The Tips of Your Fingers

IN THE WOODS near the border checkpoint from France to Britain, several people sit around a fire, pushing iron bars deeper into the flames until the metal is red hot. Taking out the iron, with searing pain they burn their own fingertips, trying to erase their identification.

The fingertips are a border checkpoint of the human body, and through them the self reaches out to touch the world. Fingertips are diviners, lovers, poets of the perhaps, emissaries of empathy. They are feelingful, exquisitely sensitive to metal, dough, moss, or splinter. They are also one of the body’s places of greatest idiosyncrasy: a fingerprint is the body’s signature. Fingertips are at once highly selved and highly sensitive: they articulate difference and they distinguish difference.

Forced to erase the sign of themselves, people scar, burn, stitch, and staple their fingertips at U.S. borders too, and indeed wherever people fear that their identification will be used against them, not because they are criminals but because they are refugees and victims of war, poverty, and neo-imperialism.

Border checkpoints bristle with state control, and this control now encroaches within nations. In Britain, already the world leader in surveillance, the state is now pushing for nationwide ID cards. Identification, tagging, and surveillance are used to intimidate those at the margins, the borders of society: refugees, whose individual stories of blood and horror give the lie to the glossy brochures of foreign policy; the insane with their flashes of specific mind-lightning; those who stand out, eccentrically, for their beliefs, who poke and provoke with the demeanor of a pitchfork in the cutlery drawer; young people at the borders of adulthood; protesters, with their multifold cries of “see it otherwise,” demanding political alterity. All are harassed with surveillance.

Truly individualistic societies would cherish all such border crossers, not punish them. But the dominant culture is a society of intolerant homogeneity that bolsters racism, ageism, and conformism. It supports monoism, destroying variety from biodiversity to linguistic diversity. Like the monoculture of Hollywood and the monocrops of agribusiness, the monopolitics of world powers erase the particular, searing away the idiomatic dialect of the self, symbolized so specifically by each person’s fingertips. Burning away the signature of individuality, at the borders of those very countries that most profess individualism, is a metaphor of terrible reproach. And it tells a deep truth, for ours is not an individualistic society. Rather, it is a hyper-privatized one.

The word private originally meant to be “deprived of public life,” and most people today are so deprived. A vote every few years does not constitute a political voice. Terms for public political life, like solidarity, trade unions, co-operatives, or collectives, are unwelcome in a world of hyper-privatization. Employees engaged in public protest find their jobs threatened. Citizens are also deprived of public life in nature, fobbed off with parks and that hyper-privatized patch of green, the fenced-in private garden. Entertainment, traditionally a very communal affair, is now hyper-privatized, the individual watching TV in a room alone, where the sequestered self is more vulnerable to advertising.

Similarly, the etymology of the word idiot, from ancient Greek, refers to a “purely private person” — one who takes no part in public life. In this hyper-privatized world, it is as if governments would prefer their subjects to remain idiots, disengaged from the state’s process but suffering its intrusions.

Humans need community and public life: we also need the secluded intimacy of privacy, and the latter is threatened by surveillance. Those in favor of surveillance argue that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” but this denies the very significance of privacy — a cache to shelter our tenderness and our name. Telling one’s name is a gift. Withholding it is a right.

Through the twin prongs of ID cards and surveillance, the borders of the private self are invaded. I am declaring, here, that I am a sovereign state. I do not want alien states to use biometrics to crawl into my eyes like flies. I do not want my identity captured by strangers. But I, who am deprived of the human right to freely roam in my own free land, find that the state can roam freely through the territories of my self, violating the integrity of my borders.

When the state crosses the borders into my private self, it is an ugly act. But border crossing the other way — the self reaching outward — is an act of beauty and transcendence. Art, spirituality, environmentalism, and movements for political justice agree, seeking transcendence from the confines of the single self, and it is no surprise that people from backgrounds of faith, activism, and art are those who most vehemently oppose ID cards.

