Britt McHenry and the Upsides of a Surveillance Society

The omnipresence of cameras is a legitimate source of anxiety. But the possibility of exposure can also encourage us to be a little kinder to each other.
“I’m in the news, sweetheart.”
So began the tirade—if a steely, sneering string of vitriol can fairly be called a "tirade"—delivered to an anonymous recipient, a worker at a towing garage, by the ESPN reporter Britt McHenry. McHenry's car had apparently been towed while she was having dinner two weeks ago in Arlington, Virginia; she was forced to go to the garage to retrieve it—and, of course, to pay for the towing. McHenry, understandably, was not happy about this. She also did not seem to realize that the garage in question was equipped with a surveillance camera. These two facts culminated in a conversation with the garage attendant that included such comments as:

“I will fucking sue this place.”

“So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”

“I’m on television and you’re in a fucking trailer, honey.”

“Lose some weight, baby girl.”

The towing company released the video of McHenry to the site LiveLeak; yesterday, LiveLeak released it to the world. As a result—McHenry being a popular personality on ESPN—a hefty chunk of the Internet has witnessed McHenry's comments. (Deadspin's post on the fracas has gotten more than 1 million views.) Even if you don't watch sports TV, there's something irresistibly sad—and intriguing, and thought-provoking, and sad once again—about a famous woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Regina George sneering at an anonymous service worker, “I’m on television and you’re in a fucking trailer, honey.”
Many news outlets, in reporting on the video, referred to the exchange as a "meltdown" on McHenry's part. It was not, to be clear, a meltdown. Sure, McHenry may have been frustrated and flummoxed and angry—who wouldn't be, after having had a car towed?—but her reaction did not, fundamentally, reflect frustration or anger. It was instead a very measured, ad-hominem attack on a person whom McHenry clearly deemed to be—in terms of appearance and education and wealth and class and status—beneath her.
McHenry, after the video was released, apologized for the behavior it revealed, explaining, "I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things." She has also been suspended from ESPN for a week. And you could debate, the outrage economy being what it is, about whether those punishments and compensations are too punitive or too lax. You could debate about whether the video is, at its core, evidence of "fat-shaming." You could also join #teambritt by pointing out that towing companies can occasionally be rapacious, which is both true and laughably besides the point.
The core facts, here, are that McHenry—whatever may have triggered her self-satisfied screed—acted deplorably. And she was revealed to have acted deplorably. And her deplorable actions were revealed by way of the inconspicuous technology that has outed so many other deplorable acts: the surveillance camera.
The "surveillance state" is a sweeping term, and this is appropriate. It concerns fundamental aspects of citizenship—privacy, liberty, policing both grassroots and government-sanctioned—and considers what the infrastructures of culture will look like in an age of documentational promiscuity. These are complex and crucial ideas. The McHenry video, though, is a reminder of the more atomized aspects of the surveillance state: the surveillance society. It is a reminder of what happens when surveillance is distributed and small-sized and iterative. It is a logical extension of the hot-mic moment, of the caught-on-tape trope, of the blooper reel—and also, in its way, of the role cameras have recently played in exposing crime and police brutality.
It is, overall, a reminder that technology is making it harder to differentiate between the people we perform and the people we are.
Yes, there are panoptical elements to all that. Yes, we should seriously consider—and debate, and perhaps even fear—what those elements will do to us, as a messy human collective. But one of the positive aspects of the presence of all those cameras—all these devices, there to capture not just our beautiful children and our sumptuous meals, but also our worst and pettiest and most immoral moments—is a basic one: Terrible behavior, whether cruel or violent or something in between, has a greater possibility than it ever has before of being exposed. Just as Uber tracks ratings for both its drivers and its users, and just as Yelp can be a source of shaming for businesses and customers alike, technology at large has afforded a reciprocity between people who, in a previous era, would have occupied different places on the spectrum of power.
Which can, again, be a bad thing—but which can also, in McHenry's case, be an extremely beneficial one. It's good that her behavior has been exposed. It's good that her story going viral might discourage similar behavior from other people. It's good that she has publicly promised "to learn from this mistake." Britt McHenry is "in the news," she scoffed to a service worker a couple of weeks ago. Now she's in the news in another way. And that's because of a thing that doesn't discriminate between the thin and the fat, the rich and the poor, the famous and the anonymous, the kind and the cruel: a well-placed camera.