical violence is receding but the violence that remains indicates that our domestication remains an incomplete process. And when the ISIS fighters who return to their home countries in the West ‘radicalized’ with a radically different social construct about murder, the fear is the returnees have reinvented themselves as the original ‘Adulthood”, the one who worked in small bands and took no prisoners.
A number of governments’ fear, based on uploaded YouTube horrors recorded about the violence of a few thousands of such fighters, is spreading. The deep fear is the security headaches once these fighters return radicalized to their home countries. They also fear that ISIS ex-fighters may change the frequency on the domesticated and feral bandwidth, making social co-operation more difficult. They will have to confront the possibility of a couple of hundred ex-fighters whose experience has caused a reversal of neoteny and reversion to the demonic male. The day that your golden retriever reverts to its true wolf nature will make coming home a different experience.
Looking ahead to the immediate future, what is likely to replace the crude religious/ideological social constructs that are collapsing in many parts of the world will be a combination of chemicals and brain-computer interconnectivity. This idea isn’t ripped out of a science fiction novel. We are already some distance down this road. News reports hint at what we can expect:
“Currently, brain-computer interfaces can detect emotions. Some technologies, such as deep brain stimulation, can induce emotions directly into the brain. It’s only a matter of time before input is connected with output. This would be a form of telepathic empathy — a technology that lets you feel some piece of what another person is feeling.”
The potential for governments, the police, the military and the superrich to use such technology raises many issues. But this never stopped the spread and use of religion and ideology as means of social control. The new technology will finish the job started by religion. We’ve only begun to explore the digital world for the means to perfect mind control.
As Leonard Cohen said in 1992, “I have seen the future, it is murder.”
Obedience has a long history. The assimilation of this principle over thousands of years has allowed the creation of empires and nation-states. In the bible we find that, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) The scriptures designation 5.5 (minus the full stop) is frequently used by Thais to signify laughter or a joke.
Religion, culture, society, and politics wouldn’t exist in the absence of obedience. We are too far down the road to turn back. In other words, as it turns out biblical quote or the idea of obedience isn’t a joking matter. It is a deadly serious one. To obey is the bedrock of all monotheistic religions. It also underscores political ideologies from communism, socialism, fascism, capitalism and democracy. Although if Thomas Piketty’s research holds, it appears inheriting the earth hasn’t quite worked out well for the meek.
Last week in an essay titled Obey I briefly examined Henry Miller and George Orwell’s legacy with the subtext (and in Orwell’s case in the text itself) that issued a warning to be watchful of those in power. In the name of obedience to a principle or belief, the true intention of the powerful is to control us for their benefit. Both Miller and Orwell lived, wrote and died in a pre-Internet world with different tools and methods and opportunities being used by the powerful. For those born after 1990, they have only experienced a post-Internet world, and that set of experiences and tools has shaped their identity, attitudes, beliefs and values, including those surrounding obedience. An identity separate from the digital world would be unthinkable.
Miller and Orwell are for the most part to the post-netters, artifacts frozen in a world that is alien to them as the world without electricity and cars is to the pre-1990 population. In my recent books I have sought to begin building a literary bridge between the pre-netters and post-netters. This essay is an example of an attempt to examine the infrastructure of society that manufactures identity in the way any mass product is designed and assembled. In the process a key to our psyche removed barriers to full-blown 24/7 narcissism. Our big data and capitalistic system refine ever more and newer products and services that raise the pleasurable desire bar, and consumers become group of individuals wishing to pole vault over that bar. Our new gods and rituals are in the digital world where celebrities offer salvation chatrooms, Facebook and Twitter the new confessional booth are all available to any individual with an Internet connection. A narcissist never had such a perfectly ordered world to experience his or her self-love. The contradiction is having created a mass market of individuals, who live inside a society that demands they obey rulers, leaders, teachers, police officers, judges, and a long list of people and institutions that narcissists can’t eliminate by going online. Obedience is a concept that is under construction. This essay looks at how the rebuilding of obedience is coming along.
