Big Brother and the Poor
Do we desire justice or do we just want to win?
I was sitting down, preparing to write a piece expanding on something I recently wrote about what it means to be a childlike believer versus being fully grown when my watch vibrated. It was not the buzz I get when I receive a text, so I looked at the screen. It was a notification from The Washington Post with a story called “Eyes on the poor: Cameras, facial recognition watch over public housing” (subscription). I was curious so I pulled my phone out and read the story.
It was a rather disturbing tale.
Public housing facilities across the country were given grants to use toward the safety and well-being of their tenants. A number of these housing spaces used the grants in order to purchase security cameras so they could watch over the tenants and reduce crime by rooting out people entering the property without authorization. Some of these security systems are equipped with facial recognition and artificial intelligence.
After installing the cameras, the number of evictions increased, sometimes for minor rule violations.
There is an injustice to this.
For starters, the majority of tenants in public housing are minorities, and facial recognition is notorious for misidentifying people of color. Also, people in public housing are often in a lower income bracket than those living elsewhere. That means, and it is shown true in the Post story, innocent minorities are often targeted or evicted on dubious grounds or even for having done nothing at all. Because the systems designed to protect them are also not incredibly accurate. Not to mention, having an eviction on their record makes it less likely that they will be able to find housing later, increasing the chances that they are going to end up homeless.
It is no secret that facial recognition and surveillance technology is everywhere. New smartphones can use it to unlock the screen. More sophisticated cameras are used to track down and catch criminals. We have our own cameras set up outside our doors and even use them to monitor our babies as they sleep.
Orwell’s Big Brother is truly watching, and we have opted in.
I am not attempting to enter the realm of the conspiracy theorist. I am not interested in some vast government agency watching and recording our every move in order to control our lives and restrict our freedom.
What I am interested in is whether or not we have our hearts in the right place. This is about crime, not about surveillance.
We all wish there was less crime. We all wish we could live in safe neighborhoods and that we could send our children to school without having to worry that they are going to die tragically at the hands of a classmate or an irate stranger with an automatic weapon.
This is why there are calls to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. This is why there are calls to increase funding for mental health services. This is why there is a desire for a larger police presence or for mental health experts to ride along with police officers when certain kinds of calls are made. This is why public housing authorities are installing cameras. It is, at some level, based on a desire for safety and security.
Not all of these solutions are wrong or unfounded on their surface. There is little denying that less rapidly-firing weapons will reduce the number of deaths in an active shooter event. Or that better mental health services will act as a real-life solution to some of our overall problems.
But why do we actually want these things?
Even more, why would we not want those things?
There are definitely some politics at play here.
We have become increasingly polarized, at least in our expressions and practice. And there are those on the further ends of the left and the right who make the claim that, if you do not completely align with that extreme end, then you are clearly on the opposite side.
This leads to confusion and an embrace of a political party or affiliation that a person might not actually fully embrace. A “vote blue no matter who” type mentality. Or an embrace of a political leader by the party of “family values” who does not practice any of those supposed values.
Because we have lost a desire for what is right and replaced it with a desire to win.
Back to the security cameras.
One woman who The Post talked to was evicted because cameras caught her smoking too close to the building. She was living in a relative’s basement after that and had recently applied for a new apartment, and was even approved and getting ready to move when they did a reference call and found out about her eviction. They rescinded her offer for the apartment.
Public housing has a lot of rules. It is very strict in what a person can and cannot do within the walls of their apartment and even what they can do when they are on the property. The idea behind all of those rules is to protect the tenants from the crime that tends to thrive in low-income communities. So, the idea of watching people and weeding out the criminals sounds like a good idea. Especially if they can be caught before they do anything in the first place.
But there is little evidence of a reduction in crime and instead a steady increase in the number of evictions from public housing.
We have taken an approach to crime that does not address the actual root causes to crime. It is like banning assault weapons without addressing the attitudes and thoughts that lead to mass killings.
Because, more than anything, we want to win. We want to score political points against the other team. And that desire to win often comes at the expense of justice.
So what do we do? How do we balance our desire to win with a desire for justice?
Let me be honest with you: I do not think that you really can. The desire to win and the desire for justice are mutually exclusive. It may sound like, if you are on the side of justice, that desiring to win would equate to a desire for justice. But you cannot truly desire both. One desire will eventually overpower the other. Because seeking to win on the side of justice becomes seeking to win by putting in place your form of justice or what you think justice looks like.
And sometimes, justice does not look like we might want it to or even expect.
Kirk Cameron posted to his Facebook this past week about the decline in religious affiliation in recent decades. He talked about it as though it was a terrible thing. What he ignored, though, were the reasons people were leaving and the fact that, when you look further into the polling, you find that, in many cases, people are simply leaving one form of religion or one form of Christianity in favor of another. So maybe they are not calling themselves “Evangelical” anymore, but they are still identifying as a Christian of some sort or are still personally practicing their faith, just outside of formal affiliation.
Add to that, the reasons people are leaving, particularly, Evangelical Christianity have a basis in justice. They hear the words of their pastors and leaders and hear sermons against being “woke” or an embrace by their pastors of politicians who desire to enact policies that hurt minority groups and simply do not see that as aligning with what that same faith claims to profess.
They hear the injustice and are seeking a more pure form of faith, and that is at the expense of winning some kind of culture war. In fact, it is exactly what Jesus calls his followers to do.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:24–27)
Security cameras, gun control, expanded mental health services…they all have the potential to be used for good or bad. They all stand a chance at stemming the spread of crime and creating a safer society. But for them to be forces for good, they must be wielded in a way that shows a desire for justice rather than a desire to win. That desire to win at all costs is a base and deeply human desire. And in succumbing to it, we effectively lose who we are or who we want to be. We lose sight of the things that matter and we lose sight of the evil that is being done around us. We try to save our lives and in the process, we actually lose them.
We have to walk away. We have to put our own desires behind and put the desires and needs of others ahead. Only then will we gain, not only our lives but our very souls.