Tuesday, 30 October 2012


This article uses the term "social policing" to describe the policing of interactions between people which do not involve violence or the threat of violence or the wrongful taking of property. Examples of such interactions include bullying where violence or the threat of violence is absent and harassment where the character off the harassment is psychological rather than physical. In other words it is about the policing of behaviour labelled as antisocial but which does not involve traditional criminal activity. The term could extend to the policing of opinions whether those opinions be about religion or politics or other groups provided they are expressed in a social context. It is not used for economic discrimination, libel and slander, economic torts and other long recognized wrongs and injuries of a similar nature.
Until recently interpersonal behaviour now identified as bullying and harassment went unpoliced in Western societies. This was probably true even in traditional authoritarian societies such as one still finds in parts of Arabia or in modern authoritarian societies such as Nazi Germany. In pre-industrial societies, of course, relationships between different classes were rigidly policed and commoners were forced to show obeisance to the nobility by various gestures and postures.
Class based social policing lingered on into the 20th century in parts of the World but after the Second War had almost completely disappeared in Europe and the Americas. That hippie era in some ways represented the final stomping on social policing of class relationships.
Since the late 1980s and 1990s, however, a very different type of social policing has emerged in Western societies. It has come from two separate ideological directions. On the conservative side it was all about law and order and partly was a reaction to the free-flowing 1960s. There was a demand for zero tolerance to aberrant behaviour and a willingness to pass new laws and to fill the jails with the miscreants.
For the Left it was about protecting individuals from harms and hurts that had been previously tolerated or at least, not policed.
The last three decades has seen a remarkable growth in social policing. It has usually started with an effort to control behaviour which was within the realm of recognised crimes but which had not in the past been diligently prosecuted. For example with harassment at first it was about extreme forms of stalking and persistent aggressive physical sexual overtures. But then harassment started to be defined in broader and broader terms. The occasional wolf whistle was harassment; a dirty joke told at a workplace was harassment; now it can even include accidentally exposing a fellow worker to a Playboy magazine or giving someone a look that the recipient finds objectionable (for whatever subjective reason).
The sexual harassment codes used by many universities make even mild flirting illegal - if a so-called victim chooses for whatever personal reason to make a big deal about it. While universities can’t imprison the alleged culprit, they can severely disrupt the his or her life through the instrument of expulsion.
The kinds of behaviour now identified as bullying are mostly social not physical in nature. A typical definition of bullying now includes such conduct as social exclusion and name calling and even gestures. The advocates of expanded "bullying laws" are clearly aiming at policing social relationships in ways never seen before. A Canadian Public Health Association discussion papers says "However, the social manipulation and social exclusion of victims, although not as easily detected, is equally harmful and likely more prevalent.
In Missouri the failed prosecution of a woman for an egregious internet scam resulted in the definition of the crime of 'harassment' being expanded to include "knowingly intimidating or causing emotional distress anonymously, either by phone or electronically, or causing distress to a child." It also "increased the penalty for harassment from a misdemeanor to a felony, carrying up to four years in prison, if it’’s committed by an adult against someone 17 or younger, or if the criminal has previously been convicted of harassment." So knowingly doing something on the Internet which can cause distress to a child, say a cartoon presentation of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, can result in a four year stay in the jail house.
The United Kingdom has been in the forefront of social policing. It has developed a whole new criminalization system. It starts with ASBOS or antisocial behavior orders which at first instance usually do not involve imprisonment or fines. Disobeying these orders however is a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in jail. Since Antisocial Behavior Orders often dealt with acts which formerly were not criminal offences,.the net consequence is the whole new set of social behavior which is in fact criminalized.
There are host of other U.K. statutory provisions which carry prison terms including the notorious Section 5 of the Public Order Act which makes it an offence to use "threatening, abusive or insulting words" or display "any writing, sign or visible representation … which is insulting" within the hearing or sight of a person "likely to be caused harassment, alarm or stress thereby." Section 5 basically makes illegal any critical comment or sign about any group, whether it is political, religious. With this hugely expansive definition it is not even necessary for the victim to actually alarmed or distressed for an offence to have occurred. The use of Section 5 is not a rarity - apparently in 2009 alone it was applied over 18,000 times.
In the U.K. virtually any offensive comment on the internet can result in a prison sentence. Teenager Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for offensive jokes on Facebook about missing Welsh five-year-old April Jones. Azhar Ahmed, 20, was given 240 hours of community service after writing "all soldiers should die and go to hell" on Facebook following the death of six British soldiers in Afghanistan. Political protesters can be prosecuted. A gay rights activist was arrested under Section 5 for protesting peacefully with five other people outside a gathering of 6,000 Islamist-fundamentalists who called for Jews, homosexuals and women who have sex outside marriage to be killed. A Christian street preacher was arrested for sermonizing same-sex relationships were a "sin."
Social policing by necessity will require special police forces with expansive resources and unlimited access to people’s internet accounts. That is why draconic legislation has been introduced almost simultaneously in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. which allows the police to have access to internet service providers virtually free of judicial control.
Social policing equals police state.

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