Are We Institutionalized?


Have we have been irresistibly, and overwhelmingly, influenced by institutions, and as a result carry the burden of an institutional mindset?

Chances are, we have been, and do.

Did we go to a public school? If so, we are very likely institutionalized.

Do we go to a church of some kind (or attend a church-supported "private" school)? If so, we are almost certainly biased by our experience with it. (We cannot help being affected—in some way—by our environment.)

Churches are organized religious bodies, a form of institution. The Roman Catholic Church is an institution, as is every other church, as well as Judaism and Islam.

The stern reality is that most everyone in the world is institutionalized. It is a more or less natural extension of the process of socialization.

It is true, we can be socialized without being institutionalized, but we cannot be institutionalized if we have not been adequately socialized.

We are socialized if we know how to use the language and are thereby pretty much aware of what is going on in our culture, as well as the greater world around us.

We are institutionalized if we are socialized and essentially acquiescent with respect to the beliefs and practices of the subculture we happen to be a part of.

Immersion vs. Detachment

Reduced to its simplest terms, it is a matter of being immersed or being detached. It is entirely possible to be in a culture yet not be immersed in it. (It would, in fact, be highly difficult to not be living in some kind of culture.)

A social critic, for example, operates inside the framework of a particular culture, but is not immersed in it by virtue of the fact that he/she engages in criticism of it.

By indulging in objective evaluation they clearly demonstrate that they are not drowning in the institutional waters in which they swim, but are at very least treading that water and literally shouting to anyone who can (or will) hear their proclamations of doubt about the nature of the body of water that they are drowning in, water that the critics are trying to keep their heads above. From their point of view, those who are underneath the surface are indeed drowning.

By contrast, those hapless (and, to the critics, witless) souls who are yet under the water do not feel that they are drowning at all, but are safe and secure beneath the water's restless surface. From their point of view, the doubters above them, treading with their heads above the water, are at very least neurotic. It is truly difficult for them to understand why anyone would even try to leave the safety of the water and breathe the alien texture of the open air.

The primary difference between the two parties in this scenario consists in the fact that those treading the water have two perspectives, while those content to remain immersed beneath the surface have only one.

If we were asked to render some sort of judgment regarding the tension between these parties, we would feel intuitively inclined to give more credence to the side that has two perspectives over the side that has only one, or, as the bible suggests, in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

The witnesses in this case would be the perspectives.

The state of immersion that I am attempting to describe is, for most, a rather helpless situation, a set of circumstances that feels so much larger than the individual that any thought of removing oneself from it feels virtually daunting, if not downright ludicrous, much like a drop of water attempting to extricate itself from the ocean.

Walk a mile in my shoes

It is important to note here that the critic’s examination of their own culture would not be viewed in the same way if they were not (or had never been) a part of the culture being criticized.

Indeed, if we are outside of a particular group we cannot properly appraise it. This, in a way, is a variation of that old saw about walking a mile in someone's shoes before any sort of fair and objective criticism may be tendered. In other words, criticism of a group by a member of that group (or a former member) garners more respect than criticism coming from someone who is not (or has never been) a member.

A person who is a member of a group who criticizes the group (or at least questions it) is not institutionalized (i.e., brainwashed) by it. But members who cannot openly and honestly examine it (or have no wish to) are clearly in its grip. They are little different than a person who is a resident of an actual - brick and mortar - institution, who is prevented from escaping its confines by the presence of various “attendants,” usually appareled in one sort of uniform or other.

The power of the sub-culture

Nearly everyone who is socialized is also a member of a particular subculture, be it secular or religious. Some examples of secular subcultures include labor unions, political parties, fraternal organizations (such as the Masons), athletic and sporting associations and the entire world of academia. If we are involved in any subculture, and consider ourselves incapable of challenging its beliefs and practices (or feel no motivation to do so), we are very likely institutionalized by it.

One of the most frustrating problems we encounter, which is evidence as well of the sheer power of the subculture, presents itself to us on those occasions when we might happen to have contact with an institutionalized person and attempt to converse with them.

It takes a mere moment of time to realize that such a thing is impossible. This is so because they (the person we are trying to converse with) are not actually there!

What is there is the group that they belong to, clinging to them so tenaciously that we might be tempted to suspect that they are virtually possessed by it, or, at very least, are little more than its mouthpiece.

No, we cannot engage them in anything that we may rightly call legitimate discourse. They do not, in fact, have a mind of their own that we may discourse with. They have, in place of it, as if subsumed by it, the group’s mind, as though it were some sort of virtual appendage. It is that which we find ourselves actually speaking to—their group.

It is indeed rare to meet someone who speaks for themselves. More often than not they are speaking for a group, one that they are (in most cases irretrievably) immersed in.

