Unfortunately our weakness is such that we are much more ready to believe and speak evil of others than good … [Y]ou should not believe any chance thing that is said to you, nor should you immediately pour out into another’s ears something you have overheard or have been told.—Thomas à Kempis.
In recent times, much virtual ink has been spilled and many hands have been wrung pondering the ramifications of government surveillance programs. From the NSA in the United States (founded in 1952, but brought into public consciousness as never before in the internet age), to the Investigatory Powers Act, which was struck down by the UK High Court last year, after a legal challenge by the human rights group Liberty, we have become all too familiar with the current iteration of that old conundrum: how to balance the state’s duty to protect us from harm with its duty to protect our freedoms.
However, significantly less attention has been afforded to a smaller-scale and often no less powerful form of surveillance: individual surveillance. As the ability of the state to observe our behavior has expanded, so too has the ability of the individual to do the same. Over one third of the planet’s population now carries out their daily tasks armed with a smartphone: a portable device capable of recording images, sounds and videos, and instantly sharing them on a public forum from which they will never be deleted. In developed nations, the percentage of smartphone users in the general population is rapidly approaching totality. We brandish devices with surveillance capabilities that the secret police forces of the last century could only have dreamt of—and we do so openly.
This brings me to the recent allegations against Vic Mignogna, an American voice actor primarily active in the anime dubbing industry. No doubt in large part due to his many roles as bishounen (roughly translated as pretty boy) characters, this is a man whose fanbase consists primarily of teenage girls. He is also famously demonstrative.
Over the past few weeks, the anime community has been rocked by stories of inappropriate behavior on his part. The most serious charges have been levied by fellow voice actors Monica Rial and Jamie Marchi, and cosplayer Jessie Pridemore, who have shared eerily similar accounts of Mignogna restraining them by the hair and whispering lewd comments into their ears. Rial has also alleged that she was forcibly kissed by Mignogna in his hotel room in the mid 2000s. These, coupled with allegations by fans of unwanted hugs and kisses at public events dating back fifteen years or more, have prompted a number of conventions to cancel his upcoming appearances, and have led to his termination both by the animation studio Rooster Teeth and the anime dubbing and distribution company Funimation. The #MeToo movement appears to have arrived on the anime scene.
Mignogna has released a number of statements, written and oral, in which he denies sexual assault or abuse, and protests that he comes from an expressive Italian-American family, for whom such displays of affection as hugging and kisses on the cheek or forehead are commonplace. He concedes only that he has been incautious in assessing whether everyone who approaches him is comfortable with such gestures, and states that in future he will no longer be interacting with fans in this way.
Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Mignogna is guilty or innocent—or, indeed, whether this is a case of the oft forgotten third option: a genuine mismatch between different individuals’ personal boundaries. One could very easily see Mignogna as a middle-aged creep, who has cynically played up his pretty boy image in order to ingratiate himself with teenage girls for nefarious purposes. One could also very easily see him as an affectionate individual, who has been swept up by the emotions of the fan circuit and, perhaps naively, disregarded society’s general suspicion of interactions between underage girls and unrelated men. I am more interested in his stated intention to avoid such interactions with fans in the future, and the fact that this has been welcomed by some of his critics (although at least one, Kaylyn Saucedo, has accused him of engaging in misdirection).
Photos and videos taken by an army of convention attendees of the fifty-six-year-old Mignogna posing with, hugging and kissing fans—predominantly young girls—are available online for almost anyone in the world to peruse. For anyone to interpret. For anyone to judge. For anyone to come to their own conclusions from. And, despite the insistence of many if not all of the girls who have been identified in specific photos or videos that yes, they were happy to receive a hug or a kiss or an opportunity to act out a romantic scene from a favorite anime, and no, at no point did they feel uncomfortable, it would appear that Mignogna’s new policy is the only way to avoid the worst of these conclusions, true intentions be damned.
Is this a new puritanism? After centuries of tearing down the barriers between each other, and of fighting against the evil idea that a young virgin will forever be ruined by sharing an innocent hug or a kiss with a member of the opposite sex—or the same sex, as the case may be—are we to withdraw again from one another? Must we become ever more guarded in our words? Our feelings? Our gentle and innocent gestures?
And, for that matter, is even total inaction an unsafe course of action?
When an image of a young boy in a red cap staring at an elderly drummer was shared on social media a few short weeks ago, many saw precisely what they were ready to see. Precisely what passions moved them to see. And they were wrong. It was not a government or a police force that sparked a campaign of retribution against the students of Covington Catholic. It was a still from a video taken by a college student on her smartphone. That little device, merely by watching and recording, brought death threats from all around the world upon the heads of children.
The great works of dystopic literature have presented us with worlds in which nobody is ever alone or unwatched, in which the private moment no longer exists. Big Brother is watching you. But, in our world, in which any moment, any conversation, or any one of the millions of insignificant frames of the reel that is our life—not one of which will ever be capable of capturing the whole of our being—can traverse the globe faster than the blood can flow from heart to head, I am Big Brother. And so are you.