Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pranking and Public Discourse

It happened in our neighborhood a month or so ago -- some pranksters came through and spray-painted graffiti on the sidewalks. It was strange graffiti: peace signs and slogans like "an eye 4 an eye makes the whole world blind". Our neighbors quickly called city services; the graffiti was gone the next day.

This week, I've seen new graffiti going up all over town -- bridge overpasses, tunnels, sides of old buildings. It reads thus: “Habeas Corpus 1215-2006 RIP”

This graffiti refers to the Bill on Military Commissions that has been the topic of such discussion lately (see the White House information on the bill; see the wikipedia article; see this critique).

I have to give the pranksters credit – they’ve learned their subversive playbook well. They have accomplished their task of raising awareness. Hopefully, people will actually take the time to refresh their memories about habeas corpus. After all, it was way back in High School when I studied the US constitution that I last gave serious consideration to habeas corpus. Like most people, I take a topic for granted when I don't have to have it on the forefront of my mind everyday. I recalled that Habeas Corpus basically had to do with our right not to be held without warrant. However I found much more in wikipedia's article and in Lectlaw.com. In these articles I found appreciation for how Habeas Corpus is a vital instrument in the balance between executive and judicial power. I found that it is rooted in the heritage of common law that has been bequesthed to us. I found out about its prior suspension during the Civil War (in both the union and the Confederacy) and Reconstruction periods. There is a great legal heritage in Habeas Corpus to which I was re-introduced. So on that point, it’s a nice thing that these graffiti artists are raising questions for us.

However to the more pressing issue: we have to be aware that in some cases Marshall McCluhann was right – the medium us the message. By choosing the medium of defacing public property to promote their message, these pranksters ultimately undermine the goal of a orderly society upheld by laws. It does seem disingenuous to protest the suspension a just law by breaking laws. While it may seem clever (“we’re showing that the oppressive government has essentially nullified the rule of law”) it is ultimately unhelpful. Their actions show a disregard for generally agreed upon conventions of social order – such as don’t mess with property that belongs to someone else. These actions send confusing messages -- either they care society but are unwilling to live by its constraints (which makes it hard for me to put any trust in them) or they are insidious, seeking to take down civil society (which makes it impossible for me to trust them).

A while back, I wrote about Ray Beldner, an artist who teaches a course in Pranking as a means of Culture Jamming: "Beldner said he wanted to teach students how to bring issues to the public eye using creative methods. His course syllabus defines 'culture jamming' as 'a resistance movement to the perceived hegemony of popular culture.' 'These are serious-minded pranks,' he said. 'It's not just about people goofing around.'"

Pranking as a means of culture jamming is an interesting idea, but ultimately it puts one at cross purposes – while advocates of pranking claim that it is a way of getting a message across in a system that is skewed toward the rich and powerful and clever, I might challenge them by simply asserting they send mixed messages. They are likely to turn as many or more people off by their antics as they are to win adherents. They would burn and tear down and destroy -- but they offer very little that can be put up in place of what they destroy.

Now perhaps there’s a deeper psychological need for pranking – perhaps it is rooted in a feeling of powerlessness, or perhaps in a need to be heard. More likely it’s rooted in a chaotic impulse that resides deep within all of us – we have the seeds of destruction that are sown within us. Why is the little boy frying ants with a magnifying glass an iconic picture now? Because it is emblematic of that destructive impulse. It’s there in the vast majority of people, whether we like it or not. We learn to tame it, restrain it, and control it through convention, custom, social pressure, and self-control. We as Christians believe that conquering such destructive impulse requires the dramatic intervention of the Holy Spirit within our lives.

So I have to ultimately reject the methodology used by these pranksters to get my attention as unhelpful and ultimately counter to their stated purposes. Your thoughts?