That was the question on my mind when I was watching The Shawshank Redemption, the favorite movie of anyone who had seen it. When Brooks, an old inmate is released from prison after five decades he describes his state of mind as fear.
But he is not actually afraid of anything. There are no threats at him, apart from the threat of the unknown perhaps. But that is not an actual threat. So what was he talking about?
The usage of words in movies hardly give me sleepless nights, but The Shawshank Redemption has dialogues so tight I only ever see that in musicals. But musicals are honed through hundreds of rehearsals and performances, while The Shawshank Redemption has been written that way. The script is polished and well-crafted, every word is in the right place, the use of symbols and music is impeccable (just listen for when the harmonica sounds) and even the sparse references to the outside world come at the right places, just enough to reinforce the sense of passing time and the isolation of the inmates. And of course, like every well-polished script, The Shawshank Redemption is highly quotable as the characters speak in bumper sticker.
“I’m telling you these walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s institutionalized.”
As a political scientists who spent a decade studying unfreedom in the human psyche, Brooks’ remarks about fear of freedom should not have surprised me. Buchanan and Fromm are very eloquent about the subject – just to name two. Fear of freedom is as old as prisons are. Prisons of every kind: internal and external. They alter minds, they make us dependent on them – whether we call them prisons or they just work the same way.
Freedom is the liberty to control things in your own life. It is the absence of other entities who would control it for you.
Unlike many things, control is a zero-sum game. Either you make a choice or someone else. Either you make choices for your own life – or they are made for you. By law, by tradition, by social pressure.
And sometimes choice is taken away from you by making you believe there isn’t any. Sometimes you just change your mind to want the thing the world wants you to want. But choosing to comply with social pressure is not a choice, just the avoidance of punishment.
And sometimes control over you takes the shape of just manipulating what you want. That is when the prison becomes internalized. You become institutionalized, as Red put it. There are no walls to keep you in, there are no guns to your head – and yet every choice you make is whatever they wanted you to make. Like an open-air prison.
A prison is unlearning how to want
When you live under oppression, there is a whole lot of things that don’t require your choice anymore. Your occupation, your interests, or how to spend the uncultivated time ahead of you called life.
In order to make a choice one must know what he wants. And in order to know what he wants, one must know how to want. But that is a thing that needs to be learned. And you need the freedom to make choices in order to practice wanting things. You need the opportunity to fail, to take the consequences of your choices, and to start over again. The first thing you want will not be the last.
But under oppression you don’t get either of those things. And the few little things you shyly “want”? They just give you pain. What good is it to know how to want when you are not allowed to do it, anyway?
Be it a prison or a less obvious forms of oppression, wanting things yourself is always discouraged. And into the void of your own volition rushes a crowd of people, society, politicians, religions, to tell you what you should want. And, indeed, prison guards.
In the end you forget how to want. And with that you forget how to live under freedom. You may routinely think that you want freedom, but you find yourself resenting it, because it reminds you that you don’t know how to fill it. You can sense that it is somehow your failure. The failure to want is an embarrassment on an existential level, beyond words, beyond the scope of everyday conversations. But you feel it nonetheless. And you try to shut out the nagging feeling by yelling that you don’t ‘want’ this freedom anyway.
You may not know how to want, but you still know how to not-want, how to evade negative things, how to desire bad things to end – you still know how to not want things. The word might be the same, but the wanting behind it is not. Knowing how to not want, wanting to evade bad things is not enough to thrive under freedom.
But how does it turn into fear? What about this mental state inspires the feeling of dread? What Brooke tells the audience about his life outside of prison contains no reference to anything fearsome. He doesn’t have to struggle with homelessness as he gets a room in a halfway house. He doesn’t have to fear pennilessness as he gets a job bagging groceries. Dull and empty for sure, but hardly a thing that would inspire fear. He has no threats on his life either. Only the threat of change.
Images: The Shawshank Redemption (1994 dir: Frank Darabont)