Artillery Row

Are you staring comfortably?

A new campaign on public transport risks policing thoughtcrimes

There are eyes on public transport in London now. Quite literally,  eyeballs, printed on a poster from the British Transport Police. This pair of eyes call on passengers to report anyone who might be doing the very thing that makes the poster so off-putting. Staring.    

As a 20-something-year-old female who frequents public transport, I find myself somewhat conflicted. I can recall several horror stories of being at the receiving end of an unnerving stare. Sometimes it’s the precursor for highly embarrassing and unwelcome gestures that have, on occasion, seen me take my chances by dashing off at an unknown stop. Our culture has become so hyper-sexualised that even a distanced encounter — in broad daylight, wrapped up in layers of winter coats — can feel violating.

But at the same time, the criminalisation of a stare does also give me cause for concern. Not least because I for one have been known to switch off my brain on a long commute and stare intensely into the distance — a distance in this case, at least, limited to one meter across in a carriage crammed with strangers. Perhaps my age and gender would excuse me from being accused of anything untoward regarding my gaze. But what about others who accidentally look a little bit too long?  

Autistic people, for example, could be vulnerable to cases of misunderstandings here. Interacting with neurodiverse children and adults throughout my life has given me an appreciation for those who might too readily be dismissed as socially inept or strange starers. Men, perhaps awkward or unkempt men especially, who accidentally look a little too long are ripe for prosecution; but how can the intentions of their mind be truly exposed for criminal examination?  

The policing of thoughtcrimes has been active on the streets of London for several years

The truth is that, unless communicative gestures or whispers are involved, the authorities behind the poster can never definitively explain the difference between innocent staring and “intrusive staring of a sexual nature”. And even if words and gestures are indeed used, surely there’s a huge berth for interpretation that could land someone in trouble for starting what they hoped would be a friendly conversation or even innocent flirtation that landed poorly. The intent, in this case, is in the eye of the beholder. And even if the beholder might have a correct judgment on the subject’s internal “creepiness”, at that point, authorities are not policing actions, but thoughts. As much as I would love everyone to keep their thoughts as clean as possible on public transport, surely the attachment of criminal penalty to the fleeting thoughts of the mind represents a blatant and troubling overreach.   

But the slide from policing action to policing thought has been on the table for longer than one might think. Once a fanciful notion of a perhaps too-often-quoted dystopian novelist, the policing of thoughtcrimes has been active on the streets of London for several years. On the other end of the spectrum from crude coach contemplations, in Richmond and in Ealing, there are 150m zones on the street in which it is illegal to pray. Not just illegal to pray with a megaphone and brandished rosary. Illegal to pray silently. To walk along the street with hands in pockets, head down and earphones in – while thinking the words to the Our Father. Refusal to pay a fine for the thoughtcrime can lead to prosecution. 

Some would argue that the criminalisation of prayer in Richmond and Ealing was done with good intentions. A pro-abortion campaign group lobbied for the local authorities to ban pro-life groups from congregating outside of abortion clinics. The campaigners claimed that the pro-lifers were harassing the women. In reality, a 2018 review from the home office found that any instances of harassment were rare outliers. The typical pro-life activities involved prayer and handing out leaflets regarding charitable services available to help women keep their children if they wanted. Harassment, even if the volunteers were to engage in it, was already illegal. And yet, local authorities wanted to take the law further. And so we have criminalised even the prayerful thoughts of the mind on certain streets — thoughts, no less, taken up with the divine.  

Policies to tackle sexual harassment in public places are of course welcome in an age like the present. But the criminalisation of mere cognition surely crosses lines that should concern every one of us who has read any Orwell. In any case, penalising a potentially misconstrued stare and indemonstrable thought misses the wood for the trees. There is surely far more that can be done to shape a positive culture that avoids the objectification of women long before anyone boards the express.

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