In his important consideration of power and social control, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, social theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault describes modern power in clear terms as a phenomenon in which a “corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses is formed and becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.” The end of such discourse (and of the punishment and imprisonment that often accompany them) is conformity.

Foucault, who was among the first casualties of the AIDS epidemic in 1984, would have been an appropriate (if somewhat ironic) commentator on the current media-generated outcry over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s comments in favor of traditional marriage—"the biblical definition of a family”—and Cathy’s audacious suggestion that "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'" But, despite his self-identification as a homosexual, I don’t think Foucault would be too impressed by a campaign trying to demonize Cathy, suppress his entitlement to an opinion, and destroy his business.

Foucault did not like the control and suppression of behavior, nor did he approve of the control and suppression of thought. To illustrate his understanding of how these phenomena function in societies, he turned to the notion of Bentham’s Panopticon—a tower from which people could be observed and efficiently controlled, an idea also found in George Orwell’s characterization of Big Brother in the novel 1984. Let’s be clear: this outcry about Cathy and Chick-fil-A has far less to do with him and his business than it does with those who—either publicly or secretly—hold similar opinions. The message is clear: despite your behavior, if you even think this way, we’re coming after you.

Indeed. In a recent Facebook status I came across, a young woman wrote “I stand corrected...there IS a Chick-fil-A in Michigan!'s at Oakland University...hmmm.” Right away, another poster commented, “You see this as a good thing? If you support their hateful and narrow minded views then you should unfriend me right now.” Such tolerance. The first young woman responded graciously, “Interesting...I'm sure I was elated to know that there is a Chick-fil-A in MI because I like the food & can only get it in Southern states, however, I do in fact support & agree with the views of the owner. I will not unfriend you because of your difference in opinion, but welcome you to do so if you feel that strongly about it :)”

The way the panopticon works is not necessarily through an all-seeing eye, but by dissemination throughout the society. If conformity of thought and behavior isn’t secured in this way, if it isn’t internalized by the citizenry to some significant degree, there are other means: punishment and imprisonment. Like the responder to the aforementioned Facebook status, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee—who have all come out with very public condemnations of Chick-fil-A as “unwelcome” in their municipalities—have already moved into “punishment” mode." 

Michael Martin teaches English literature at Marygrove College.



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