The Identity Transplant

2 March 2016

Let’s imagine this scenario.

A man does something that inconveniences some other people, but these people are not so inconvenienced as to ask the man if he could be more accommodating.

Not exactly headline news, is it?

I mean, you’ve probably had similar experiences in the past week. Probably more than you can count on your hands. Maybe you’ve even asked someone if they could accommodate you. For instance, this happens all the time on trains: people get on when it’s quiet and plonk their bag on the seat next to them, and then when the train is busier someone will ask if they can move the bag and sit down. It’s mostly all very civil, and a perfectly natural pattern of behaviour.

But what if it was headline news?

Thankfully, we needn’t wonder. Because it is.

The Skateboard

Let’s say I wanted to sit on a seat on a train, but someone’s skateboard was there. And then let’s say that instead of politely asking the passenger sitting next to it to move their skateboard I stayed standing for my journey.

A bit odd, you might think.

Then let’s say I took a photo of the skateboard and posted it on social media, saying “look at this selfish skateboarder taking up two seats when people are standing!”

You might think this was more than a bit odd; you’d probably think I was being a bit of a tit.

But, actually, what I’d be doing is lighting a spark inside a piece of social machinery that exists to create a spiralling effect.

The Skateboarder

By reacting in this way, I would have neatly illustrated something.

Not that skateboards are unusual, because that’s not really a reason to do anything other than ask the passenger to move it. (Sure, if it’s an object that really influences whether you want to sit there—like a filthy and aggressive-looking dog or a sawn-off shotgun—then yes, that’s the issue at hand, but a skateboard is just a skateboard.)

What I’d have really illustrated is that skateboarders are people whom I consider somewhat, shall we say, different. Rather than approach the situation in the same way as I would have had the person been someone in a suit who’d left a briefcase on the seat, I refrained, and chose to broadcast the image on social media.

Posting this image is an indication that it’s notable: it’s not as if I post pictures of people taking up extra seats by putting briefcases on them, because that’s normal and people who carry briefcases are normal.

The next part of the process is the fuel, the real source of energy, in the social engineering machine.

The Skateboarders

My image is picked up by the media. Why? Superficially, because they know that many people identify with me: they too think that skateboarders are unusual.

Not only that, but far more people identify with my attitude than identify with skateboarders, and images like this influence them as much as they feed people who actively dislike skateboarders.

This of course prompts the question of why the media would devote resources to reproducing such an image.

But the media has a decision to make. My photo shows the face of The Skateboarder. Should the image be blurred to obscure his identity?

The media decides to blur it.

Let’s consider why that is.

All Skateboarders

The removal of The Skateboarder’s identity is a conscious editorial decision.

One implication could be that the individual is considered irrelevant to the event. Strictly, this makes no sense: the event is a wholly individual act with no wider interest. But let’s not dismiss it.

The other possible implication is that there is a risk of threat to the individual. You can imagine a scenario the following morning when Mr Violently-Angry is reading his paper and happens to spot The Skateboarder a couple of seats away. Maybe that’s a bit much; maybe it’ll just be that The Skateboarder is always seen as That Skateboarder. A social stigma that he can’t shake; a brand he can’t erase.

However, while acknowledging the lack of wider interest and/or the threat to the individual, the story of a few people being inconvenienced so mildly that they didn’t even bother to talk to the person that inconvenienced them is still published.

By multiple media.

Nationally.

But, remember, this isn’t about The Skateboarder: it’s hardly likely that he poses a serious national threat of mild inconvenience. It’s not even about the event, because the event is so trivial that it could have been undone with a six-second conversation. It is all about context. And contexts can be engineered. In fact, the event is so trivial and the engineering of the context so important that removing the individual is the most fundamental part of the editorial process.

The fact is that the blurring is not so much an act of anonymisation as it is one of weaponisation.

The void left by the removal of The Skateboarder is filled with All Skateboarders. The identity at which the finger is pointed is no longer defined by a face but an accoutrement. This is a deft deflection of an acknowledged reaction. It is not an identity removal; it is an identity transplant.

The people who identify with me and not The Skateboarder will look at my photo in the paper and see an event that they find objectionable, committed by an individual who has been editorially whitewashed, served up in the engineered context of All Skateboarders. And they’ll absorb it. And sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, they’ll be picking up on little things and providing their own little sparks to ignite the fuel in the social engineering machine.

train-1

train-2

Really, the problem is that most trains don’t have a decent place to put a bicycle, and the nationally-reported event in each case is that someone made a poor decision as to where to put theirs.

But don’t dismiss the media reaction—which is, please note, both widespread and unequivocal—as harmless whimsy: that is not the nature of editorial decisions.

Comments

  1. Steve 2 March 2016 9:42am #

    It happens all the time with people. They put their bags/coats on an empty seat and then huff and puff and act ever so indignant when you ask them to move them so that you can sit. How dare you inconvenience them by expecting to be able to sit. Ridiculous story generated by a selfish person, who had a bike with him, and a person (number of people) who couldn’t bring themselves to ask him to move it. Or maybe they just preferred to make a story of it instead…

  2. Darren 2 March 2016 9:44am #

    I’ve been in that exact same situation myself. I was off for a jolly on the mountain bike and as per usual there was no where to put the bike so I occupied a berth as it was free. As the journey went on a few more passengers got on and I was politely asked if I could move my bike. I did this without hesitation and the situation was resolved, not to say that there was a situation to start with. Again, like you said, the above could have been cleared up so quickly if people had just asked the guy to move the bike. Another nail in the “BLOODY CYCLISTS” lid methinks.

  3. Paul Milne 4 March 2016 12:39pm #

    While I agree that this should never have been published, the decision to blur the face could have been more in the way of Data Protection Act compliance, rather than a conscious attempt to universalise the situation.

  4. sonic spanner 5 March 2016 7:31pm #

    I’m fair weather cyclist (don’t judge me) and on rainy days I catch the 35 bus to Brixton. When I need to get off, I have to fight my way with my workbag past around 12-15 people who chose to stand in the exit door of the bus. Every day. It seems to be the fashion on this bus at this particular time. The bus is always mostly empty upstairs, and there are usually some seats downstairs too. And, for those with a weird aversion to stairs or sitting, there is also space to stand away from the exit. Rather than taking a photo of the people obstructing my way in an inconsiderate and anti-social manner, I choose to say ‘excuse me’ and work my way through. It’s annoying to have to do, but it beats me missing my own stop to make a weird point about ‘bus users’. Maybe one day I’ll try the alternative to see if the media pick up on it.

    • Kirsten 6 March 2016 3:17pm #

      Lots of people who use Lothian Buses number 30 are guilty of this. They stand in the aisle rather than sitting down, making it twice as hard for everyone else to get on or off. I hate them.

  5. Jim 5 March 2016 7:56pm #

    To be fair properly considerate people don’t wait to be asked to move their property, they do so as soon as it becomes apparent that other people might want to sit down, to save them having to ask. (If my bag’s on the seat I will always move it if the train’s coming into a station and the platform’s busy. If no one sits down I can always put it back.)

    But this is still rather a lot of fuss over very little – like you say, loads and loads of people leave their bags on seats.

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