Leaders and followers

The primary reason that so many people (all over the world) are institutionalized is very likely due to the fact that they are followers, which means that they are all too easily influenced by the culture around them, but especially their subculture. People who are not influenced by their surrounding culture are rare birds indeed—and usually leaders of some kind.

It is entirely possible that they are leaders who do not have any followers. But whether or not they have followers is irrelevant. The fact that they themselves are not following someone (or some thing) is what is significant. At very least, we may say that they are leaders of themselves; that they march to the beat of their own drum, as the saying has it (and very often pay a high social price for it, by being ostracized, ignored, impugned or even incarcerated).

Some leaders of course do have followers, but in many cases are not real leaders, because they are very likely heavily immersed in the institution in which they have somehow managed to place themselves (or simply find themselves) in a leading role. As such, they are only another one of the followers. (It is not stretching it to regard such people as quasi-leaders.)

A true leader is not institutionalized, by definition.

Even more important, a true leader is not necessarily chosen by the followers to be the leader, an item that flies directly in the face of one of our most cherished democratic principles.

A true leader is the leader whether the followers want him (or her) to be or not. The desires of the followers have nothing whatsoever to do with the authority of the leader.

Followers are institutionalized; leaders are not. Socialized, yes; institutionalized, no.

It is nigh impossible for followers to properly choose a leader. How could they? What do they know of leading? They are followers. The leader they choose is very likely to be the most intense, and devoted, follower in their midst. It is no wonder that they always seem (eventually) to be so disappointed by whatever choice they make.

Large nations breed institutions

It is difficult for large nations to not be filled with institutions of one sort or another, such institutions being, for the most part, very effective tools for organizing the various subcultures that in the course of its evolution will inevitably arise. It is therefore not surprising that so many of its citizens are thus institutionalized, and carry an institutional headset around with them wherever they may happen to go. Even when we call their attention to this, they are still reluctant to part with their institutionally-ingrained habits. Most of them will simply put their headset back on and go their institutional way.

This reality makes it easy to understand why it is so difficult to effect real change in society. We are essentially contending with inertia, which is a nigh irresistible force. Lately—in the historical sense—more change has been brought about by technology than the mere social efforts we so glibly call politics. But society will always lag behind technology, often by a generation or two.

The institution of money

There is one particular institution that everyone on the planet is brainwashed by (and, it would seem, irresistibly so): the marketplace that is driven by money.

The power of the currency institution is ubiquitous. It runs through and across the lines of every other kind of institution on the entire planet, even permeating such isolated groups as the Amish and Mennonites.

The practice of using money has been going on for so long that its use is practically in our DNA. It is one thing to question the beliefs and rituals of a particular religious group, quite another to do the same with the practice of using money. Its use is so ingrained in us that we unconsciously turn a blind eye when we see it abused, which is pretty much always and everywhere.

The abuse of course is evident in the gross disparity of its availability. There are some who have exorbitant amounts of it, while others struggle to acquire the most meager sums. Whenever such monetary inequalities are brought to our attention the responses are typically lackluster, to say the least. Many, with a wave of their hand, will offer the excuse that that is just the way of it, or that some people are just better at acquiring it than others.

Such reluctance, on the part of nearly everyone, to attack, or even question, the misuses and abuses of money is very strong evidence that they are indeed institutionalized by the universal practice of using it. They will defend its use in very much the same way that religious fanatics will stand up for the articles of faith that so enslave them.

It is remarkable that we speak so casually of defending political rights, but never of fighting for economic liberties. I am hard pressed to understand why. The only thing that makes even an iota of sense is that we are helplessly institutionalized by a long-held belief.

Out of one side of our mouth we will staunchly defend Jefferson’s observation that all men are created equal, but out of the other side cast the most venomous barbs at socialism, a form of government that would at least make an effort to achieve some kind of economic equality.

Money is without doubt the most powerful and longstanding institution on the planet. Its demise will be long in coming. But we should make serious efforts to hasten that demise nonetheless. As technology continues to advance, there is less and less justification for putting up with the scarcity-based economic systems it engenders. Even with a population of 7-billion, there are yet enough resources for everyone to have what they need, sufficient food, clothing and shelter (even adequate leisure).

One of the primary reasons that so many do not have proper necessities is due to the influence of money in the halls of government. As long as financial interests are driving political systems, it will always be this way.

Inertia is indeed a nigh irresistible force. Removing money from government will be just as likely as putting an egalitarian economic system in place. As a matter of fact, the two are directly related. In other words, the primary reason that money is so unevenly distributed amongst the citizens is due to the fact that it plays such a major role in the management of their government.

For years now, technocracy has offered practical suggestions for alternative economic systems, ones that do not use the currency tokens we call money. But we are as likely to embrace these alternatives as the Pope is to renounce Catholicism, or a Rabbi Judaism.

September 20, 2006


Home * Contact