We create our own prisons. We shackle ourselves; binding our thoughts, actions and reactions to anything familiar, constant, and safe. Novel decisions, steps into the unknown, are forsaken in lieu of habits and addictions. Our brain ends up being little more than a tenement building housing bundles of synaptic routines – many of which having lived there for generations.
No matter how much we may want to be and claim to be individuals and free thinkers – we aren’t. We still live within the confirms of the prison of our own making. To tolerate our mundane existence we shun, belittle and bully those who dare look beyond the steel norms baring our exist. Our children are the only ones who can truly “live” – experimenting with new combinations of dendrites and synapses; but only while they’re still young. It doesn’t take long for us to choke out this quest for novelty; forcing school memorization, religion and crushing societal routines upon them so we can live vicariously through their achievements. At every turn turn we stifle their creativity and nonconformity; judging them based on antiquated expectations of the constipated world we live in – not the one they are living in. We push them to prepare for jobs we believe will be relevant in the future, most often to support our needs in a world we want to live in. Their idea of a world; one where bias and prejudice is taboo, and authenticity is valued is – looked at as naive and adolescent.
Drowning In The Institutional Abyss
The constructs of these prisons and their methods of containment most often begin with our undying lock-step allegiance to institutions. Whether it be religion and the Sunday church ritual; our public school system and its under-performing test-ridden curriculum; a healthcare system that seldom recognizes health nor care; a media that feeds us a sensationalized diet of “breaking news” instead of measured content; and a college system that prioritizes gladiator spectacles, donor boards and exclusionary traditions over mental development and setting the stage for a life of learning. But the most imposing obstacle to self is the institution of government, one that has manipulated our definition of civic self-efficacy and turned it into this grotesque misrepresentation of democracy.
The very definition of an institution is ‘the church’. It’s roots are embedded in control. Those who know preside over those who must obey – otherwise subjected to the wrath from above. Our country’s origin story has been so distorted to mean that its very purpose is to worship and demand compliance in the form of governmental intervention. This has manifested itself in discrimination, bigotry, homophobia and outright medieval subservience. It’s so prevalent that not being ‘religious’ virtually excludes you from being a top political figure. Atheism is looked as not only a sin – but might as well be criminal in parts of the country. Why can’t we strip ourselves of the institution of religion that undermines cerebral development and scientific exploration – and instead celebrate and aspire for deep spirituality enabling us to live in harmony with all around us?
While not as deep-rooted, but better disguised is the institution of universal government sponsored education. Now I’m not implying there aren’t wonderful examples of public education; there are. And there’s wonderful teachers and administrators who truly care. That said, we have been conditioned to believe that public education must be held at the highest priority and any other alternative be demonized – as they will cut into the availability of funding (or some other red herring concocted mainly by teachers unions). American public schools in the aggregate have seen performance metrics steadily decrease when compared on the international stage – regardless the level of funding. We continue to ignore what’s working elsewhere, no matter the proof; instead prioritizing standardized testing – subverting any teacher creativity and resourcefulness. And accompanying these insidious tests is the voluminous homework designed boost performance. In fact, all it does is further strip the ability for parents to creatively inspire their children. There’s just no time or mental energy left. What if instead, we looked at public schools, parents and students as equal partners; not just the latter two being minions forced to obey the dictatorial procedures and mandates put forth by the law of the school.
Marching in lock-step with our public school institution is what follows – college. While attendance isn’t legally mandated, the societal norms we live by rigidly enforce the expectation that without college you are relegated to a life on the low rungs of our economic and social caste system. Ironically as we embrace this unshakeable view of higher education; we demand no accountability. No matter the costs we pay or whether or not it’s even worth it; we shackle ourselves and our children with debt whose numbers have surpassed even that of habitual credit cards. Buttressing the monolith of ‘higher learning’ are two pillars. The first is the concept of expert studies and research. Our society bestows to anyone who is employed by a college or university automatically the title of expert; and anything they so wish to study is deemed worthy of our revere – regardless how blatantly obvious it may be. The second is college sports, primarily college football. Hoards of fans and alumni swear allegiance to ‘their team’ as student gladiators, constricted by rules of modern day servitude, pummel each other for spectator pleasure. Imagine if higher education was not first concerned with institutional sustain and tradition rooted over two thousand years ago, but rather establishing a foundation of nurtured curiosity and life-long learning – empowering students to adapt and evolve in a rapidly changing world going forward.
Over the last two decades, no institution has received the more attention in the public sphere than healthcare (loosely defined at best). No political discourse occurs without the participants taking a position on healthcare and how to reform it. Yet even with this oxygen-exhausting dialogue, the institution of healthcare has remained fully intact reveling in all its bloated dysfunctional glory – financially decimating an entire country in the process. Everyone complains of the industrialization of medicine and how the corporates in the C-Suite control our health – yet few choose to do anything – including those in the rank and file on the front lines. Any attempt by those few, or entrepreneurial outsiders, to make novel inroads is met with disdain and contempt. What if instead of focusing on fixing the institution of healthcare, we focus on what we can do to fix our health; openly engaging whoever and whatever we can, using “us” as the focal point.
And finally we come to the the grand daddy of all institution leviathans – the government, specifically the United States federal government. I’m not saying this as a libertarian. I’m not one. I really don’t think the government directly has that much say over what we do on a day to day basis. The problem I see is the perception that most people have – that it actually does (especially the media). It’s this perception that the federal government, and whoever we anoint as leader, has the power to fix all that ails us is the problem. We view civic engagement as little more than voting for someone else to do the job we should be doing in the first place. Liberals (and I kind of view myself as one – at least for the moment) are the worst, absolving ourselves from “getting their hands dirty”; and instead pontificating about how we need institutional (e.g governmental) change and nothing we do ourselves will matter until then. Institutions, especially governments, follow, not lead – and the only way they’ll change is if (in a democratic society) they are forced to by the people. And if the people never get going … they won’t change. Imagine if we looked at democracy not as just an election, instead as being the people (us) having the ability to create the environment, including the civic presence, we wish to live in; and not just look at it as another spectator sport – as we scream belligerently from the cheap sets in the stands.