Obedience is built into social systems at many levels. Someone who is convicted for a crime is often released from prison before serving the full sentence as a reward for good behavior. And what is this good behavior? It is steadfast obedience to the prison’s rules and regulations. A person who has adhered to the rules and the norms of cellblock is thought ready to follow the rules and norms waiting for him on the outside of the prison walls. Though recidivism rates suggest that such a causal connection is illusory. In Thailand, just admitting guilt for failing to obey the law is rewarded by halving the sentence for those convicted of a crime. A person who insists on maintaining his innocence but who is found guilty by a judge is doubly punished for his failure to show obedience to authority’s judgment of his or her wrongdoing.
The Thai word for ‘obey’ is chua fung, which translates as ‘believe and listen.’ That is likely as good an explanation of what ‘obey’ means in any language. This two-step formula assumes a consensus that flows from a cultural understanding of who you are required to listen to. By the time you are nine years old, if not long before, your mindset is conditioned to know who these people are. Your parents and teachers are the earliest people to be listened to.
In team sports, unless the team followed the play called by the quarterback of an American football team or the captain of a football team, with each player improvising, the result would be an exercise in chaos. Teams, like armies, are destroyed by disobedience among the ranks. The team captain, military general, air traffic controller, judges, wardens, politicians, teachers, or investment bankers expect and receive obedience from those within the cone of their power and influence. Eliminate this socially conditioned automatic impulse to obey and games, plans, prisons, schools, markets, competitions and political systems fail to function. Playing chess without obedience to the rules of the game means there is no game called chess that is being played. That same is true of poker, blackjack, or any other game. Not to obey is not to play the game.
To obey is to accept subservience to a set of rules, institutions, or persons. To restrict our freedom of choice and free will is the price we pay and the currency is paid in units of subservience. It is a price most people are conditioned to pay as if they had no choice in the matter. Those who refuse to pay up in units of subservient behavior and break the law are classified as ‘criminals.’ But even criminal gangs have their own code of obedience and subservience so it isn’t that outsiders are inevitably ‘free’ of compliance obligations. We have to go deeper to understand why we willingly obey some people and institutions but are defiant in obeying others.
We appear to be at a stage of development where the manufactured narcissist’s identity rebels against obedience in the offline world. Online is another matter and a digital world exacts its pound of subservience as a price of being ‘liked.’ The post-netters aren’t happy with the baggage the pre-netters wish them to carry.
Traditionally, enforcing obedience on a large population, living within the same geo-political space, is the use of or the threat to use coercion or violence against anyone who disobeys. History isn’t always a reliable guide, but one thing it teaches that remains true can be summarized in a few words—most people, if you put a gun to their head, will obey the gunman. Duress underwritten by such violence works in the short term, as fear is a powerful emotion and obeying is the default response to fear. Over long stretches of time, though, people tend to become less fearful. At some stage they realize that there are more of vastly more fearful people than the handful holding a gun on them. When that moment crystalizes you witness an event like the Berlin Wall. The larger population stops being fearful. They tear down the wall and overnight no one obeys the soldiers with guns, large numbers of whom have dropped their weapons and joined the ex-fearful masses to dismantle the wall.
Why is one wall torn down while another wall remains a fortress? The history of obedience is fused with vesting ‘trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ in the person or institution seeking subservience. Not everyone sees a wall as a restriction. Others see it like the Great Wall of China to give safety and protection against barbarians. While most people in the West welcomed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, for example, there is no movement (mass or otherwise) to destroy the air-traffic control system at airports around the world. Passengers, pilots and crew on aircraft have no issue with obeying the orders of an air-traffic controller. Human error, lapses of judgment, or equipment malfunctions may cause a plane crash. An investigation and inquiry often follows such an incident to restore confidence. What one doesn’t find is a massive, worldwide distrust of the air-traffic control system that disintegrates into pilots landing wherever and whenever they wish.
Political systems, unlike air-traffic control systems, are based on beliefs and ideology that are fine-tuned to inspire trust and confer legitimacy. A political system risk defections if the subservient believe the system is corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent. Opinion polls are released around the world daily as a weather vane to show which way the political wind is blowing—and politicians ignore the ones that embarrass them and broadcast to all near and far if they support their policies. Do the masses agree that the government or its leader is going down the right path, doing a good job, forming and implementing the right policies? If a poll shows a 1% approval of a policy, the issue of legitimacy is raised and one would expect to find large-scale disobedience in following the policy. Beliefs and norms shift over time, and political actors who depend on popular elections learn to stay in power; they either govern in a fashion that at least creates the illusion they reflect the popular will or they take repressive measures to head off mass disobedience. The challenge to the war on drugs is an example of a political shift. Changes in social norms concerning sexuality and gender are resulting in a change of laws.
