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Witness. The power of the passive majority.

October 4, 2009

One of the emerging uses of a blog, drawing on its early form as a diary, is to look back and trace the development or the origins of your own ideas. It makes it very easy to check, for example, whether one is even consistent.

So, on the subject of neighbours and “Other People”, I was reminded of an extract from a piece I wrote in my old blog back in April 2007. [I’ve edited it slightly for readability, but not to change the meaning at all.]

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…

An example that came to mind was my [own] 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 are 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 bully out. There’s such an exultation, such a catharsis, and such satisfaction in the bully’s shocked reaction to this unexpected resistance, 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, not his own ego, 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.

Here’s the clip.

But once I got on to thinking about ‘Witness’ I thought, in contrast, 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. The villain has 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 man and kill him. But they can see him – they can bear witness (there is, of course, 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, too, is a very striking image, a sequence of action that would require far too many words to sum up the points. Many people, non-violent by their very culture and faith, are converging on someone who, despite holding a weapon and wielding considerable corrupt influence, cannot get away with his crime for so long as he is in plain view and these people are prepared to bear witness to what they see.

I think that very nicely sums up the thinking that I am now revisiting. To be clear, it’s not just about the extreme example of major or violent crime. On the contrary, most of the time it’s going to be about petty crime, incivility, vandalism and littering… all those things that chip away at the quality of life and send the signal that it’s “Other People’s” job to clean up.

I also think that the motivation to bear witness has something in common, at bottom, with that much more visceral, violent, and ultimately ill-judged reaction that we see from John Book in that clip.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 4, 2009 9:54 am

    Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

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