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Witness

April 14, 2007

I was mentally rehearsing, this evening, the arguments I would use in response to a colleague. (I was mowing the lawn in the dark at the same time – like you do). I was reflecting on the fact that I had responded – positively mind -  on an emotional and subjective level to a thesis. My colleague subsequently pointed out a number of analytical weaknesses in the thesis and I realised that I hadn't even seen these because I had reacted on another level. My problem now was to identify how and whether I would change my mind about this thesis.

An example that came to mind was my response to a scene in the film 'Witness', set mainly in an Amish community. The Harrison Ford tough cop character, John Book, is posing as an Amish in order to hide out from forces unknown who are out to eliminate a witness to a murder. He has to travel into town on an errand, dressed in Amish clothes, and he and a companion get picked on by the local bullies. Taking advantage of his assumed Amish non-violence they push him around, knock his hat off and, eventually, when they go "boo" in his face, he snaps and punches the big guy out. There's such an exultation, such a catharsis, and such satisfaction in the bully's shocked reaction that this remains one of my favourite movie moments. But was it the right thing to do, the smart thing? No – his anger was mainly about the humiliation of his companions, but in his retribution he risks exposure, he risks alienating his hosts, corrupting his companion's faith in his Amish lifestyle – he gains nothing. Do I realise this analytically? Yes. I've realised this fact for 20 years. Has this changed my reaction? No.

Boo!

But once I got on to thinking about 'Witness' I thought about another of my all time favourite scenes – from the same film. At the end [alert – plot spoiler!] John Book has discovered that his main enemy is a corrupt cop, a former buddy. There's a big fight which ends with this guy holding a shotgun on him – he's got the gun, he's got the status to allow him to fake the evidence (once Book is dead) – but the Amish are converging on the scene… quietly, calmly. It's not that they would rush this guy and kill him. But they can see him – they can bear witness (there's obviously a theme of 'bearing witness' in different senses throughout the film) and, as Book asks him, are you going to kill all of them too?

This tableau of transparency, non-violent witness, of evil confronted with more simple resistance than it has the energy to keep striking down, remains as a profound image in my mind. It's almost a principle I aspire to. Even though it contradicts my response to that earlier scene.

I think that's the ultimate that I see in the potential of the social web. The ability of the many to bear witness, to be seen and heard, in ways that seemingly more powerful individuals or institutions cannot constrain or contain. If I'm right, and not just being melodramatic, then the most important questions we should be asking are those about the control of access to the internet, as writers, as readers or, increasingly, as both. That's overt and covert control, political or commercial control and it's more important than any technical or semiotic debate about platform and content.

As ever, it's the things you take most for granted that are the most difficult to rally defences for…

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