Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Prisons We Choose To Live Inside

Book cover photo: Prisons We Choose To Live Inside.Prisons We Choose To Live Inside
By Doris Lessing
Anansi , 1991, c1986.

Review by Stephen Downes, July 11, 2006

We live, we are told, in a time of war, and so there are those of us who are wondering once again, as such will do in times of war, how the population was able to rouse itself not only to support the war, but to actually re-elect the government that launched the war on tansparently false pretexts.

Doris Lessing's book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, asks just this question, though as it was written in 1986, has different wars in mind, different times. "Before the First World War, the socialist movements of all Europe and America met to agree that capitalism was fomenting war, and that the working classes of all those countries would have nothing to do with it. But the moment war was actually there, and the poisonous, fascinating, elation had begun, all those decent, rational honourable resolutions about keeping out of the war were forgotten." (pp. 16-17)

What strikes Lessing - and this reviewer - as odd is the willingness with which we were willing to entertain such irrational beliefs. And make no mistake, they were irrational. The truths that sweep through a country in one moment are false the next. "To have lived through such a reversal once is enough to make you critical for ever afterwards of current popular attitudes." But still we cling to beliefs that would lead a generation after asking, "How could they have believed that?"

Is there no way out of this prison? Lessing writes that we have been dominated by savage societies and savage leaders since the dawn of time, and she tells us that what she wants to describe in this book is how our savage past dominates us to this day. But there is a another aspect, and that is our ability to look at ourseleves, as individuals and society, from a detached point of view, to see the absurdities and the irrationality.

The irrationality of polarization, for example. The idea that "I am right and you are wrong." It is an instinct it seems that we are doomed to repeat time after time. Lessing describes a psychology test group that, on the basis of no pretext at all, split into two camps and was in the process of having vehement arguments when the professor - several hours late - arrived. And so it is with political and religious groups. "Nosing out and extirpating heresy is the first concern." (p. 31)

In an analysis that will sound very familar to today's readers, Lessing analyses the ways political leaders manipulate this instinct. "It seems to me, more and more, that we are being governed by waves of mass emption, and while they last it is not possible to ask cool, serious questions... 'These slogans, or these accustaions, these claims, these trumpetings, quite soon they will seem to everyone ridiculous and even shameful.' Meanwhile, it is not possible to say so." (p. 45)

It is as though the group mind cannot be resisted, writes Lessing. After all, we all live in groups, we obtain our livlihood, our meanings, our identities, from groups. And when we're in a group we tend to think as the group does; we may even , she notes, have deliberately sought out a group of "like-minded" people. People know how hard it is to stand against the group, and they often recollect, to their shame, having said something simply because other members of the group said it.

And the mechanics of this are interesting. "This mnechanism, of obedience to the group, does not only mean obedience or submission to a small group, or one that is sharply determined, like a religion or political party. It means, too, conforming to those large lague, ill-defined collections of people who may never think of themselves as having a collective mind..." (p. 51)

The thing is, political leaders - and guards at prison camps - know this. They know that, if they eliminate the leaders, the mass of people will follow like sheep, adhereing to what they believe is the group mind, or to whatever has been substituted in place of the group mind. If they are lulled into believing that the group expects this or that they are capable of the most heinous atrocities.

Wouldn't we then want to teach children: "If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it. Watch out for these situations. You must be on your guard against your own most primitive reactions and instincts." (p. 58)

But Lessing is not hopeful. "I cannot imagine any nation - or not for long - teaching its citizens to become individuals able to resist group pressures. And no political party, either." (p. 61) Political parties use propaganda and manipulation, and the people who say they are in support of democracy, liberty and freedom don't want to talk about it. They don't want to know, and goodness, they don't want to enable people to resist instruction - for then the people might be wrong.

We need, argues Lessing, to learn from this; we need especially to learn from the last two and a half centuries (since the French revolution) of "laboratories of social change." We have to move beyond the picture of society as "insisting on orthodox, simple-minded slogan thinking" (p, 71) as we have seen in the communist world, the Islamic world and - dare I say? - today in the pro-war western world.

If it is society that oppresses us, writes Lessing, it is the individual who stands against it. "It is always the individual, in the long run, who will det the tone, provide the real development in a society."

You cannot expect a government - or, I would add, a political party or a corporation - to teach, "no matter how much you have to conform outwardly - because the world you are going to live in often punishes unconformity with death - keep your own being alive inwardly, your own judgement, your own thought." (p. 74) No, governments cannot talk like this, but individuals can.

Lessing's book is a slim volume of essays, only 76 pages long, a lightness that belies its depth. Much of its substance - for critics could easily point out that she does not back her opinions with empirical data, merely anecdotes and common sense - will be found in other works (one would want to read Marshall McLuhan, for example, or Naomi Klein, or Noam Chomsky).

But perhaps the best evidence, as Lessing herself notes, lies in reflective self-awareness. When we look at the roles we play in society, when we examine our own beliefs, when we ask ourselves, "How did I come to behave thus," or "why was I afraid to do that?" When we look at the forces that oppress us, we find, in so many instances, that they are of our own creation, an internalization of the external, to which we need only respond, "this far, and no further."


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8:00 AM  
Blogger Regenesis said...

Doris Lessing's writing has a tendency to go directly to the subconscious. It takes forever to read because after a few pages, one needs to fall asleep and process it through dreaming. I haven't read "Prisons We Choose to Live Inside" but I am assuming it also will be too deep and image rich to skim through.

10:27 AM  

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