Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Society's prisons

There's been something on my mind more and more lately: what right does the government have to rule over us? Usually this is a question regarded as insolence, immaturity, held in the same vein as children complaining about parents or teachers - but I think that this is a negative attitude that we need to get out of, because in the question of why are we ruled by a government lies a very serious point. And that is - well, what rights exactly do they have?

It was this train of thought that inspired me to take out of the library John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty", a famous essay that deals with a very similar problem, the issue of why men are never truly free. Of course, I'm barely a few pages in before something captivated me, and really made me think (me, thinking? Wow:)

"Reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant... its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates... it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression."

Basically, what Mill is saying is that, despite the huge power of the government, the real fucking scary power at work is society itself. He goes on to explain "since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself... there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them." The extreme penalties he talks of presumably refers to jail/incarceration, and the more brutal methods that have faded from Western society but still are very much prevalent: beatings, stonings, hanging, the list goes on.

His point about society is that it's just so damn difficult to get away from. The government can lay down a law saying "It's illegal to be homosexual," but it's not until you've got neighbours, friends and family alike raving about the evils of homosexuality that you are truly imprisoned. The government decreeing anti-gay laws are only going to slow people down. But what kind of effect must it have when the people closest to you, the people that you love are espousing this kind of bigotry?

The problem with society is that there's a very large desire to fit in. Even if we don't realise it, a lot of the time we will subtly modify our behaviour in a way that makes ourselves more agreeable to the people around us. We don't like being considered the outcast, the weirdo, the freak, etc. - and I'm willing to bet that many people who claim that they enjoy being "the freak" are hurting, deep down, when people turn them away for being different. And that's the key thing: we don't like things to be different. We want consistency, things to stay within our comfort zone, and so, if it's imprinted upon our damn minds that it's wrong to be gay, we'll want to do our damnedest to stamp out homosexuality - we'll shiver in disgust when we see two men/women kissing, we'll declare something we don't like or agree with to be "Gay", we'll go on about how the homosexuals are destroying our country, and so on.

I titled this post "society's prisons" for a reason: because this kind of attitude truly imprisons us. It takes a lot of willpower and rational thinking to escape something that has been drilled into your brain as a "norm" since birth. Many of us struggle greatly whenever we try to break out of this prison, experiencing a lot of pain in our soul as we try to reconcile what we think we know, and what we see is right. Many of us happily live in this prison our entire lives without realising we're in one. These are the people so secure in their beliefs, so dead cert that what they believe is correct, that they're the ones keeping the bars in place.

Take, for example, my mid-January essay on incest, which was a post largely based on this concept. We have it in our heads since birth - it's so deep-rooted that it's not something people even make a point of telling you, we just know it - that incest is wrong. And the problem is that, because the attitude is so intrinsic, it sits us in the furthest, deepest and darkest cellar of the prison, and to even take a few steps forward and ask "Wait... why is incest wrong?" requires you to break down a great many bars in the process.

Just as the government can grab us by the shoulders and throw us into a physical prison, so too we willingly, meekly take our place in society's prison. We're normative creatures - we instinctively dislike change and have to learn to adjust to it. Should there be a ruling power that can take away a man's liberty, deprive them of their rights and lock them up for breaking the law? That's another issue entirely. But when it comes to the question of society's prison, the answer should be crystal clear: this is not a place in which anybody deserves to languish.

Never be a prisoner of your rationality, for so much more lies in freedom.

~Love Leonidas


  1. What you've got to ask is would you be comfortable with people who know what they're doing making the laws, or just the generalised masses making the laws- I think you'd find a lot more stupid laws would be passed if the second were true.

    Frances :)

  2. Je suis d'accord, Leo: some elements of society and the government system and power from which it often derives its values and prescriptions don't favour rationality, but indeed seem to consciously evade it.

    But, we should ask ourselves, what's the alternative? Regarding government, that's a difficult question, if we are not merely to say, "A better one; wherein we try harder; wherein we think." It seems inevitable that a group of people rule the affairs of many, or at least have a hand in this act; but as far as strict oligarchy and totalitarianism are concerned, yes, these can imprison us, cause us to willingly, ignorantly change our identities and beliefs, and no, we don't need them. A government has the right to rule over us because we elect it, to be blunt; although the point is taken that any efforts to push for an alternative would meet fierce opposition, perhaps be quashed. Its just too difficult to change what is accepted by many (inasmuch as the cases regarding something that has an active role in the lives of the masses- the government)- as you say, we're normative creatures, and are often all too willing to dwell under certain prescriptions without for a second questioning them.

    And regarding society: the prison of groupthink isn't something we can make efforts against except within ourselves- it's human nature to go with the crowd, as documented by history. All we can really do is try to think for ourselves, and encourage others to do likewise, if that isn't paradoxical- society's all around us, and there isn't anything we can do to stop that, aside from becoming a troglodyte (love that word!) and abandoning the world in general.

    Wait, that sounds overly pessimistic: I wasn't meaning that we should just give up and try to live by our own unadulterated values while society spirals into obscurity- no, that'd accomplish little except to preserve our own sanity and rationality. It's human nature to conform; but it's easily within human nature to think rationally. No, we shouldn't allow "a ruling power that can take away a man's liberty"- but this ruling power stems from the very nature of man, not from the nature of society. There's no liberty in conforming to society's ideals without thinking, even more so for those that are irrational and, to be blunt, plain bigoted. But we need to recognise that the danger, that elusive tyrant, lies within our willingness to accept blindly- as you said- but not necessarily in some deep and evil facet of society.

    So as to the question as to whether we *should allow* a power- in society- to take away a man's liberty, not, certainly. But it's not only a matter of *should*- it's not "The problem with society", but the problem with us, its feeble-minded subjects.

    There is no ruling power, really, in my all-too-fallible understanding, outside of our minds- so the question is "What *should we do* against that failing- we have an obligation to ourselves and others to think rationally, to preserve liberty via the simple expedient of introspection. So society's not the problem, merely our lack of thought.

    Either way, it's a dilemma difficult to overcome! It may seem just semantics, but I at least often feel the need to distinguish between a perceived problem and its actual root- it's not the nature of society, but, again, how we act within it that causes the problems we fight against. Society has the propensity to be awesome, we only to need to *think*, which I feel is one of the lessons I seem to learn from most of your blog posts. ^'^

    But anyway, yet another brilliant post- this one really made me think- a rare occurrence, perhaps! Ciao, and "Vive la révolution!"

    -Dan (sorry for the verboseness, but condensing the comment might have detracted from what I was trying and failing to get across :P)

    1. Looking at that again, it just seems vapid and superficial, like most of what I try to write. >.< I wasn't trying to be verbose or exhausting, I just felt it might be worth a thought or two.

      Sorry again, and thank you if you've had the will to read this far :D.

      -Dan :)


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