Prisons of the mind

What do states, cults and prisons have in common?

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In a way, Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of The Shawshank Redemption (1994 dir: Frank Darabont) was living the ultimate dream: control through nothing but his mind.

His tale is about overcoming even the most brutal force with the power of his mind. With nothing in his hands, no tools, no money, facing the armed guards and the prison walls, Andy Dufresne managed not only to escape – but to defeat them all. With only what he knew and the perfection of his planning and execution.

free man

The mind is the last refuge of the will. The last place where freedom withdraws when oppression sets in. If we keep it alive, it is our ultimate empowerment. Even if it’s reduced to just a bit of curiosity of what might be buried under that rock

But it is highly discouraged to do so. Prisons, cults, oppressive families and states all want us to stop thinking differently. They seek to supplant what we want with what they want, what we feel with how they want us to feel – and ultimately, they seek to use us. 

Being imprisoned is unlearning how to want. When it happens in a prison – and when it happens in an autocracy. When you can neither leave (exit) nor change the situation (voice), the last thing you want is wanting things that are not allowed. It is easier and safer to replace them with the things other want from you and learn to want those (loyalty). (See Exit, Voice, and Loyalty 1970 by Albert O. Hirschman.) You replace your own wants with not-wanting things. The desire to avoid punishment is as good to fill the gap of organic desires as any. And it is permitted inside prisons. 

“Now look at me! Take a good look! I was born and I knew I was alive and I knew what I wanted. What do you think is alive in me? Why do you think I’m alive? Because I have a stomach and eat and digest the food? Because I breathe and work and produce more food to digest? Or because I know what I want, and that something which knows how to want—isn’t that life itself?”

This last one was not from The Shawshank Redemption but from We the Living, an escape-from-dictatorship story by Ayn Rand, when her protagonist was contemplating her own prison break – escaping Russia – and the bleak alternatives if she fails.

A country may be a bigger place than a prison, and it may obtain inmates differently – but it works on the same premise nonetheless. And when the borders are closed and the control over individual lives is ramped up, the analogy becomes too obvious.

An autocracy obtains victims differently than a prison or a cult. A prison forces inmate to stay inside. If they accept it for anything other than physical force, it is their sense of guilt.

An autocracy is a country that can build on the force of the self-evident, having an in-born victim base. They need more to accept their fate, but it is usually some combination of loyalty to the inevitable strongman and the fear of what is in the outside world. Autocracies love to describe the free world as declining, crime-ridden hellhole in their propaganda. 

Cults work the same way, only they need to do it purely in their victims’ minds – at least first. Cult victims are kept feeling guilty by some impurity, original sin, imaginary tethans in their bodies or unethical thoughts they need to purge – and they also tend to fear the world outside of the cult. It can be eternal fire in hell, a billion years in the galaxy, or just the fear of the cult’s revenge if they leave. In the end, mental freedom might be easier in a physical prison than in an autocracy. The more exclusive the grip of a cult/state/prison, the more oppressive it is. That is why a state is regarded as something else, and an older religion is not regarded as a cult – their grip is looser and they leave space for other loyalties, albeit less and less. 

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Images: The Shawshank Redemption (1994 dir: Frank Darabont) 


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