Externalised Consciences: Old, Presbyterian, Dunedin possessed no surveillance cameras. It needed none. Back then the only watcher that mattered was already in people’s heads. In 2016, God’s eye looks down upon Dunedin’s students from the nearest wall.
“IT’S LIKE HAVING Mum and Dad on the street watching you.” The idea of the University of Otago’s CCTV surveillance cameras observing the comings and goings on Hyde Street, one of the Dunedin student quarter’s most notorious addresses, has not been met with universal approval. The prospect of having an additional 50 cameras strategically located at other “hot spots” (burn a sofa in the middle of the street and that is what you get!) in the student “ghetto” has raised additional concerns.
With the shock of Friday’s balcony collapse still fresh in the local authorities’ minds, however, student umbrage at intensified CCTV surveillance will likely carry less weight. The City and the University must now be reaching for every available tool to maintain safety in the streets of North Dunedin.
We can only sympathise with Mayor Dave Cull and Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne, who find themselves in a predicament analogous to that of Larry Vaughan, the unfortunate Mayor of Amity Island in Steven Spielberg’s classic movie Jaws. The Great White Shark of student disorder cannot be decisively beaten in Dunedin without putting at risk the very institution that keeps the city alive and kicking.
Ten-to-fifteen thousand students pour into Dunedin every year (a huge number of them from Auckland) on the strength of its reputation as the most student-friendly city in the country. Life in the student ghetto of Dunedin is a vital aspect of the University of Otago’s allure. “Closing the beaches” (to pursue the Jaws analogy a little further) would spoil all the fun.
Comprehensive CCTV surveillance, continuous and aggressive policing of the student quarter, and an unforgiving application of both the law and the university regulations would certainly prevent the Great White Shark from inflicting further casualties. But it might also prompt a great many prospective Otago students to ask themselves whether the long journey south was any longer worth it.
Dunedin’s dismal weather and dingy flats are currently offset by the warmth and vitality of its “Scarfie” lifestyle. Take that away and the place risks being written-off as a cold hole far too far from home and far too close to the Antarctic.
At some point, however, the depredations of the Great White Shark become so horrendous (one of the most seriously injured victims of Friday’s balcony collapse may never walk again) that turning a blind eye ceases to be an option – and installing 50 new electronic eyes begins to sound like a great idea.
The historical irony of this move towards “God’s Eye” surveillance in the student ghetto is that it is taking place in New Zealand’s preeminent Calvinist city. In 1901, when the University of Otago was already 30 years old, 98 percent of New Zealanders were Christians. In Dunedin, many – perhaps most – of those Christians were Scottish-born or descended Presbyterians.
At the heart of Scottish Protestantism was an unceasing and exhausting dialogue between the individual sinner and Almighty God. The comforting intermediations of the “Roman” clergy had long since been anathematised by these dour inhabitants of lowland and border. For them there was no veil to thwart the perception, and no intercession to soften the judgement, of the all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful Jehovah.
People still talk about “the fear of God”, but today it is almost always meant rhetorically. In a world where nearly everybody believed in an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent deity, and where that belief was whetted to a self-harming sharpness every Sunday in the pews of a thousand churches, the fear of God was all too literal.
The young people of the past were as familiar with the Bible’s catalogue of sins, as today’s young people are with the apps on their I-phone. In those days, any occasion for sinning must also have been, in the minds of youngsters convinced that their most private thoughts and furtive deeds were at all times laid bare to the gaze of an all-seeing and judgemental god, occasions for the most paralysing fear and guilt.
Among student revellers basking in the fiery glow of Castle Street’s burning sofas, fear and guilt displayed precious little purchase. Their parents (or, more likely, their grandparents) might retain vague memories of church services and Sunday schools, but with less than half of New Zealand’s population now identifying itself as Christian, they almost certainly do not.
The optimists among us will be hoping that the voices of Mum and Dad, and the moral imperatives they imparted, still feature in their children’s internal deliberations. In this respect, that young inhabitant of Hyde Street’s comment about the surveillance camera being akin to her parents watching is instructive.
Old, Presbyterian Dunedin possessed no surveillance cameras. It needed none. Back then the only watcher that mattered was already in people’s heads. In 2016, God’s eye looks down upon Dunedin’s students from the nearest wall.
This essay was originally published in The Press of 8 March 2016.