It is never really a choice of choosing to live in a world where everyone marches to their own drummer, or a world where there is one drummer and everyone falls in behind him. With a population of 7 billion people we have no other choice but to create systems that enforce obedience but stop short of falling into tyranny. That has been the great challenge, and in the post-Internet world the task is more difficult to manage. The power to make others do what you command is subject to abuse. If you control the guns and the polls, you can maintain in the short run the illusion that people consent to be confined inside the Berlin Wall for their own good and happiness. In the long run, without a foundation of trust, order givers who refuse to have their power checked, revised, and limited will suffer from loss of legitimacy. As legitimacy isn’t something found in nature. It is a social construct, a sentiment, a belief, and once people no longer believe in it, the wall comes tumbling down.
We have been conditioned for thousands of years to be obedient followers. Our population size before the agricultural revolution 12,000 thousand years ago was around 8 million. Obedience inside small-scale bands would have been a far less complicated affair. Without a modern concept of subservience it would have been impossible to scale to the current size of population. We’ve been domesticated. The wolf-like nature changed to that of a domesticated house pet. For most of that history, subservience was enforced by the sharp edge of the sword. Only in the last 500 years has the basis for obedience been questioned. And role of the larger population expanded into a process of questioning the basis of their servitude. Parliamentary democracies, while imperfect, turned out to be one way to guide the process.
With the diminished role of religion in the West and the contradictions of ideology, the world has become less stable, less subservient. The Internet is filled with thousands of communities of the new digital disobedient who challenge their overlords. Focused on computer screens, the analogue masters are in another room and can see or hear them. Anonymous disobedience is the new virus in the old pre-Internet process.
The digital heretics, seeking comfort in emotional and intellectual support provided by their online communities, refuse to bow to authority. They can play cat and mouse, hide and seek with censors. It is no surprise to find the elites inside existing political system, nostalgic for bringing back earlier political arrangement, which relied on official violence and unquestioned acceptance of authority. Whether it is America, the Middle East or Asia, the battleground is playing out a version of the same life and death struggle—who do you listen to and who do you believe? And the evidence is abundant that post-netters aren’t listening to analogue authority as their parents and grandparents once did automatically. Cynicism and skepticism has reduced the range of people will believe and what they are prepared to believe in. Meanwhile, the reality show of modern time is a talent search toward the establishment of a new legitimacy that connects and creates a paradigm for obedience in a digitally networked world. As there is every indication that narcissism has gone deep into the post-1990 population, it is only a matter of time that obeying must have a narcissistic payoff for them individually. I have little doubt that some committed, well-financed and clever people are working to manufacture a tailored made political product that once it appeals to our deepest well of vanity, that product will go viral.
I have felt the gravitational pull from a number of writers over the years. Most writers go through stages of falling under the spell of another author who they’re convinced has a grand creative mind perfectly designed to tell stories about the human condition. Two of these authors standout above the others—Henry Miller and George Orwell. These two literary writers, literary jugglers, whose lives overlapped during the 1930s and 1940s, have a small bridge that connects them. I’ve explored that bridge crossing a number of times: in an anthology of essays titled The Orwell Brigade, in a short-story titled Star of Love, and in two essays. The last two novels (Missing in Rangoon and The Marriage Tree) in the Vincent Calvino series, and a new Calvino novel, the fifteen in the series, weave the Orwell and Miller worldviews into the lives of the characters.
Both authors continue to be read and their books remain in print. Both remain controversial. Their books have been banned and censored. That is a testament to any writer’s success in hitting an official nerve. It is also evidence their literary work touched upon universal human values that persist through time but are sheltered behind a wall of taboos. It is also evidence that the powerful have an interest in monitoring our reading choices.
In most times and places, there is a unifying theme: What is not propaganda is a threat. Neither Orwell nor Miller wrote propaganda, and instead sought to explore the truth.
The truth telling is a dangerous business.