The perennial philosophy of a universal oneness suggests a reaching out beyond the ego. So does the traditional posture of fingertips touched together in prayer to set free the spirit, winged for infinity. Movements for political reform take wide, unprivate ideals, the wisest art goes beyond the individual, and at the heart of environmentalism is the extension of the borders of responsibility to encompass lands, times, selves, and species beyond the individual.

The human psyche, then, seems to find benevolence in the self transcending its boundaries. By contrast, the psyche finds malevolence in those who invade those boundaries: in the myths and mores of many cultures, people are wary about giving names to strangers. Belief in the Evil Eye is virtually a human universal, embodying the malignity of surveillance. Staring is inherently predatory, and we, as other animals, hate being watched because it is a prelude to attack. Mass surveillance — modernity’s Evil Eye — is peculiarly nasty because of its cowardice; the watcher is hidden, unknowable and faceless.

Anyone can recognize a sense of guilt merely walking (innocently) through airport customs. Being trailed by a police car provokes a similar guilt, even when unfounded. Surveillance provokes a pervasive sense of guilt and entrapment and this fusion has a practical history in the invention in 1785 of the Panopticon, the surveillance device designed to watch prisoners without their knowledge. If plans for compulsory ID cards succeed in the UK, we will be carrying our own Panopticons with us, and the protest against these plans is muted. In the U.S., thankfully, there is tougher resistance to ID cards, but a modern Panopticon, the microchip tag within the body, is in use already by an Ohio company ( whose business is in providing governments with surveillance tools, and which has inserted microchips under the skin of some of its employees.

Surveillance creates conformity. Anyone queuing at border control attempts to look as “normal” as possible: like any animal under a predatory stare, humans try to fit in with the herd, not to stand out. The glare of surveillance is the opposite of the gaze of love, for under that gaze a person wants to be known, seen especially for themselves, flirting the peacock feathers of otherness, the distinguishing features of the soul. The law of evolution encourages individuation, and diversity is a signature of the vitality of nature. These laws of life agree with the law of love in nurturing true individuality, for the human heart cherishes “thisness,” the essential specificity of the beloved person.

“If you ask me why I loved him,” said the Renaissance French humanist Michel de Montaigne of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, “I can only say: because he was he, and I was I.” Delineating an exquisite uniqueness, it is as if their fingertips still touch, after all these centuries, and the fingertips of Montaigne’s mind, like all great artists, transcend the borders of self and time to touch minds today with the inalienable signature of love.

Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.


  1. Surveillance in the service of state-controlled police and immigration services is a meager technology. A far greater threat to the rights of the subject including ‘privacy’, and ‘unimpeded’ identity is ‘data mining’ which will put the minutiae of every citizen’s economic history, -personal retail and cultural preferences, disposable income, success rates of responses to previous types of ads, important life events of you and those around you- into the service of growth-oriented corporations. As you enter stores, irresistible ads of exactly what you’re looking for will display themselves at the entrance-way and over your mobile. Everywhere you go, you will be a completely known and recognized phenomenon. Imagine the conformity this will promote. There will be a tyranny of temptations based on your personal records. There will be no freedom anymore. Not even consumerism’s illusion of freedom of choice. Data mining will begin the moment you’re born and will only end when you die. It’s as though the old nightmare of Big Brother had been revised by the makers of ‘The Matrix’. Biometrics is creepy, but it’s a small part of what’s to come. We will be owned.

  2. This stuff is entirely un-pragmatic. While the argument typically used by supporters of surveillance (if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear) may not fall short for obvious reasons, and there must be a limit to the extensions of surveillance, it doesn’t bother me as it is currently used because it seeks to serve a vital purpose in the interest of public health and safety. The world may not be black and white, but it IS either/or, and in this case we either allow the state to gain limited access to our activities or we suffer the consequences of unregulated entry into our homeland.

  3. Scratch the “not” in the second sentence.

  4. In considering surveillance, we should recognize the difference between privacy and anonymity. We like to go about in public with no one recognizing us. That is not possible in a small town and has not been possible in communities for much of history. Surveillance in large cities may destroy anonymity. But that is not a privacy issue.

  5. You mean the theme song from “Cheers” lied to us?!

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