Have you ever been in prison?
Wait – never mind that question.
Have you heard of The Elf on the Shelf?
You probably have.
Seeing though Christmas was just last month and all.
Still, if you haven‘t or you just don‘t give a damn about Christmas, it’s this guy:
The Elf on the Shelf is not a new thing. It’s been around for awhile.
The point (or if we want to get philosophical, the telos) of the Elf on the Shelf is simple: as anyone with even a basic knowledge of the philosophy of gift giving according to Santa Claus knows, children are taught by their parents that the number and quantity of Christmas gifts necessarily depends on them behaving like “good little boys and girls”.
But every parent is also well aware of the fact that the natural disposition of children (think: Hobbes’ state of nature) makes it nearly impossible for children to behave like rational, autonomously legislating human beings at all times.
This can interfere with a child’s plans for ultimate Christmas morning gift getting.
So, if a parent wants their child to receive gifts from St. Nick, a parent has to guarantee that their precious bundle of joy remains a good boy or girl, even when there is no threat of physical punishment.
The threat of injury to one’s buttocks is usually enough to thwart all but the worst of bad children.
Here’s where the Elf on the Shelf comes in…..
If you haven’t noticed, it seems that Santa’s little recon-minded helper has been around much more than usual.
You can blame the crimson-clad imp’s ubiquitousness on the internet.
The problem that some folks have with the Elf on the Shelf isn’t the debate over matters of taste or even about accusations that the Elf is just another example of the over-commercialization of Christmas.
That’s not a problem at all.
However, you can say that the problem with the Elf on the Shelf is something a little more, well… ominous.
The problem with the Elf on the Shelf, some say, is that the damn thing is everywhere.
A simple Google image search for “elf on the shelf” will yield you humorous (and slightly risqué) Elf on the Shelf photos like this:
Pretty funny images, right?
Alright, I know. They’re not.
But bear with me a bit, will ya?
Now, there are those who think that the Elf on the Shelf is an annoying as hell harmless prank. Still, there are those that believe that the “harmless” holiday pranks associated with the Elf on the Shelf hides a deeper, sinister purpose.
You see, instead of associating the Elf on the Shelf with humorous images like this:
We should associate the Elf on the Shelf with images like this:
Or rather, an image like this:
Besides being just plain creepy, non-fans of the “harmless” Elf on the Shelf argue that the Elf’s purpose isn’t to be just a harmless Christmas prank that parents play on their children to make their children behave before the holidays.
The truth about the Elf on the Shelf is the Elf a tool of the police state.
A red-suited Trojan horse of the total surveillance society.
I’m not joking about this.
couldn’t stop laughing at this latest conspiracy theory long enough to watch didn’t watch the video, the gist of the Elf on the Shelf is Big Brother theory/argument goes like this: The Elf is always watching. It gets children used to the idea of being under constant surveillance. Because the parent moves the elf to various locations to keep the child off guard, the child doesn’t know when the elf is watching, so a child will act as if the elf is always watching. The child behaves in lieu of physical punishment.
The Elf’s surreptitiousness is the key to successfully modifying a child’s behavior.
Dr. Laura Pinto writes:
Children who participate in play with the Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day… they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus.
The ultimate purpose of the Elf on the Shelf is indoctrination.
Ok, I think we can all agree that the Elf on the Shelf is annoying, if not a full-blown exercise in ultimate creepiness.
But why am I bringing this up, you say? Christmas was last year.
And what exactly does the Elf on the Shelf have to do with philosophy?
Well, would you believe that the bad idea of surreptitious surveillance of people to force- I mean, encourage good behavior was cooked up by a philosopher?
Oh. You would, huh?
The philosopher I’m talking about is Jeremy Bentham.
The idea is the panopticon.
The word panopticon was coined by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The word is derived from the Greek words pan (all) and opticon (seeing).
Bentham’s panopticon is a building where every part of the building is visible from a central point.
Bentham created the panopticon with the intention of reforming the English prison system and to end unnecessary suffering (pain) of incarcerated individuals while also creating a method of fostering good behavior among the prison population.
Because, as Bentham reasoned, when everybody behaves, people are happier.
In a panopticon prison, a single guard can watch all the inmates at one time.
But here’s the thing: humans lack the kind of God-like omnipotence required to watch all things simultaneously – it is impossible for a single human to observe all things all at once. The point of the panopticon isn’t actually to watch everyone at one time. The point is to convince the prisoners that they are always being watched. The prisoners don’t know they’re being watched or not. According to Bentham, this uncertainty will lead them to act as if they are being watched.
A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference – The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors consealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence – The whole circuit reviewable with a little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell. (Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts, 1798)
Bentham aimed to achieve moral reformation “all by a simple idea of architecture!”
Pretty nifty, eh?
The panopticon is a form of mind control.
Sound like anyone we know?
So, really, there is little difference between this:
The late philosopher Michel Foucault used the word panopticon as a warning of a future where people are under constant surveillance. When we think of a surveillance society, we’re used to thinking of this kind of society in terms of things like this:
The thing is, a real, society-wide panopticon won’t be anything like what Bentham or maybe even Foucault thought it would be.
Perhaps Bentham and Foucault are only kind of correct.
There’s no doubt that cameras are everywhere.
And there are legitimate concerns about surveillance – especially government surveillance of people not in prison.
But, Big Brother won’t be an Orwellian telescreen and highly unlikely we’ll be housed somewhere in one of Bentham’s circular buildings where the guards watch us all the time.
It seems that, in the end, the panopticon will be in the form of a harmless holiday visitor.
A little fella who looks like this:
And you can blame a philosopher for that.
* If you’re feeling that you absolutely must read what Bentham wrote about the panopticon, click on this link.
* And if you’re in the mood to be extra creeped out, here’s some info on Bentham’s body.