In the world of noir, the world is a shabby, corrupt place and the whip cracks on the backs of those who fail to make the required compromises. Most readers don’t think of either Miller or Orwell as noir writers. Orwell created dystopia worlds; Miller created neither dystopia nor utopian worlds. Henry Miller placed a literary magnifying glass over a sub-culture in Paris where hedonism, creativity, poverty, the arts and friendship bloomed.
Usually there is a reason why a writer continues returning and drawing water from the same well. In this essay, I will explain why I continue to toss a bucket into the Miller and Orwell drinking hole.
Henry Miller and George Orwell shared an obsession with one word that sticks in the crawl of a man—obey. You can sometimes find it as graffiti. A one-word reminder of our condition makes everything clear.
We’ve been domesticated for so long that our condition is accepted as the ‘normal’ and obeying leaders the bedrock of our survival. Not to obey is an indictment that someone has gone feral. In that case, those with the guns put the beast down to stop the rest of the herd of learning dangerous ideas.
We live in servitude as our parents, grandparents before them, a long string of people who obeyed. Disobedient people are less likely to pass along their genes. To disobey carries penalties from social censure and disapproval to disappearance. It all depends on who has disobeyed and to whom. We know of people who disobeyed, and continued disobeying after warnings to obey, that they disappear.
No one would ever hear of them. No body, no final words, no one found to be responsible. Sometimes you come across a news story marking the fifth or tenth or twentieth year of the disappearance. The police are still investigating.
The disobedient are routinely imprisoned, impoverished, exiled or executed. The newspapers are filled with cases. People glaze over with the latest 24-hour news cycle of casualties of those who failed to follow an order, instruction, decree, or a whim.
Henry Miller’s world of disobey was played out in the bars, cafes, and streets of Paris in the 1930s. Tropic of Cancer was a first-hand account of a writer who found his muse and subject in tales of sexual disobedience. The strict puritanical rules over sexuality struck in Henry Miller’s crawl and when he spit them out, the Americans censored him. Barney Rosset fought on behalf of Miller in multiple court battles. He took the matter to the United States Supreme Court. It cost Barney Rosset a fortune and his security in old age was compromised as a result. But Barney never regretted that decision. He would have done it over again knowing the real cost of fighting against the forces of “obey.”
Given the politics of the United States Supreme Court for many years, it may be hard for a new generation to believe there was once such a court that could be convinced that an author had a right to write novels where the characters disobeyed the prevailing sexual mores. Even though Henry Miller’s book offended the sensibilities of those with the power to make others obey, a line was drawn. Henry Miller had a right to disobey them. That included writing about prostitution, using explicit language about sex and bodily functions, and to portray a life of decadence and debauchery.
Rabelais had prowled inside these bedrooms long before Henry Miller’s arrival. Every generation needs a Henry Miller to keep the tall grass from growing and the new ambush points set up by the latest sources of power seeking to enforce the obey commandment over sexual matters.
George Orwell’s essays and novels cast a larger shadow over our overlords who use guns to force us to obey. While Henry Miller was a sensualist, George Orwell thought preoccupation with the sensual was a diversion away from the real war zone. The political implications of “obey” were far reaching and threatened to enslave people in all areas of life. In the essay An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller, I found an ambivalence Orwell felt toward Miller’s writing. As a genuine working-class writer, Miller was the last writer Orwell would have attacked. But that didn’t stop Orwell from expressing his fear that Miller was shooting at small time targets that weren’t worthy of his talents. Orwell had, it seems, a secret wish—to take Henry Miller aside, sit him down and lecture him on the real threat in the 1930s such as Hitler and Mussolini. He might have said to Miller, “Please pay attention. These men have large-scale plans for extending the concept of ‘obey’ across Europe.”
George Orwell was fearful of what he saw—the jackboot on the face of freedom grinding it into the dirt as a warning of what happens when the man in charge is not obeyed. Henry Miller was off in the streets exploring neighborhoods, exchanging stories, gossip, dreams, and rushing back to type them out at 90 words per minute on a manual typewriter. The sound of Henry Miller’s machine was said to be like a machine gun. The rush of exploration into a new language, culture, city and down and out expats fueled Henry Miller’s imagination. He’d disconnected with America. Finding liberation from its constraints created a raging fire inside his imagination.
