Monday, July 15, 2013

Solidarity under siege

I follow the Twitter updates about ticket inspections in the Stockholm public transit system. Not because I live in or visits Stockholm that very often (or would find my way around, should it come to that), but as a reminder. A reminder that the actually existing coordination is actually existing. People helping other people they haven't met and probably won't ever meet to a less stressful life. Just because they can.

It is a good sight to see. Every time.

This coordination is also a sign that there is an ever present latent readiness to mobilize in case of emergency. A rather low degree of latent readiness, to be sure, but it is there. And along with it, a readiness to take action. A readiness following from the ever present awareness of the messages that might, at any moment, drop in. At any moment, a call to action.

Slowly but surely, a mentality of being under siege sets in. The public spaces are no longer public - those who do not conform are liable to have bad days. Especially in Gothenburg these days, where the ticket inspectors are infamous for their creative interpretations of the words "setting an example".

The norm is not to have a ticket; the norm is to be able to afford one.

These updates are a sign of solidarity. But it is a sign  of a solidarity that can only exist under the conditions of a very vague "us" against an equally vague "them". Free-riders are usually not hostile to those they are riding with - not even the ticket inspectors, if they are professionals rather than Transit Rambos. They are not the "they" of this story. "They" are the they of "they say", and the solidarity is the solidarity of those who've heard enough of what "they" have said. Those who have heard enough to know they never can or want to do as they say.

One of the scariest things about "they say" is that it so easily transforms into "they should". Especially for those who do. Those who have heeded the constantly reminded call. They say you should have a ticket; why should I have sympathy with those who don't?

This transition from imperative to query often leads to action. More inspections, higher fines, surveillance cameras, less tolerance, closer scrutiny, vilifications - and when neither of these measures work, pure violence.

Nonconformists will be punished.

How does it feel to go to work every day, knowing that one is a modern pariah? A contemporary outcast, in transit from an unheeded imperative to a paranoia-induced bloody nose. Ever vigilant for signs of the machinery of control that runs on the words "they say".

I follow the Twitter updates about ticket inspections in the Stockholm public transit system. Not because I'm affected by them, but as a reminder that things are not as simple as they say. That the shades of gray are both more and less shady than those who call for ever harsher measures against criminals want you to assume. That this solidarity under siege isn't something that should exist in a society that calls itself free.

Originally published April 12, 2011

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