The Sacrificial Rites of the Panopticon

At the lowest point of my ruin, I sought the council of the wisdom of the ages.

There were many ages, and so many wisdoms, and many voices which pronounced them.

When I arrived at their agora at the appointed time, they invited me to tell my tale.

“Like many of my generation,” I began, “I saw plainly that injustice was everywhere. We were sold a bag of lies as children, the Lie that the old prejudices had been put to bed. Oh there had been progress, to be sure. But mostly we had just driven the prejudices underground. No, not even underground—just out from view. The same prejudiced white patriarchs ran everything, they just called themselves feminists and colorblind now.

“Like my peers, I saw that the task of all right thinking people was to publicly unmask these frauds for what they are.

“Our community, our conspiracy of progress, rewarded the successful unmaskers with glory and—and this is where the trouble began—visibility.

“It was one thing when it was people I had no association with. My group talked frequently about those luminaries who had made their names by dragging bigots out of the shadows and into the light of the panopticon, that great leveler.

“But one day a girl, who I had known for about as long as I had taken an interest in politics and political groups online, had a photo of hers go viral. It was a picture of a man at a local Starbucks who had talked down to her the way all patriarchs do—invoking all of the little soft coercions that women have to put up with on a daily basis. She captioned the photo in a way that obscured, but did not completely hide, the man’s face. The caption explained how he had treated her as less than his equal; it was very succinct and got the message across.

“The photo spread widely, and the man’s identity was uncovered by overzealous people who wanted desperately to contribute to the cause. He lost his job, and had to get an unlisted number so that the phone calls from people sick of putting up with men like him would not reach him. He was sacrificed at the altar of the panopticon, and it launched my friend’s career in activist media.

“She had less and less time for our relatively obscure little corner of the web, and I came to envy her. I wanted to catch up with her, to go to the place she had managed to arrive at.

“I am ashamed to admit it, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that the desire for attention and popularity among right thinking people was more important to me than advancing the cause.

“It is obvious because of what I did. I took several pictures of someone who simply looked like you would imagine a bigot would. In his 50s, a bit overweight but not extremely so, a smug look on his face. I captioned the pictures with quotes attributed to him, but I made them up. He never said them.

“You have to understand, men wouldn’t treat me the way they did women. I didn’t have the same opportunities to unmask that they did. I had to make my own unmasking. How else could I contribute? How else could I advance the cause?

“Of course with the help of my friend, it got a lot of attention. And of course, it ruined this man’s life. But it got me my start, it turned me into a person of some influence. I brought this man to the panopticon, and it did not reject my offering. Doesn’t that make it OK? So many saw my pictures and had their commitment to the cause validated. Doesn’t that excuse what I did? And what of the real bigots that I used my influence against from then on—doesn’t that count for something?”

One of the youngest voices spoke up. “If you came here to find excuses, you came to the wrong place. By the mere asking of the question, it’s already obvious what the answer is.”

I was crestfallen.

An older voice chimed in, “What is worse is that it’s clear you didn’t come here to make excuses. You didn’t come here because you saw the error of your ways or began to doubt the justice of your injustice. You came here because of your own misfortune.”

They were both right.

“At the peak of my popularity, I had it down to a system. Less visible people would bring me the materials and the information, and I would use my position to expose the bigots they encountered in their lives. Surely this matters—whatever my beginnings, I helped people unmask real bigots in the end. And I helped many of them to achieve their own rise to prominence!”

“Please cease wasting our time with such feeble self-justifications,” the young voice replied with contempt. I lowered my head and continued.

“From the beginning, our enemies worked to tarnish my name and bury me. They attempted to preserve the good name of the original man I had sacrificed, and use it as proof of the cynicism in our movement. As if theirs was not the most cynical of all! Pretending that prejudice had truly been abolished, pretending that we, the unmaskers, were the prejudiced ones!

“But the movement doesn’t put stock in those people. No right thinking person would.

“My undoing was one of my own. I made a remark—an innocent one, if understood in its proper context. But an upstart within our own movement took it out of context and made it the basis of a long, vitriolic post about me. The post went viral, and was also aggressively spread by our enemies, who were too eager to see me fall. I tried to point out this fact, tried to argue that it was them who was behind it. But it wasn’t. I know it. Everyone knew it—the blogger had been active in our circles for far too long, if not very visible. The archive, their public social media history, were all there for people to see; the hoax would be far too elaborate even for those people.

“Soon, my very name became synonymous with prejudice and hypocrisy.

“Once it was clear that the damage was done, I began to withdraw from the panopticon. I deleted my social media accounts. My blog remains but an abandoned archive, with one last letter to the movement at the top, apologizing for my perceived wrongs.

“I fell into complete isolation, and in time, I found my way here.”

“And why did you come to us? What is it you want to ask us?” a much older voice asked, though his tone implied he knew the answer.

“I want to know what I should do next, but…”

“But?”

“…but I also want to know if what I did had any meaning. Was I right to serve the cause by any means necessary? Was it just frivolous fame-seeking? If my heart was often in the right place, and I did a lot of good, does that mean anything?”

They were silent for a long time.

And then the oldest among them spoke.

“Those who live by the river know that it can become a rapids as quickly as it can become a gentle stream,” the wise elder intoned, “yet in time we forget, and imagine we progress only by our own paddling. In the end it is the river that carries us, one way or another.”

“You worry too much about the river,” said a younger, but still quite ancient voice, “when you should worry more about the life you have made, the state of your soul. When you imagine you can divert the river any way you please, you lose sight of yourself and you are just as likely to be swept away when the current becomes unfavorable.”

“Must you always come out and say it?” the eldest snapped.

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that I shouldn’t have lied? That the whole enterprise is invalid? And what should I do next?”

“We’ve said all we will say,” another voice said firmly but not unkindly, “we won’t hold your hand. If you have to have it spelled out for you, you couldn’t hope to understand it.”

And so I left, to ponder the fate of a vessel that was smashed upon the rocks.

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