Surveillance: The Phantom Menace

With Spring Break nearly upon us, the Society gathered for the ninth time this semester and seventh Merrick debate to consider Resolved: The surveillance society does more harm than good. Mr. Jacob Arber (SFS ’14) of Illinois keynoted for the affirmation while Mr. Warren Wilson (SFS ’15) of Florida negated.

Carefully, framing the debate, Mr. Arber defined “doing more harm than good” as “making people less moral”. He vehemently contested philosophers like Bentham and Foucault, who argue that constant surveillance forces people to police their own morality. Mr. Arber maintained that private, independent thinking must prefigure any moral action. By invading our minds like Leonardo DiCaprio, the surveillance society destroys any possibility for real moral reasoning.

Mr. Warren Wilson acknowledged that from the knee-jerk perspective, he represented the Dark Side of the debate, standing against heroes like Jedi Snowden who fight for the little guy. Nevertheless, Darth Wilson set forth a persuasive argument: that surveillance is a necessary part of socialization. Our churches, schools, and families form our morality by watching and checking our actions. Unlike the Galactic Empire, the surveillance society “brings light where there was darkness, and shuns what is wrong.”

Ms. Tricia Correia asserted that the individual is hurt when the public invades privacy but Ms. Hannah Muldavin appealed to John Winthrop to argue that a society where people monitor each other helps everyone stay on the right path. Ms. Caroline Egan agreed that people ought to use one another to build good behavior but only when they can choose who watches them.

Vice President Anna Hernick tried to undermine that claim, arguing that a person’s values are imposed by their parents. Ms. Emily Coccia countered that parental obedience is only the first stage of free moral development while Mr. Kevin Diasti asserted that the first step is the most important.

Saving the debate from sliding towards off-topic equivocation, Mr. Gavin Bade vehemently contended that socialization is not surveillance and refocused on the spookiness that is the surveillance state. Mr. Elijah Jatovsky denounced Mr. Bade’s exaggeration and posited that some surveillance is needed to form ethical humans.

Eloquently disagreeing, Ms. Julia Christiansen stressed that today’s surveillance is dangerously involuntary. “Google is watching.” Mr. Taylor Willis dismissed this as paranoia, claiming to enjoy Google’s targeted ads.

Mr. David Edgar assailed the negation’s ridiculous arguments for corrupting the true evil of surveillance societies, like Maoist China or Stalinist Russia. “Targeted advertising cannot make up for years of oppression.” Mr. Andrew Shaughnessy (SFS ’16) criticized this conflation of commercial surveillance with the radically oppressive USSR while Mr. Alex Barnes (SFS ’16) contended that surveillance must create fear, so Facebook’s click-tracking doesn’t qualify as true surveillance.

Mr. Riley Mellon argued that fear of observation is actually good, because it better allows the authorities to serve up a steaming plate of justice. Mr. Michael Mouch maintained that government tracking hurts more often than it helps while I claimed that surveillance from social institutions beyond the government can help people form good moral consciences. 

Continuing the moral theme, Mr. Dennis Quinn appealed to the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis to discredit corporate surveillance for making customers feel like less than whole persons. Ms. Heather Regen asked President DiMisa to let Mr. Quinn know that she has agency and can choose to be affected by the surveillance society, so it can do no harm.

Ms. Amanda Wynter passionately blamed the surveillance society for setting an unrealistic expectation that “all that happens must be known” while Ms. Abigail Grace harkened back to the negation’s fundamental point: that a surveillance society is more moral and law-abiding than others. Turning that on its head, Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo countered that true morality means doing good when no one else is watching, so surveillance precludes real moral action. Chancellor Peter Prindiville accused the affirmation of ignoring the vulnerable, insisting that secure and just societies must have surveillance.

Mr. Daniel Kendrick dismissed this sentiment as authoritarian and childish. He urged everyone to grow up and stand on the affirmation. Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes wondered whether independent morality could really be achieved by everyone, pointing to Kurtz from Heart of Darkness as an example of an adult who lost his morals when surveillance was gone. Mr. Agree Ahmed called this a mischaracterization of surveillance, because surveillance must involve the forced extraction of information.

Mr. Wilson struck back against all those on the floor who claimed that socialization is not surveillance. While that may be true, surveillance is part and parcel of any socializing process. Using the affirmation’s own arguments against them, he stressed that free moral reasoning absolutely happens within a community where judgments can be made. The community internalizes the moral human’s hatred of injustice and villainy, and surveillance is the only way to ensure that such a process takes place.

After Mr. Wilson’s eloquent words, Mr. Arber brought a new hope to the affirmation by distinguishing between teaching and learning. The first involves surveillance and is rooted in fear while the second naturally occurs in socialization. Mr. Arber warned against building a society based on the fearful regimenting of thought and instead advocated for a new republic that aims towards the good.

After the speeches ended at this particularly lively debate, the Society voted 21-2-17 to affirm.

The following speakers won Merrick points:

  • Mr. Jacob Arber – 5
  • Mr. Warran Wilson – 4
  • Ms. Amanda Wynter – 3
  • Ms. Heather Regen – 2
  • Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo -1

This brings the totals to:

  1. Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo – 23
  2. Ms. Amanda Wynter – 12
  3. Ms. Colleen Wood – 11
  4. Mr. Warren Wilson – 10
  5. Chancellor Peter Prindiville and Ms. Heather Regen – 9
  6. Mr. David Edgar and Mr. Jacob Arber – 7
  7. Mr. Drew Cunningham – 5
  8. Mr. Caroline Egan and Mr. Dennis Quinn – 4
  9. Mr. Daniel Kendrick – 3
  10. Ms. Madeleine Ringwald – 2
  11. Ms. Asha Thanki and Ms. Emily Coccia – 1

May the Force be with you,

Michael Whelan 

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