Prisons We Choose To Live Inside

A slim collection of five essays by the brilliant Lessing that all circle around the topic of how to harness the knowledge we’ve gained about ourselves to move society toward being less brutish. Despite dropping lines like “This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures…” on us, Lessing ends on a positive note, she has hope for us and our reform capabilities. There are “equally strong forces on the other side, the forces of reason, sanity and civilization.” In When In the Future They Look Back On Us, she claims that we know more about ourselves now than in the past but we haven’t done much with that knowledge. We’re still struggling with the ability to look at ourselves objectively. We’ve got to strengthen the “other eye” which we can use to judge ourselves, and recognize that whatever today’s fad opinion is will be reversed in due time (e.g. attitudes towards Communism). She also brings up the point that whenever war is discussed, no one ever mentions that there’s a lot of people who enjoy the fighting… “it’s sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war – not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself.” She warns that the word “blood” is used by leaders to drive us into a frothy rage, but cautions us to simply be aware of this… “it is not too much to say that when the word ‘blood’ is pronounced, this is a sign that reason is about to depart.”
In You Are Damned, We Are Saved, she reiterates the concept that we’re not applying our newly acquired knowledge: “I believe that people coming after us will marvel that on the one hand we accumulated more and more information about our behavior, while on the other, we made no attempt at all to use it to improve our lives.” For example, groups will always split. Even the self-aware Bolsheviks told each other to learn from the French Revolution and not split violently over points of doctrine before turning on each other (which although they were aware, happened). Lessing points to the roots of our thinking in centuries of Christianity – belief that we need redemption through sacrifice and suffering, people must be purged of their sins. This us vs. them, and getting swept up in the fervor of it, “group lunacy” that all youth goes through, and ends with a hope that youth will end up understanding “how absolutely sane people, in periods of public insanity, can murder, destroy, lie, swear black is white.”
Switching Off to See “Dallas” dives into brainwashing, first come to light in the Korean War when US soldiers confess to all sorts of atrocities they didn’t commit after being brain washed by North Koreans. Lessing is surprised that people refuse to study how governments are using these techniques, “Our opponents have no such inhibitions.” She describes the theatricality of Thatcher’s second election, and Reagan’s success in America, “elected at the box office.” Government by show business… “our new terrifying technologies go hand in hand with new psychological information.” The technologies she’s talking about are TV and movies, “exposing us to brutality of every kind so that we lose our sensitivity to it.” She raises an excellent point about why the world glommed onto the Ethiopia famine but largely ignored the same disaster in Afghanistan.

We are all of us, to some degree or another, brain-washed by the society we live in… There is nothing much we can do about this except to remember that it is so. Every one of us is part of the great comforting illusions, and part illusions, which every society uses to keep up its confidence in itself.

Also in this essay, she mentions a custom in ancient times where kings paid government employees to pretend to be ordinary citizens to check the behavior of officials:

If an official was found to be stupid, or offensive, or bullying, or unjust, then he was removed. No official anywhere could be sure that the person standing in front of him, apparently helpless, was not a government inspector in disguise. And officials correspondingly behaved with more care, and the standard of public service was kept high.
That device for improving administration could only have been employed if the administrations in question were able to look very coolly at themselves, and to diagnose their own condition, and to prescribe for it.
There is nothing to stop us from doing the same.

In Group Minds, Lessing challenges the idea that we hold independent thoughts, bringing up the Milgram experiment (electric shocks administered by instruction), the Stanford prison experiment, and her own experiment trying to publish two books under a pseudonym (Jane Somers) after she’d become well-known (turned down by her two main publishers). The pressure of group needs, group beliefs consume us throughout life. She proposes that we lay our knowledge at the feet of children in schools:

Imagine us saying to children: “In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances. If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion. It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.”


Laboratories of Social Change
is the final essay along the same lines, beginning “sometimes it is hard to see anything good and hopeful in a world that seems increasingly horrific. To listen to the news is enough to make you think you are living in a lunatic asylum.” But she veers into the positive, pointing out the dictatorships that have become democracies between the sixties and the eighties. She again exhorts us to teach children that history is “a story from which one may learn not only what has happened, but what may, and probably will, happen again.”

Literature and history, these two great branches of human learning, records of human behavior, human thought, are less and less valued by the young, and by educators too. Yet from them one may learn how to be a citizen and a human being. We may learn how to look at ourselves and at the society we live in, in that calm, cool, critical and sceptical way which is the only possible stance for a civilized human being, or so have said all the philosophers and sages.
But all the pressures go the other way, towards learning only what is immediately useful, what is functional. More and more the demand is for people to be educated to function in an almost certainly temporary stage of technology. Educated for the short term.
We have to look at the word “useful” again. In the long run what is useful is what survives, revives, comes to life in different contexts… in the long run I believe that people educated to have a point of view that used to be described as humanistic- the long term, over-all, contemplative point of view- will turn out to be more influential.

She returns to the idea that we must put our faith in individuals:

Looking back, I see what a great influence an individual may have, even an apparently obscure person, living a small, quiet life. It is individuals who change societies, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinions, change them… Everything that has ever happened to me has taught me to value the individual, the person who cultivates and preserves her own ways of thinking, who stands out against group thinking, group pressures. Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking and development.