The examples I lamented on above are just a few of the major ones that come to mind. I’m sure each of us have have prisons we’ve constructed, manned by our own institutional guards. Regardless what they are or what control you’ve given them – they’re still obstacles to lives of more value and contribution.
Not only are our beloved institutions doing a poor job, they’re holding back our potential, both individually and collectively. We can’t look past them. They’re the only reality we can imagine. We spend all our resources, trying in vane to fix these decaying misrepresentations of solutions to our current day needs and wants. We look to the past, a past when few of us were alive, and visualize a rose-called image of these metaphorical monoliths on a hill. From this we then extrapolate to today, living in this fantasy. We spend little time actually doing the work of betterment – whether it’s for ourselves or those around us. We just assume if we fix the institution, things will all be better. We concentrate on “bringing awareness” which is really “if talk about something enough, maybe someone else will do something about it.”
Maybe what makes this abyss we’re trapped in all the more problematic is these institutions don’t exist independent of each other, riding in silos; but they wield subversive power together; intertwined, creating a dystopian symbiotic mass. The government, churches, healthcare, academia, public schools all work in concert lulling us into lethargic lullaby of subservience. We say we control them as we continually work to reform; but really all we’re doing is just tinkering around edges or instilling yet another bureaucrat at the top of the pile. We’re still little more than serfs – living in obedience, moving automatically from the constraints of one institution to another- void of any critical thought or self-efficacy.
The Evolutionary March Into Institutional Tyranny
We assume our way of life in 2020; one of governments and states, and the endless media coverage of their every detail are the pinnacle of civilized existence. We depend on these hierarchies to delivery us from evil or whatever else ails us. I suppose we believe this since that’s all any of us have ever known. And in contrast, we view leaderless societies stereotypically as less-evolved primitive groups of hunters and gatherers running around in loincloths hunting mastodons with spears made of tree branches and flint.
What if this wasn’t true. What if the more evolved society was the one closer to that of the ones with the spears. What if the societies they created, ones that didn’t need to be dictated by an overarching authoritarian power, represented a higher state of human evolution. These communities of hunting and gathering were not governed by force, intimidation and manipulation; but rather by group norms of altruism, fair play and cooperation. Isn’t this what we teach our children in kindergarten? Why does our society abandon it as we supposedly mature.
Through decades of research in the fields of conflict resolution, altruism, and moral origins; cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm makes a compelling case our assumed anthropologistic evolution isn’t so much “evolved.” Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at University of Southern California, believes the decentralization of power represents a higher level of human behavior.
See the post, Moving Beyond The Hierarchy, for an in depth discussion on Boehm’s work and how we can look at decentralization as true societal evolution.
We’ve created institutions to rule over people; with the primary purpose to house power for those at the top of the hierarchy. And with this we require an indisputable allegiance to them. They are above reproach – even when they are obviously wrong and bad. They’re too big to fail. Even the United States is designed after a lord/serf relationship structure. The founding fathers vision of democracy was still predicated on the privileged being those in control. They were the learned ones, the ones with the knowledge and expertise to run the country. We consider this an advancement of society. Isn’t advancement where citizens are empowered to exercise fair play, altruism and cooperation – not the exertion and retention of power and its structures; at all costs.
Breaking Free of the Shackles
The common assumption is that institutions were created to support our way of life in this free country. Maybe at some point there was truth to that. But today they seem to be subverting our freedoms, undermining our basic human rights as citizens and threatening our functioning as cerebrally developed human beings. And what is worse, our so-called progressive leaders (our supposed hope leading us forward) want to empower these institutions to exert even more control over us.
We’ve too often sacrificed our identities and ability to be authentic. “Who we are” is formed by our allegiance to a institutional nameplate: Pro Life, Medicare For All, school vouchers, free college education, and on and on. Why a few of these positions may affect us directly – most of the time they end up just being methods to pigeonhole and create divides in our society. These divides are further widened by the efforts of the media in search of creating any story to justify their ambulance-chasing fear porn through ad generation directed to prey off our primal urges.
Whether it’s politics, healthcare, education or the media; our institutions have morphed into agglomerations whose functions barely resemble their initial intent. It’s naive to believe we can untangle them to realize that intent. We need to recognize institutions have a lifespan. By allowing death, we usher in life – a life that is more evolved and enable to contribute in the current times.
Our rebirth must begin with our attitudes towards institutions and societal servitude they embody. Our greatest fallacy is believing we actually think for ourselves – that living in a democracy implies freedom of thought. While in theory this may be true; in practice it seldom is.
This isn’t going to be easy; and I don’t suggest abandoning all forms of traditional structure. Going off the grid all Ted Kaczynski style hunkering down to write a 35,000-word manifesto isn’t a viable option. Instead we need understanding and recognization that we do have options other than our cerebrally shackled status quo. We need to be aware and not just feed our habits. Think first. Be mindful. Look the decisions you make, both big and small, and ask yourself; “why am I doing this”. Is it because you’ve thought it through and it’s what you’ve determined to be beneficial to yourself and those around – or is it just a reactive habit, a compliance to the value system the institutions that surround you have constructed. The imposed choices implied by our “pecking order” in society may not be our destiny (no matter what those in academia pontificate in their doctoral theses). The roads we take may actually be navigated by the maps we draw – not only others.
You may find out the map you draw may very well take you to a place you’d much rather be. And only with these new maps will we take our society where it needs to go too.