The coolness of George Orwell’s version of the obedient hell like a sharp blade slowly pierces the skin, then the flesh, and finally the bone. It is surgical in its accuracy of the main malady affecting the patient. His willingness to ignore the cost of his obedience was the message in the bottle found throughout Orwell’s writings.
Like it or not, we are stuck with some system that creates mass obedience, as it is a way to achieve co-operation across a population of millions. In Yuval Noah Harai’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he makes a persuasive case is made that beliefs, myths, and legends are essential ingredients in order for there to be cooperation required when millions of people occupy congested space in modern society. Since the Agriculture Revolution, every culture that scaled its population has accomplished the task, in part, through the use of a sacred store of ‘ghost stories.’ The storytellers have given rules the means to unify its population.
Those who dare to question the sacredness or validity of the local version of the sacred ghost story endanger the emotional bases for mutual co-operation. Myths only work when they are not too closely examined. When activists, scholars, artists, and critics challenge and question the prevailing myths as serving the interest of the elites, the authorities fear chaos. Chaos is the word we use when co-operation breaks down and it is every man and woman acting individually, shedding a sense of a collective self. What glue that bound a band of a couple dozen people before the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and what superglue has been used since illustrates how the puzzle pieces have been kept in place.
When millions of people live cheek-by-jowl in megacities, co-operation among people is the only alternative to conflict and strife. This explains why a threat to the emotional infrastructure of belief that binds people will ignite an official crackdown. Those in power fear the loss of control of the population. Orwell saw through the cynical use of myths, beliefs and legends as disguised power grabs by elites that resulted in the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. He warned that propaganda was the enemy of truth. But this is a two-edged sword, an enemy of truth in the form of constructed reality has allowed vast numbers of people to largely co-operate with one another as they share the same constructs.
Miller’s novels subverted a set of beliefs about marriage, relationships, and family units. These are social institutions, which are embedded in the structure of co-operation. They regulate and define the limits of what is permissible within our co-operative social, economic and political lives. By freeing oneself from the straightjacket of sexual restraints, Miller’s worldview threatened, in the view of the censors, to bring down the whole house of cards in a sexual free for all.
In the last two Vincent Calvino novels, the conflict of vision between Henry Miller and George Orwell is explored. A private eye novel may seem an odd location to report on the battle line between the narrow and wide version of resistance, but that is only because we have a bias about the scope and purpose of such novels. I refuse to accept that a novel about a private eye must be contained solely within the boundary of storytelling, an entertainment. A reader is searching for more than story. She or he wishes to connect on a deeper level with the characters. When a character faces choices that humanize or dehumanize him and others, a mirror appears. The reader can feel the process, the doubts, emotions, irrational thought that accompany such choices especially those made under great stress. What a reader wishes to know as well is what price a character will pay. Strip a book of these dilemmas and the story and its characters are the literary equivalent of a can of Zero Coke.
In Missing in Rangoon and The Marriage Tree, the issues that bound and separated Orwell and Miller reveal crucial elements of the characters.
In Missing in Rangoon (2013), Calvino enters the lobby of a shabby hotel in Rangoon and the old woman at reception is reading a book:
“The second bag was heavy; inside he had two one-liter plastic bottles of coke. He walked back to the guesthouse carrying the bags. The old woman behind the reception desk glanced at him as he turned to walk up the steps. She lowered her glasses. “Mr. Smith buys his dinner at the Savoy Hotel,” she said. It was out of the ordinary in her part of the universe where the Savoy lay in an inaccessible part of the Rangoon universe for her guests. She looked up from another Georgette Heyer novel. He caught the title—The Toll-Gate.
“How’s the book?”
“Stolen gold, highway men, mysterious strangers,” she said.
“Makes you feel right at home,” he said.
“Mysterious strangers and a missing toll-gate keeper,” she said.
“I am familiar with the plot,” said Calvino.
“I thought you might be,” she said. “You don’t look like a reader.”
“I’ve been reading Orwell.”
“That man had no romance in his books.”
Calvino thought about it; she was right. Orwell was a lot of things, but writer of romance novels wasn’t one of them. “But he had a lot to say about the toll-gate keepers.”
