Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Big Brother is Watching You

When George Orwell wrote 1984 after WWII, he thought he was looking forward to a time that hadn't yet come. But was he?

When Ann Lee/Lees founded The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also known as Shakers, in 18th Century England, she created a new kind of monastic order. Her church would be protestant, celibate, communal, and include both men and women. The sexes would live side by side in families as brothers and sisters. Each family would be overseen by an Elder and an Eldress, each having equal power. A community would comprise multiple families and be overseen by another Elder and Eldress who would occupy apartments in the village meeting house. These Elders and Eldresses would be the village ministry.

Shaker leaders were very cognizant of sexual attractions, however, and took steps to prevent backsliding, or lapses in faith and commitment. Men and women occupied opposite sides of dwellings, which usually had separate entrances and stairs. Work was assigned by gender; the sisters had their own shops and the brethren theirs. Yet even more steps were needed, they believed. See that window on the roof of the Centre Family dwelling at Pleasant Hill? Here it is from the inside:

There is only a stairs leading up to it. Here a person could sit, or in good weather, venture onto the  widow's walk outside, and have a commanding view of much of the village. From here they might see "lost sheep" whose faith was not strong enough to overcome the call of biology. These lost sheep would be called upon to repent or leave the church.

But even more safeguards were needed. Church services have been a time-honored place for young people living in rural communities to come together, to begin courtships, and to form lasting bonds. Were Shaker churches any different?

The Meeting House, or church, at Pleasant Hill (and other Shaker communities), is a large open space where after the lessons the benches could be pushed back to the walls and the worshipers could engage in the stylized dance and songs that set the Shakers apart. The ministry lived at either end on the building, Elder on one end and Eldress on the other. Also at either end was a window that looked out over the meeting room from the ministry apartments.

From these windows the ministry could follow the service and keep tabs on the worshipers. If a couple glanced at each other too many times it might be noticed. Or if someone entered the dance with weak spiritual absorption, then perhaps that person needed special attention. No one escaped the attention of the ministry.

It's not my intention to criticize the Shakers, but rather to point out what appears to me to be a near universal abuse of power. In churches, schools, governments, and businesses, there always are those who feel called to control the behavior of others through surveillance. The more structured the organization and the more power is vested in a few at the top, the greater the surveillance and control. Sometimes it is justified by security needs; often it is justified only by the leader's need to be in control. Sometimes it's simply because they can. The sad part is, we welcome it because we are told it will make us safer.

Benjamin Franklin said "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."


  1. Nice!
    I think you hit the nail on the head here. -- "The sad part is, we welcome it because we are told it will make us safer."
    I've always had a difficult time understanding why most people can't see this. It seems like as a people we no longer protest anything that an authority figure tells us. Perhaps Foucault's "Discipline and Punishment" should become required high school reading.

    1. Perhaps. There was an OpEd piece this past year titled "Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving."

  2. A thoughtful post. It was a bit the same in Saltaire, which was set about with rules for behaviour in the early days, and people could lose their houses if they disobeyed. I don't think everybody obeyed, though whether they got found out or not, I don't know.

  3. What an interesting post. I am an English Quaker and one of the things that appeals to me is that thire are no figures of authority within our meeting. Jane xx

    1. Did you know the Shakers were originally Quakers in England? Mother Ann took them in a whole other direction!

  4. What a good post! The belief that one 'knows' what God wants is always dangerous for the rest of us.