Big Brother is watching you


My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”


In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)



  1. Tim · August 30, 2011

    It’s amazing how you can turn something around just by the way you phrase your words. A true gift. Although I still find it funny and I had my share of laughs with the whole situation, there is a difference between having a few chuckles with the situation and making one a complete laughingstock and fool. I agree with your scapegoat theory nevertheless a public figure should know the risks of modern day society as it was their choice to become a public figure. It was a risk she took and is now, regretfully, paying a high price for it and I think her children are probably paying or going to pay a even higher price for their mothers’ ‘mistake’.

    Shamefully I must admit I am still looking forward to how original our townspeople can be during carnival.


    • erik buys · August 30, 2011

      Do you have to run a risk when you become a ‘public figure’? Is that inevitable? If we believe so, then ‘the crowd’ is always right, and we give in to the scapegoat mechanism once again. Well, I think the persecutors are wrong. And I didn’t think I turned things around when I write ‘she didn’t ask to be put online’, because, really, she didn’t! To suggest that she did, now that’s what I call ‘turn things around’ – but then again, this is exactly what the whole scapegoat mechanism is all about (twisting and turning, until we believe ourselves justified to commit acts of terror towards others – ‘who asked for it’).

      Remember: we’re all ‘public figures’ now…

      Anyway, thanks for your comment, Tim – Greets! (btw: as you know, it’s not ‘my’ scapegoat theory).


  2. Tim · August 30, 2011

    You don’t ‘have’ to run a risk but the fact is you do. We all do. Public fornication is exhilarating because there is a factor of being caught. In my personal opinion they don’t do anything wrong but a public figure should know they are ‘targets’ and therefore think twice. The persecutors and the people who upload it on the internet are the wrongdoers but it’s always a preventable matter. And yes we are all public figures. We all know people in our own circle of friends who have gone through similar storms and however unjust it is. It is almost always preventable.

    ‘The crowd’ is always wrong but a crowd will always exist. And no you didn’t turn things around but you give an opportunity of self-reflection and that is what I originally meant.


  3. midaevalmaiden · August 30, 2011

    scary, sobering, angering.

    Ironically the more laws which get passed to regulate (force) proper behavior amongst the masses only serves to send darkness underground. It does nothing to address the problem which is the attitude which causes the things in your video. It all boils down to teaching. Mentoring. And through example, not enabling dispicable behaviors.

    It seems to me society often ‘fixes’ things which are not problems while ignoring what is truly broken.

    reading the line “To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… ” (in light of the last discussion we had) wow. thats food for thought.


    • erik buys · August 31, 2011

      well, what hits me in all this, is that we always want to justify our own ‘harshness’… and don’t get me wrong – I need to be ‘guided’ by good examples (great you use that word) as much as anyone else…


  4. Thomas · August 30, 2011

    Godwin’s law at work here …


    • erik buys · August 31, 2011

      Now that’s a good way to end a discussion nowadays ;)… Well, I didn’t start nor ended with Nazi Germany, and I don’t think it’s the real focus of my post. I just point to similar mechanisms that are at work in different contexts. Kurt Cobain’s observations seem right to the point, and I do believe ‘Nazi Germany’ just didn’t fall out of the sky, but that some of the mechanisms which led to it are guiding our every day lives – our lives as ‘common people’. Kurt Cobain’s observation about being easily scapegoated, reminded me about what Karl Jaspers said of the second world war and Nazi Germany: “That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.” It was never Godwin’s intent to dismiss every discussion with reference to the Nazi’s, or to think such discussions were futile… Another reference for me is Hannah Arendt and her provocative insistence on ‘the banality of evil’. To put it more bluntly: bullying, ‘online’ and off, ruins people’s lives, although it often doesn’t feel that way for the bullyers who say, ‘Well, can’t he or she take a joke (and his or her family, children, friends…)?’ Scapegoating exactly happens when people justify their own bullying and mocking as ‘just a joke’, and when they ‘silence’ the voice of their victim… What happened to Tyler Clementi (as can be seen in the video) and to Kurt Cobain in some way isn’t a ‘joke’. Once again, apparently we don’t need the extreme circumstances of a war to give in to mechanisms of victimization, and we are afraid to compare them to what happened in Nazi Germany because that would unveil the ‘not so innocent character’ of our own actions. Hence we misinterpret Godwin’s law and use it to minimize our own behavior… But we don’t have to wait until someone commits suicide again after being exposed ‘online’, to realize the severity of actions we believe to be ‘harmless’ and ‘humorous’, do we?


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