“Prisons we choose to live inside” by Doris Lessing

lessingA clear-sighted, well-argued plea for individuality of thought in an age of mass emotions and social conditioning.

Doris Lessing has faith in the power of writers to stay detached from these mass emotions and “enable us to see ourselves as others see us.” I like the image she gives of writers as a collective organism, constantly evolving but always providing this same crucial function of detached examination of the human condition.

There are some fascinating passages on the way mass emotions are constructed by governments and leaders, for example pointing out how often “blood” is invoked when calling people to war or revolution – this, she says, is a harking back to our long ancestral history of ritual sacrifice, cleansing through blood. Also the constant projection of an Enemy to rally people together.

It’s refreshing to hear Lessing’s account of how often majority opinion has been completely wrong, and the most seemingly unchangeable opinions have changed completely – for example the white minority in the Rhodesia of her childhood thought that their racist regime would last forever, but it didn’t. Also in World War Two, Britons revered friendly, pipe-smoking Uncle Joe Stalin, their ally against Hitler, but then a couple of years later he was their worst enemy (I remember my grandmother talking about this as well).

There are lots of fascinating psychological experiments showing how much we will do to agree with authority or with the group – only a small minority (she puts it at 10%) is usually prepared to go against the group opinion, often at great individual cost. She says that all of us are, to some degree, brainwashed by the society we live in, and that “There is nothing much we can do about this except to remember that it is so.”

She goes on: “It seems to me that we are being governed by waves of mass emotion, and while they last it is not possible to ask cool, serious questions. One simply has to shut up and wait, everything passes.” This reminds me of living in New York through 9/11 and the hugely irrational responses to it. In that time, there were certain things you simply couldn’t say.

Lessing gives several examples of this group thinking, from classic psychological experiments (such as the one where people are divided into prisoners and warders, and the warders quickly become sadistic and authoritarian) to the world of literature, where certain writers are praised by everyone, then suddenly fall out of fashion (Lessing herself wrote a couple of novels under a pseudonym to see if they got the same reaction as her other work, and of course they were rejected by her two regular publishers and ignored by the critics).

This book was written in 1987, before the arrival of technologies like the internet. The methods of control and manipulation are surely stronger now than in 1987, but so are the possibilities for resistance. It’s easier now to find the information that undercuts official propaganda, or to publish your own individual views, or to connect with other people who dissent from the majority opinion. Not following the herd is a challenge at any time, but, as Lessing says, it’s vital:

“Of course, there are original minds, people who do take their own line, who do not fall victim to the need to say, or do, what everyone else does. But they are few. Very few. On them depends the health, the vitality of all our institutions.”

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