Panopticon

In response to a recent incident involving the criminalization of strictly private communications based on a “professionalism” standard, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, made a policy statement indicating his view of the privacy of members of the USAF.

“We’ve captured the Air Force’s culture and standards in AFI 1-1. We all know 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on and off-duty, Airmen have signed up to live up to Air Force Standards and Core Values. Through all the different ways in which Airmen communicate and interact, respect and dignity are essential. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in person, by text, twitter, or the latest social media app, we are all personally accountable for what we say and post.”

This is an expansive view that puts everyone on the hook for anything they say anytime, via any medium. On its own, it would have been startling. But then he went further.

“Airmen don’t have to worry if they’re doing what’s right.”

This is similar to a statement made by Google CEO Eric Schmidt that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” It also aligns with Mark Zuckerberg’s contention that privacy is no longer a social norm.

But as journalist and civil liberties expert Glenn Greenwald argued in his 2014 TED talk “Why Privacy Matters” (embedded below), people who make such statements don’t actually believe what they’re saying. Each of these three men has a private life and each guards that private life ferociously.

That’s because each recognizes that “having a place you can go and be free from the judgmental eyes of other people,” as Greenwald phrases it, is a fundamentally important aspect of the human condition. It transcends the social structures, rules, and policies that govern much of our lives.

There’s an important reason for this. It’s because, as Greenwald masterfully points out, individual behavior is sharply constrained when subject to constant monitoring. When you’re under observation, the range of behavioral options from which you’re willing to draw is severely diminished. Your choices are less about individual agency or individual preference and more about what you assume is expected by others. It’s just human nature.

What this means is that with universal monitoring, or the threat that communications could be subject to later review, there can be no genuine liberty because there is no genuine freedom to follow the independent dictates of conscience.

This is, perhaps, the point of many contemporary Air Force policy choices. If conformity and compliance increase when monitoring is assumed, then the easiest way to manufacture conformity and compliance is to remind airmen they’re never free from supervisory monitoring.

How to dress, which vices are acceptable, where and when an individual can smoke or drink, what associations are permitted and under what circumstances … all of these are heavily regulated in the Air Force, and rarely on the basis of valid military necessity.

Private emails and text messages are stand-alone grounds for discipline. Cellphones are not considered free from search and seizure on whatever grounds commanders deem appropriate. Supervisors are encouraged to lurk social media to police the unofficial communications of subordinates. Senior officials enthusiastically exhort obedience to a military value system every moment of every day. These are direct infringements on privacy that rob airmen of any expectation of a life or identity apart from their profession.

But the infringements come in other, more insidious forms as well. Supervisors bombard airmen with messaging about how to spend their private time (and how not to spend it). Volunteering, education, spiritual practice, and physical fitness are championed. Most everything else earns something between indifference and down-the-bridge-of-the-nose discouragement. Bosses also flex their moral and legal authority to disapprove of personal expressions like bumper stickers, t-shirts, and yard signs. Authority figures often intrude into personal matters by pushing airmen to surrender contact information for spouses and extended families, and some commanders even see it as within their power to make periodic calls to parents or conduct “recalls” for spouses.

When you sum together this non-inclusive list of examples, it’s clear that the overall point is obedience and control rather than the various stated rationales for given policies. They’re all branches on the same tree of power, which is planted in a spot guaranteeing its natural growth will intrude excessively into the lives of employees.

This doesn’t mean policymakers, generals, and organizational enforcers of these policies are individually malevolent. It just means that they believe an ordinary conception of individual liberty does not align well with institutional interests, and comfort themselves with the fallacious, utilitarian logic that what’s best for the Air Force is always the right thing to do — even when it obliterates individual rights. This is how they rationalize playing fractional roles in a system that, whatever its intent, viciously savages the privacy of individual airmen.

Whether the Air Force, in carrying into being its Orwellian vision of organizational life, is anything other than a reflection of a changing American society is a separate debate. But whatever the reasons, the lurch toward a command climate that enthusiastically raises paranoia, corrodes trust, and seeks total submission is a threat to national defense and not something to be tolerated. As Glenn Greenwald argues, a system without meaningful privacy is a system craved by tyrants, and a military force commanded by tyrants is absolutely certain to fail in any genuine test.

Innovation, adaptation, ingenuity, improvisation, risk-taking … these qualities are critical to success in the inescapably human competition of war. They only thrive in environments where humans can entertain creative impulses and stretch the muscles of originality free from prying eyes and judgmental observations. This means the value placed on the privacy of airmen carries strategic consequences. This may not register with micromanagement cultists who believe they can centrally control their way to victory in war, but it should matter to the rest of us. That is, unless we’re prepared to say it’s no big deal if our children and their children lose the opportunity for the traditional American way of life we once cherished.

Gen. Welsh’s policy embraces the biggest mental pitfall in the privacy discussion: the meme that people who aren’t doing anything wrong have nothing to worry about. This first-ballot shoo-in for the bad idea Hall of Shame suffers from a massive ambiguity, and that’s the meaning of the word “wrong.” While there are certain things we can all agree are wrong, like plotting a terrorist attack or planning to rob a bank, ordinary people have a much narrower view of “wrong” than the view held by those who wield power, as Greenwald points out in his talk. To power-wielders like Welsh, “wrong” means basically anything that poses a credible challenge to their power.

Understand that, and you can understand why the Air Force’s generals have taken great pains to craft and implement an ambiguous and overbroad regulation, Air Force Instruction 1-1, which allows them to criminalize anything they consider “unprofessional” … an Air Force euphemism for “wrong.” They’ve written themselves a blank check for the pursuit of fealty under the color of federal authority. They’ve also sent a message: only those willing to make themselves utterly unthreatening to those wielding Air Force power are entitled to be free of the consequences of perpetual monitoring and judgment.

So yes, you’re getting it right. The Air Force, that once rebellious, free-spirited, intellectually vibrant institution, has fundamentally changed. It’s fair to postulate that if you insist on thinking and speaking freely, you’re no longer welcome and your days are numbered unless you’re willing to curb your behavior. The vision unfolding is a fascist one, and it will eventually collapse the institution when it is confronted by a challenge to which a fascist organization cannot rise.

Gen Welsh

Gen. Welsh established his zero privacy doctrine more than three weeks ago and has not updated, adjusted, or explained what he meant. This can only be taken as an adoptive admission of the meaning airmen have broadly inferred his words: a radical philosophical departure from traditional American values and too steep a price to pay for a career in blue. The first to go will be those least willing to compromise principle to gain official approval. In other words, the first to go will be those with personal integrity and moral courage.

Welsh has given airmen one view of the concept of privacy. Here’s a competing view that is well worth your time and likely to jar critical reflection on this most important of subjects.

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