Disrupting the game as such

James Grimmelmann writes an important essay on The Power of the Selectee. He put it under Creative Commons, so here’s the whole thing:

If you wish to fly in the United States, you will be scanned by a machine that produces a picture of your naked body. You may ask not to be scanned, but if you do, you will be groped by a TSA screener. This choice has been criticized as no choice at all, since both alternatives are degrading invasions of your privacy. But I disagree. There is a choice, and in that choice there is meaning.

Start again. If you wish to fly in the United States, you will be scanned. This is a degrading invasion of your privacy. But you may also choose, you may insist, to be groped instead. This too is a degrading invasion of your privacy, but it is not only that. By opting out of being scanned, you compel a TSA screener to grope you, which is also unpleasant and degrading for them.

These are the rules: be scanned or be groped. On this, the TSA is insistent. That insistence is a threat, but every threat is also a bluff. When you opt out, you call that bluff. You hold the system, the oppressive and degrading system, to its own rules. You expose the fictions, the oppressive and degrading fictions, on which that system depends, and around which it has crafted its rules. You cease to say, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

We are powerless, we who fly in the United States. We are powerless except for our human capacity of living within the truth. To opt out is to embrace the truth that the screening procedure is intrusive and degrading, and to bring another human being face to face with that truth. The choice is everything. If being groped were required for everyone, proceeding through the screening line would be just another moment of submission within a system of submission: another lie. But the choice is a truth and a form of power, the power of the powerless.

Remember your Havel, and opt out.

People seem to think National Opt-Out Day (which is every day, though especially November 24) is about inconveniencing other travelers, slowing things down and hassling other passengers. It isn’t. It’s about the interaction with the TSA agent, who is within the system and has more power to effect change directly than I do. And it’s about obliging other passengers to see the system for what it is, to watch their fellow travelers – people who almost certainly don’t pose any threat – being groped by the same folks who can’t tell a bottle of water from liquid explosives (but who manage to miss the pair of 12 inch razor blades you’re carrying).

And that may cause more people to question the system. I’ve been through airports where people didn’t even realize they were being sent through pornoscanners. And the privacy-invasion of the pornoscanners is abstract (common defense: “The agent seeing you naked is in a different room,” as if that matters). Being groped publicly is inescapable, and that’s what makes it powerful.


  1. #1 Ben 10 Games
    November 23, 2010

    I also wonder when it will be finished…

  2. #2 Dunc
    November 24, 2010

    It’s about the interaction with the TSA agent, who is within the system and has more power to effect change directly than I do.

    I really have my doubts there. The TSA agent is just some schlub with a shitty job. I liked what IOZ had to say on the matter:

    “it is worthwhile to compare this to the experience of talking to a call center employee when trying to address or fight against some unfair exercise of corporate power. In either (and any similar) case, the actual exercise of power at the point of human interaction is assigned to a person least able to do anything about its unfairness. […] It is important to recognize that the loci of oppression and authority are alienated from the point of enaction. Most TSA employees do not actually want to touch your cock and balls or pat your vagina or grope your breasts, and yet most of them want even less to be fired. It’s sobering to consider how easily those of us on both sides of the strip search are coopted by the mechanisms of our own oppression. “

  3. #3 Don
    November 24, 2010

    It would be different if, while being groped for opting out, we attempted to shame the TSA minions into changing sides, i.e., quitting their jobs on the spot, or refusing to follow procedure.

    Me, I have the luxury of being able to get where I’m going without flying. Not flying takes actual money out of the pockets of the airlines. Corporations, I have heard, have a little influence with government.

  4. #4 Jon
    November 24, 2010

    This is a trivial issue on which to take a stand. The use of emotional words such as grope and naked would do credit to any demagogue. TSA agents are 60’s Birmingham cops. Sounds like he’s auditioning for a talk-radio gig. How is this an important essay?

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