Pretend this is some other country, a miserable guano-splat island somewhere to the east, surrounded by steel-grey seas. The Unified Monarchy, half-medieval and hermetic, where knobble-nosed old peasants carry bales of hay for dead horses, under the crumbling shadow of a nuclear reactor. Officially, the place is a liberal democracy, and if nothing else they commit to the charade. Lately they’ve decided to elect a new head of government, so all the candidates are corralled into a TV studio for a debate, to answer questions from the people before they get to crush them with an iron fist. Everyone knows it’s stupid and pointless; the ruling party has already chosen its man, and only three hundred-odd people get a vote anyway. But TV debates look democratic, and this is a cargo-cult country, manically putting up big apartment buildings in the capital for nobody to live in. And it’s certainly not illegal to criticise the governing class – it’s just that strange things start happening once you do. If you’re naive enough to ask an uncomfortable question during the TV debate, you become a person of interest. Spies trawl through your personal documents. All your faults and secrets are laid open to a suddenly deeply inquisitive state media. And, of course, you lose your job. For the victims, who believed all the propaganda, this feels wrong. Weren’t they the ones who were being judged and evaluated, the other people, the ministers of the state? But the judge rears up like the monster in a Kafka story, and bellows: no, it was only you, we wanted to see if you were pure enough to be ruled over by us, and you have failed.
This is, more or less, what happened during this weeks BBC Tory leadership debate. The obvious loser of the evening was Rory Stewart, who was shunted out of the competition immediately afterwards, haemorrhaging ten MPs. But this debate also came with collateral damage. In the aftermath, it wasn’t the politicians but the questioners from the public whose records were scrutinised and whose lives were put on the line. Two men, Abdullah in Bristol (an imam and deputy headteacher) and Aman in London (an employment lawyer), have been suspended from their jobs. Is it a coincidence that they were also the two members of the public with the two most pointed questions? (Abdullah asked about Islamophobia within the Conservative party, Aman asked how the winner of the contest could govern without holding a general election – both fairly uncomfortable issues for the contenders.) Is it a coincidence that the howl of outrage against these two questioners was first raised by Paul Staines, a psychotically right-wing Westminster gossip blogger, and subsequently relayed uncritically by the BBC and the right-wing press?
Ostensibly, Abdullah and Aman have not become the victims of a media free-for-all because of the questions they asked during the debates. Instead, it’s because of their tweets. Abdullah, for making some fundamentally quite banal and harmless statements about Israel – that a Jewish state should be set up in America instead, that Zionist politicians tend not to be very fond of Jeremy Corbyn, and so on. (He also expressed some considerably more retrograde opinions on whether women should ever be alone with men, but it still feels slightly silly to be outraged that a religious leader might also be a social conservative.) Aman, meanwhile, made a quite patently ironic joke tweet parodying the American conservative pundit Candace Owens. These are extremely flimsy ropes with which to hang these people. But in fact, it shouldn’t even matter.
It matters if Boris Johnson or Michael Gove are racists (which they are), because they’re trying to become Prime Minister of a country that’s home to some three and a half million Muslims. There are things which it should be unacceptable for a senior politician to say, think, or do. But even if Abdullah had advocated for antisemitism, rather than explicitly denouncing it – how many Jewish parishioners is he responsible for at the Masjid Umar mosque? Why should his stances, objectionable or otherwise, be anyone else’s business?
Take any random British resident, kidnap them, and interrogate them – until, wet with tears and spittle and blood, they’ve revealed all their darkest secrets and their worst prejudices. You’re almost certain to find something viscerally offensive and disturbing in there. Something bad enough to clear your conscience, immediately justifying all the suffering you’ve inflicted in getting it. As Žižek points out, the distinguishing factor in all truly oppressive societies is the patchiness and unevenness of the apparatus of repression. It’s not that the guilty are always mercilessly punished, because by the ruling doctrine everyone is potentially guilty. Instead, punishment is vicious but haphazard; everyone has to wait in fear, nurturing their guilt, hoping every morning that this won’t be the day they’re finally made accountable for their crimes.
Before the fifteenth century, a jury who returned the ‘wrong’ verdict could themselves be punished under a writ of attaint, and the punishment would be severe. The juror’s house was to be razed, his wife and children ‘thrown out of doors,’ his trees uprooted, his meadows ploughed, and his body imprisoned. Eventually, in the Tudor era, justice was softened: the guilty juror would only be subject to a fine, plus ‘perpetual infamy.’ Something similar’s at work today. There’s a common-law penalty for the breaking the unwritten law that Aman and Abdullah broke: perpetual infamy, of course, in the bubbling fury of the internet – but also, you have to lose your livelihood. Wherever you work, whatever you do, whatever union is supposed to be looking out for your interests, justice will not be served unless you’re booted out of your job.
But this is where things get tricky. Aman’s law firm and Abdullah’s mosque were perfectly free to refuse to impose the default punishment; there was no state apparatchik looking over their shoulders. Similarly, the BBC could have defended its decision to let Aman and Abdullah ask their questions, instead of collapsing into spasmodic apologies. (It’s worth noting that the post-Hutton Inquiry, post-Saville BBC has pioneered a particularly aggressive style of political interview, in which the goal isn’t to find out what the poor bastard might have to say about the issue at hand, but to embarrass them as much as possible. It feels like a charade, and it is. The BBC play-acts a spiky independence, but crumbles as soon as there are any stakes involved.) But it’s hard to imagine that kind of resistance actually taking place. Resistance is the appropriate response to a political dictatorship, and that’s not what’s confronting us. It would be a fantasy to suggest that Britain were actually like the United Monarchy – a comforting and consoling fantasy. What’s facing us is far larger, and, in some ways, far worse. Aman and Abdullah had to participate in their own victimisations; for it to happen, they first had to build up a dossier of evidence against themselves. They tweeted. And in the place where social media, broadcast media, and politics conjoin, something monstrous slips through the gaps.
This being is artificial. Part hive mind, part computer, part alien, part newborn and capricious god. It’s the thing that makes the laws and sets the default punishments, the king and parliament and jury of this world. It’s a machine, in the Lewis Mumford sense of a machine, a contraption with human beings as moving parts. But there are other bits whirring away in its belly, things that were once vast. The BBC, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the capitalist mode of production, the written testament of God. We have created this thing without really understanding what it is, and it has been set loose.
The crime Aman and Abdullah committed was simply to make themselves visible to this thing. They were only exposed for a moment, a few seconds each, while they gave their questions, but a few seconds is enough. They weren’t really speaking to the Tory leadership contenders, or even to the BBC-watching public; they addressed the new entity. They’d circled its outer peripheries before, skimming its vast darknesses on small social media accounts, and now it knew who they were. If the thing recognises you, it will try to destroy you, and if you don’t have several inches of lead shielding, it will succeed. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re an imam or a member of the Privy Council. Five seconds of exposure, and your innards seep out for its billion eyes to see.