In another scene, a bar owner captures the magic power that Henry Miller unleashed in the Black Cat:
“Gung took the spliff from Alf, inhaled, eyes hooded, and the smoke rolled from his lips, “She wanted Rob to be Henry Miller walking the earth, fucking whores, hungry at midnight with no money, but a fire in his belly and figuring out to stop the world from stepping on his shadow, capturing his soul, selling it to the devil for a weekly pay check. Fuck that,” Mya Kyaw Thein had said according to Gung.”
It is a feeling shared with Vincent Calvino:
“In the back of the cab, Calvino’s thoughts drifted. It’d been a long time since he heard that name. The writer was from Brooklyn. He’d written Tropic of Cancer, a diary of sexual adventures as Miller lived down and out in Paris in the 1930s. Miller’s wife had sold her body to support him. Vinny Calvino was from Brooklyn. He knew of the legend of Miller who had defied morality, family, marriage, and home to break free—to roam as a free man. Some men escaped; most were trapped. Who were the saddest of them all? Those without a home, living free under Paris bridges, or those who stayed behind in their old neighborhoods thinking they were free?”
In The Marriage Tree (2014) Henry Miller plays the role of the nihilist who believed no one could protect you. No one could be trusted to cover your back but you. The way to freedom from the force of violence was escaping into a smaller world of like-minded outsiders on the run from ‘obey me’ mantras of the shepherds watching the sheep.
“In Rangoon I had a similar discussion with a singer about taking sides. She said there’s a war raging inside everyone. On one side you have George Orwell, and Henry Miller on the other. Those who refuse to accept injustice and violence and inequality quote Orwell’s work. Miller accepted that the murderers would continue to roam free, making the rules to their own advantage, and for the free man, escape was losing oneself in the world of song, dance, wine and sex. Miller didn’t believe that any principle could protect you against those with real power. He thought that nothing could blunt the exercise of power over the exploited. Miller’s idea was simple: stay off the predator class’s grid. When someone puts their life in the hands of a human smuggler, they ignore the fact that it’s his job to deliver them to their new masters. It doesn’t matter that you pray for a savior who thinks like Orwell because you’ll never have a chance to live the free life of a Henry Miller.”
Missing in Rangoon (2013) and The Marriage Tree (2014) are part of trilogy within a larger series. The final book in the trilogy will be published in January 2015. The territory of obeying is mapped in each novel and the fingerprints of Orwell and Miller are to be found everywhere at the scene of the crime.
In 2000 when Chairs was published, the collection of interconnected short stories included one titled Star of Love. It was based on a long conversation one afternoon with Barney Rosset at an outdoor beer bar in Patpong. The premise of Star of Love is Barney’s view on how Henry Miler’s life would have changed had he chosen to travel, live and write in Bangkok rather taking the boat to Paris. Miller would still have escaped from New York but the experiences as a writer would have been shaped by very different cultural, historical and linguistic forces.
The second piece is an essay titled Re-Imagining Henry Miller, which examines the influences on his life in Paris, especially the two women who held a special place in his affection. It is also an exploration of what it means to be an expat and how that experience shapes the creative powers of a writer. The essay raises the question as to what happens to those memories after the expat returns to his or her home shores? Are the memories of that time harvested for further books? Are the memories locked away and the key thrown away?
The third piece, An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller contrast the two authors’ literary commitment to fighting against the command to obey. Their differences were far more than literary taste. They had different biases. Their education, upbringing, and culture made them as alien as any two writers could be. Orwell patrolled the corridors of power. Like Paul Revere in the 18th Century American Revolution he warned that the powerful were approaching with guns at the ready; Orwell swung a bright lantern to expose their hypocrisy, abuses, and lies. To Henry Miller, it didn’t much matter, local tyrants or foreign ones, none of them could be trusted, and none of them were worth dying for or arguing with. He laughed at them, turned his back, and manufactured a life of minimal contact with those who retained the right to inflict violence.
Those who had mastered the nightlife of the street, the bars, and the cafes could run their grifts and were largely left to the margins; the powerful left them alone, a self-contained amusement in the pre-Internet world. They had an ocean of fish to fry. These were the ones who were scared into obeying. Fear and obedience, the twin monsters harnessed by tyrants, will never succeed by threats of violence on everyone. Somewhere, in some crack of the wall joint, a Henry Miller and his gang of expats, sing and dance and drink and make love and forget the rest of the fish in the ocean are scooped up in industrial strength nets.