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A surveillance Christmas

The biblical story of Christ’s birth is replete with surveillance.

Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem to fulfil the requirements of a census (no mere counting exercise but one riven with political dimensions).

Shepherds are keeping surveillance over their flocks by night (protecting as well as tallying up each morning).

Joseph is all too-conscious of peer surveillance in Nazareth that would cause Mary shame were he to divorce her quietly.

If we stretch the boundaries of the nativity narratives then the Holy Family have to flee to Egypt because King Herod has been keeping the visiting Magi under surveillance and it about to instigate the slaughter of male infants. This programme of infanticide would have relied on rudimentary – but no less brutal – surveillance of the area.

Beneath the surface of the story lies God’s careful surveillance of this vulnerable family and we can perhaps posit the angelic host as, amongst other roles, God’s surveillance agents.

Watchtowers, a wall, CCTV systems, ‘border’ controls and more opaque technologies of surveillance are today targeting the town of Bethlehem. Surveillance is the lesser-told tale of the first and the latest Christmas.

3 thoughts on “A surveillance Christmas”

  1. Eric,

    I find it interesting to juxtapose the ‘kinds’ of surveillance in this story. We have a protective (Shepherds, Joseph, and no doubt the angels) vs. the oppressive (Herod, Rome, et al.) The struggle today, at least to my mind, is understanding how to identify protective vs. oppressive strategies in modern surveillance.

  2. David, quite what we place on either side of ‘versus’ can prove revealing too.

    Protection can be oppressive – we have the example of ‘helicopter parents’ who feel they must know exactly where their children are at all times and be available for contact instantly throughout the day and night. This can extend to believing that they must filter their children’s exposure to everything in advance. A similar attitude can prevent children learning to manage risk.

    If we set up the discussion as privacy versus security we can miss the point that securing our privacy can be an important component of political debate.

    Public versus private is just as diverting because (a) we have expectations of some privacy in so-called public places such as malls or restaurants and (b) domestic violence (conducted behind closed doors) is not a private matter.

    I think surveillance is thoroughly ambiguous – in the sense that the same strategy can be understood from more than one angle. For example, electronic tagging of a person with dementia can empower him by sustaining his freedom to go out for a walk with less anxiety (for he and his carers) of getting lost. If, however, tagging means that family members abdicate their responsibilities for caring contact – leaving it to the technology – then we might well begin to talk of disempowerment or neglect. However, that’s not to restrict the ethical questions to the motivations of the users. Technologies alter our opportunities and expectations by the way devices are designed (and not just how these are marketed).

    1. Ambiguity: the red flag to the kind of limiting binary thinking that is so instinctive for me! Identifying surveillance as typically ambiguous is actually quite helpful. As such, it seems to have no inherent ethic beyond the motivations of the watchers and/or the watched, though its consequences may not necessarily follow intentions. As per usual, you have my mind bending. Your investment in this subject is prophetic. Thank you.

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