Friday, May 11, 2007

Soft Pedalling Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

All those of us who travel by air have probably come across those announcements in airports about how smoking is forbidden. If airports were private facilities, I would have no problem with this. And, in fact, since I don’t smoke, I am not personally put out by those bans, either.

What is, however, very irksome is that most of the announcements pretend to be requests. This is evident from how they end, namely, with “Your cooperation is much appreciated,” “We thank you for your cooperation,” or some such thing. And this clearly is a ruse, since when something is a government mandate, cooperation is irrelevant. Compliance is.

When people cooperate, they do this only voluntarily. They freely take part in an endeavor with others who also do it of their own free will. That’s what cooperation involves. When, however, one is ordered by the police or some other government agency that has the legal option to back its order with force, one has no option but to go along. Otherwise one will be fined and if one resists, one can even be shot. Instead of refusal or cooperation, what one faces is resistance or compliance. And the former can come at a very high price.

At commercial airports, for example, one may not even voice one’s negative opinions about, say, the conduct of the TSA personnel. Not long ago I mumbled something under my breath as one of the more eager-beaver uniformed TSA officials ordered me to remove my sandals—I was annoyed since TSA demands this in some but not in other airports. Sure enough, the official heard my indistinct utterance and wanted to have me repeat it so as to learn whether it was anything critical of TSA. I refused to repeat myself and, fortunately, wasn’t bothered further. But had I said anything at which the TSA official took offense, I could have been barred from boarding my flight.

In any case, why don’t those announcements come right out and order people and stop pretending to be making a civilized request of passengers? Why the “Thank you for your cooperation” when, in fact, the officials care not a whit about our cooperation, only about our compliance?

My suspicion is that this pretense at dealing with passengers as if their cooperation mattered comes from the TSA’s and similar agencies's awareness that all this ordering us about is a bit odd in what is often proclaimed to be a free country. (This is also why some people who support taxation keep insisting that in some convoluted fashion paying taxes is done voluntarily.) I do not have the resources for it but I would be willing to bet a sizable sum that a systematic study of this kind of behavior on the part of government officials would show that they want it both ways, issuing their orders and pretending that those aren’t orders but requests. So as to disguise that they are involved in regimenting millions of supposedly sovereign citizens, these officials and their spin doctors sugarcoat the policy with euphemisms and outright linguistic distortions.

Maybe I am making too much of this but my impression is that this fits the picture of a society slowly but surely transforming itself from being relatively free to one where the population will pretty much be regimented around in most realms of life. If we can be convinced that following orders at the point of the gun amounts cooperation, then the police state implications of these policies might be successfully hidden from us. Never mind that in the process the English language itself is being corrupted.

One reason I tend to be on alert about this kind of government behavior is that where I lived in my childhood, in a communist state, the practice of Orwellian language-corruption was rampant. Slavery was called “freedom,” one party rule was called “democracy,” coerced marches were called “parades,” and so forth. I suppose when you have been through that, you become rather skilled at perceiving similar tendencies even while others may simply dismiss them as innocent misuses of words. I suspect they are anything but.

No comments: