Escaping the Prison

umbrellaI recently acquired, as a birthday present from my children, a set of books written in the 1980s and 1990s, books that were too far ahead of their time to have achieved much success when they were published, and which you won’t find in the bookstores because they’ve been pushed off the shelves by more recent releases. Some of my articles over the next few weeks will be reviews of these books, with my usual tangents. This article is based on David Edwards’ 1995 book Burning All Illusions, released in the UK (where Edwards succeeded in and then dropped out of the business world) as Free to Be Human.

The book is not my style — meandering, polemical, too psychoanalytic — but its ideas are very important. The core idea of the book is that we have been imprisoned by our culture, not through any corporatist conspiracy, but by ourselves, a complex and collective adaptation to the increasingly difficult circumstances in which our species finds itself. We have met the enemy and he is us. What’s worse, the chains that bind us are so evasive and subtle that we’re usually unaware of our own confinement. Our adaptation meets the needs of the day, so, as I’m so fond of saying these days, we do what we must.

There is a framework, an unwritten set of unquestioned assumptions that this self-induced prison is based upon. Edwards harps on one such assumption — “the unchallengeable [capitalist virtue] of maximum economic growth through maximum corporate profit” — though I think there are others, shared by a large majority of people despite differences in their sociopolitical frames. These unchallengeable tenets are pounded into us through media propaganda, and the (mainstream) media filter their and our reality by virtue of five things (this borrowed from Chomsky):

  • the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass media
  • their dependence on corporate advertising
  • their sources of ready, steady inexpensive ‘news’ (overwhelmingly from rich and powerful institutions)
  • their averseness to flak from vested interests (lawyers, pressure groups, pseudo-foundations, fundamentalist religions etc.)
  • their temptation to pander by oversimplifying and vilifying ‘straw man’ enemies

Even when they employ investigative reporters determined to find the truth, the mass media can’t help themselves. These five filters define who they are, and reporters who don’t recognize this reality are tossed into the buzzsaw. There is no “freedom of the press”, Edwards asserts. He includes two wonderful quotes on press conformity:

Thoreau: “There is no need of a law to check the license of the press. It is law enough and more than enough to itself. Virtually, the community have come together and agreed what things will be uttered, have agreed on a platform to excommunicate him who departs from it, and not one in a thousand dares utter, or even think, anything else.” [Consider this in the context of the recent furour against the NYT for daring to reveal to terrorists that the Bush Administration was illegally requisitioning everyone’s private bank records, supposedly to trace terrorist money flows, as if terrorists would be surprised by this!]

John Pilger: “A group of Russians touring the US before glasnost were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that all the opinions on the vital issues were the same. ‘In our country’, they said, ‘to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what’s your secret — how do you do it?’ “

There is no freedom of dissent in business either, he asserts:

The real choice is between obedience and expulsion. For this reason there is a powerful tendency for people to want to believe that their thoughts and behaviour at work are voluntary — the alternative of perceiving the actual conflict is simply too painful…A person will suffer more intensely the more he or she is strong and independent…Given the hopelessness of resistance, there is a powerful incentive for individuals to become less aware of their own feelings, beliefs and needs. Indeed the only rational solution may be to become dead inside.

And, he says, the education system further reinforces the propaganda, the learned helplessness and the futility of resistance through seven fundamental lessons (this borrowed from Gatto):

  • the lesson of confusion — try to absorb disconnected facts without reason or meaning
  • the lesson of class position — compete, know your place, conform to succeed or face ‘shameful’ failure
  • the lesson of indifference — don’t care too much; obedience, not enthusiasm, is rewarded
  • the lesson of emotional dependency — someone else will tell you whether you’re right or wrong
  • the lesson of intellectual dependency — someone else will tell you what to do/think and not do/think
  • the lesson of provisional self-esteem — your worth depends on the assessment of others (experts and peers)
  • the lesson of no privacy — there is no time or place for independent thought or action

Through education, the media, and business we are indoctrinated into accepting the necessity and seeking the rewards of conforming to the political and economic system, hammer into anvil. What’s more, Edwards says, “the system has an interest in our believing that we freely choose these conforming goals”, and that there are no viable alternative ways to live. As a result, he says, “large numbers of people are necessarily in various states of psychological ill health”. Psychology plays its role, convincing us that our illness is our own fault, due to something in our past that precludes us from “adjusting properly”. “In our culture it is considered a virtue to ‘cheer up’, to hide our unhappiness rather than expose the truth” — the truth that it is this society that makes us ill.

Learned helplessness is endemic in such a system. Edwards quotes EF Schumacher, describing response to his London Times article “Insane Work Cannot Produce a Sane Society”, as saying “The remarkable thing is that…there were no hot denials or anguished agreements; no reactions at all…People read it, sighed and nodded, I suppose, and moved on”. This alienation, disconnection and ‘dis-ease’ is the consequence of self-inflicted conformity of thinking, behaviour and belief. Realizing it only increases the anguish — better to sublimate it, or you’ll end up in the same state as Tolstoy, who wrote:

At first I experienced moments of bewilderment; my life would come to a standstill, as if I did not know how to live or what to do, and I felt lost and fell into despair. But they passed and I continued to live as before. Then these moments of bewilderment started to recur more frequently. On these occasions, when my life came to a standstill, the same questions always arose: “Why? What comes next?”

Finally, Edwards gets around to solutions, what he calls a “chest of tools for intellectual self-defence”. You really have to dig for them, but it’s worth the effort. Here are the tools in a nutshell:

  1. Mindfulness: Pay attention to what’s happening and what’s being said, and why. Things are the way they are for a reason — study until you know what it is.
  2. Self-awareness: Pay attention to what you’re doing, and not doing, and why.
  3. Open-mindedness: Don’t prejudge. Listen. Be willing to change your mind, consider something radical, even, to most, unthinkable.
  4. Acceptance of responsibility: Don’t blame victims for their own misfortune; it’s rarely their fault.
  5. Critical thinking: Especially of the status quo, what you read in the mass media, and messages from commercial organizations and special interest groups.
  6. Refusing to self-censor: It’s the first stage in self-paralysis and unhappy conformity.
  7. Rejecting simple, comforting answers: Issues and problems are usually complex.
  8. Not compromising: The ‘lesser of two evils’ is a slippery slope.
  9. Refusing to hate: Avoid letting yourself be provoked into hating or scapegoating. People are generally well-intentioned, and stirring up hatred is usually done by people with ulterior motives to distract you from discovering those motives.
  10. Reducing your dependence: On the economic, political, educational systems and mainstream media. When you’re dependent, your ability to criticize and voice your criticisms is impaired.
  11. Disobeying: Constantly challenge authority, ask questions, say and do what others fear to.
  12. Learning: Especially through first-hand observations and stories from people on the front lines. Sidestep the filters.
  13. Not rationalizing: Don’t be seduced into believing something just because you want to, or because it’s easy or self-serving.
  14. Celebrating your uniqueness: Accentuate your difference. Don’t be everyone else. Embrace others but don’t become them just to ‘belong’.
  15. Loving yourself: Don’t accept messages from anyone in any form that tell you that to be ‘lovable’ you need to do X or own Y or believe Z. Don’t let your sense of self-worth be dependent on others’ attention or approval.
  16. Wondering: Imagine, be ‘bewildered’ (literally, be wilder!), free of the need for certainty.

Some of these, of course, are easier said than done. But still, it’s an interesting list.

The important lesson from all this, I think, is that escaping the prison is a life-long, constant, and often lonely journey. Back in the 1960s when we dissented and refused to conform, and we ended the Vietnam War, we figured we’d won, and rested on our laurels. And soon those of us who had rejected the system and moved out en masse to the Edge, started to get sucked back in by the black hole and all its seductions and promises and lies, until everything we had gained had been lost again. And what did we do? Rationalize. We said it was just youthful excess, and it was time to grow up and get real. Arrrgh! We had made such progress, so fast!

Thanks to the Internet and the ability it has given us to access information and ideas that are not filtered by the mainstream media, and to support each other as we employ the 16 tools above, we have another chance. We can’t blow it this time — there is too much at stake. We cannot settle for just electing a Democratic or a New Democratic or even a Green political regime, and think the battle against conformity is won, that we are free. We cannot mistake milestones for the end of the journey. Perhaps most importantly, we must continue to push much farther out to the Edge, even if that means leaving those who are not yet ready behind, for now. We cannot wait for them. If that means the radicals have to shrug off the progressive moderates, and the ‘deep green’ environmentalists have to reject the ‘pale green’ technophiles as no better than the overt anti-environmentalists and corporatists, then so be it. If we allow ourselves to be held back, compromise, one step forward two steps back, we will get exactly nowhere.

The Aha! moment for me was tool #15 above, a means of coping with Gatto’s ‘lesson of provisional self-esteem’. We all long so much for attention and appreciation (hell, it’s the lifeblood that keeps the blogosphere alive!) How did we allow ourselves to become so dependent on others for how we feel about ourselves? It’s such an irony in a society that prides itself on its rugged individualism. It’s a measure of how effective the invisible prison is, that we’ve been beaten down to the point that we’re afraid to be ourselves, to be different, to be authentic.

We have such a long way to go! Those tools are going to get a lot of use.Fare forward, voyagers. See you, I hope, on the far edge.

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8 Responses to Escaping the Prison

  1. zach says:

    “fundamental lessons…” Any bonehead who has spent any time in a corporation knows this, therefore I don’t agree that these are “fundamental lessons.” “the truth that it is this society that makes us ill” Blame, blame, blame. Of course people can’t change if they don’t accept the responsibility to make change happen.”chest of tools for intellectual self-defence” Self defence implies being attacked, being attacked implies fear. I’d rather not be afraid. So a feeling of inner emptiness is actually incongruent behavior (disconnection from and control of your emotions) caused by rewards and punishments of others?

  2. Siona says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for an excellent post. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Burning All Illusions for some time, and your synoposis – and commentary – was wonderful. And while I agree a little with the objections made by the bonehead above (we are society; our illness makes for an ill culture; we are only attacking ourselves, and fear just makes this worse), the post is too good not to be wholly appreciated. Thank you so much.

  3. There can be no courage without fear. Fear destroys when we turn away from it in a knee-jerk reaction that gives rise to hatred. Courage is born when face fear squarely and realize that the threat is not in the object of our fear but in ourselves. Your post was very enlightening.

  4. Dale Asberry says:

    Wow Dave, these 16 qualities exactly describe how I try to focus my energies and guide my development. I am aware of these qualities and *actively* practice them. My preferred order: 15, 14, 1 and 6, 4 and 13, 2, 11, 3, 8, 10, 5, 12, 9, 7. For “mindfulness”, if you “self-censor” then you lose that awareness. “Acceptance of responsibility” goes hand-in-hand with “not rationalizing”. If you rationalize, then how can you take responsibility for a non-existant problem? Being open to 1, 2, and 3 can lead you to empathy: watch others behavior, compare it with your own and if you build a consistent internal model describing the other’s behavior and feelings, then, regardless of the ‘acceptable’ model (as broadcast by society), your model is correct.Maybe one quality is missing: courage. Standing up for yourself, for your own good, and not for someone else and regardless of anyone else to do the ‘right’ thing.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Siona, Case — thanks. Dale, I practice them too, though I’m not sure I’m making that much progress. As regards courage, I’ve come to believe that courage is just not having any alternative, and though I admire courageous people greatly, to some extent I think their courage has been thrust upon them by chronically difficult or suddenly adverse circumstances. My greatest admiration is for those who show courage year in and year out over a long period of struggle.

  6. Pearl says:

    courage is just not having any alternative Dave Pollard. Consider yourself quoted. :-)Interesting post overall. Lots of food for thought. I like the take away tips. #6 is tricky but useful for me to apply more. And 1 and 2 of course.

  7. Dale Asberry says:

    I’m not sure that courage is simply “not having any alternative”. It is taking action with these 16 qualities in face of pressure by others to force you away from them. One phrase from my Mom that I’ve held closely is that I *always* have a choice. So, “not having any alternative”, is a self-delusion, a power-sapper. Courage then comes when following through on choices to be consistent with these qualities – no matter the unpleasantness of doing so, the “stuck between a rock and a hard place” decisions.I’m not sure where this fits, but after letting this all settle in, these qualities become much more powerful when acting with intention. Seeing where you are, looking where you want to go and taking principled actions to move in that direction. I’ve labeled it “setting myself up to succeed”. To save the world, teach them this. Not only do most people not know they can be intentional, they have no clue as to how to follow through with principled actions. To them, what the hell principles are worthwhile? Instead, many act such that they seem to do what society says is acceptable, but, always with a cost/benefit analysis and then selfishly choosing what’s most desirable.

  8. Dale Asberry says:

    shoot, meant <br> not <b>

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