Panopticism and our online worlds

Have you ever:

  • Felt like you wanted to say something, but bit your tongue for fear of how it would be received?
  • Caught yourself wanting to wear something but then doubting whether you should because others might think it ‘too much’, ‘too out-there’, ‘not accentuating your features’?
  • Stopped yourself from trying to achieve a position or accolade for fear of being seen as ‘too big for your boots’ or ‘arrogant’?

These are  just a few examples of the influence that a desire for the approval of others, or a fear of the disapproval/ judgement/ mockery of others can have on us.

And whilst we sometimes have past experiences to draw on that fuel these fires, sometimes, our reticence to live our lives as we dream can be better currently attributed to the messages we have internalised, the ‘rules’ we have learned about who we are and how we ‘should’ behave. We can all too often find ourselves living smaller lives, timidly policing our own behaviours and staying in ‘prison cells’ constructed by others, but maintained by us.

Let me explain.

To do so, let me tell you about the Panopticon.

What is the Panopticon?

The Panopticon is a work of cruel genius, credited to Jeremy Bentham. Admittedly Bentham intended it to have a rehabilitative effect, but the outworkings of it have not proven so benevolent.

Taking the design and putting it to good use in his book, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes it in terms of a prison, which has a central tower housing a watchman. Arranged in a circle around this central tower are all the prison cells, which are in full view of the tower. The watchman at all times could be watching someone in their cell. Yet each prisoner in their cell cannot see when they are being watched and because they cannot know if their actions will be seen (and potentially punished) or not, they ultimately become self-policing, compelled to assume they are being watched all the time, for fear of punishment if they are witnessed transgressing the rules.

By this means, the prisoners become instruments of their own subjection through this constant monitoring of their own behaviours.

One piece of the social puzzle

Whether it’s business, fitness, sports or relationship clients, I see panopticism effectively at work when we talk about our online worlds. Now I’m NOT saying it is the only social process, I am aware I am merely touching on one aspect of the complex interactions that go on within individuals’ selves and relationships with others.

But let’s play with this construct and see if it can help us shift any mental ‘gremlins’ holding us back.

What does this self-policing look like?

Have you ever been on social media and wanted to post something, but then held yourself back for fear of judgement or ridicule?

I have. It can show up as a desire to be liked, a socially conditioned emotional care taking where we aim to keep everyone else happy (whilst not saying the hard things or maintaining our own boundaries, for example), or something else entirely. I, for one, know the feeling of wanting to write something, and being paralysed because of how it might be [mis]-interpreted.

How about feeling like you ‘should’ have achieved what your online friends with have achieved? So you don’t share the video of progress you’ve been making, for fear of it looking stupidly small or insignificant to others.

Ever felt like you needed to lose weight because you don’t have a body like those folks you follow on Instagram… so you hide your photos and don’t share the happy experiences you otherwise would.

There’s an ancient wisdom that says ‘The fear of man [people of any gender] will prove to be a snare’ (Proverbs 29:25, The Bible). This short line is so simple but so true. How often are we held back because of fear of what others will think? How others will perceive us? And it is a snare. It does hold us back.

We can become so well versed in following the ‘rules’- only showing our best, most flattering photos, only saying those things that ‘cannot’ offend or sharing flattery (even when you know its divergence from the truth), only showing our ‘showreel’ version of life. Yet not only does this belie the messiness of life, it can also reinforce those monsters for others.

Effects of Succumbing to Panopticism

When we succumb to a panoptic life, we avoid transgressions, which can mean we also avoid innovations, since they contravene ‘the way things work’…

We self-censor, not just in ways that make us positively contributing members of society (e.g. obeying laws), but self-censoring to avoid standing out and being shamed or shunned for our opinions.

I wonder too if it makes us less fair, if we are clamouring to stay on the ‘right’ side of this powerful machine and so lose the nuance and complexity of issues in our need to be considered part of the herd and not singled out for [public] criticism.

Escaping the Panopticon

I realise I’m not providing any easy answers, but I intend this as a discussion starter- as something for each of us to think through the ramifications of.

After all if we are afraid of falling foul and being seen to fail, we are snared, utterly stifled, and our potential is firmly shackled. What would life be like if we moved beyond that fear of the unseen ‘watchman’ and furthermore, what might achieving that life require of us?

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