Saturday, 2 July 2016

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

The 1985 Massey Lectures - by Doris Lessing

What can the individual do to salvage his or her freedom in a world dominated by the forces of mass emotions and group thinking?

The Massey Lectures were started by the CBC in 1961. They were established so that some of the world’s leading thinkers could present the result of original work in different areas of thought. The 1985 lectures were by Doris Lessing, who died in 2013. 

The topic of the 1985 lectures was “the predicament of the individual in a world that’s increasingly dominated by group thinking and mass emotions, as well as the inflammatory rhetoric that usually accompanies such displays of group behaviour.”

The title for the series was: Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. “An examination of our tendency to act and think according to patterns of group behaviour thus making it easier for us to fall victims to political rhetoric.”

Given what we are witnessing in the UK at the moment following the EU referendum, this all seems highly relevant, perhaps even more relevant than it was 30 years ago when these lectures were first broadcast by the CBC. You might say that the ‘volume’ on some of the phenomena Lessing discusses has been ‘turned up’.

Introduction by Doris Lessing

“This is what I want to talk about in these five lectures: how often, and how much, we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. And yet, whilst sometimes it seems that we are helpless, we are gathering, and very rapidly - too rapidly to assimilate it - knowledge about ourselves, not only as individuals but as groups, nations and as members of society. This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures. Everywhere we look we see brutality, stupidity, until it seems that there is nothing else to be seen but that - a descent into barbarism, everywhere, which we are unable to check. But what I think is that, while it is true there is a general worsening, it is precisely because things are so frightening that we become hypnotized, and do not notice - or if we notice, belittle - equally strong forces on the other side, the forces, in short, of reason, sanity, civilization..."

"The sad thing is, all these issues about human behaviour are so important, and so fundamental to why people get ill, anxious, sad and behave criminally, that they ought to be looked at calmly and scientifically by more people and talked about more widely. But these issues are not explored yet much on TV or in other media and yet they are far more important that politics or the 'arts'. That's why what you're doing in the Human Givens Journal is so valuable."


Click the link in each section header below to listen to the lecture on the CBC site. Each section contains a short synopsis or key point.

“I think when people look back at this time - the one we are living through - they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this. That we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past but that very little of it has been put into effect. There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves. The information is the result of our - of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively. It concerns our behaviour patterns… and is about how we function in groups, and as individuals. Not about how we may like to think we behave and function, which is often very flattering, but about how we can be observed to be behaving when observed as dispassionately as when we observe the behaviour of other species.”

“This business of seeing ourselves as in the right and others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong-headed; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense (if not as downright evil). Well, all of us in our sober moments, our human moments, the time when we think, reflect and allow our rational minds to dominate us - we all of us suspect that this ‘I am right, your are wrong’ is, quite simply, nonsense.

Part 2: You Are Damned - We Are Saved

The political and personal implications of our tendency to think and act according to patterns of group psychology and mass morality - what Nietzsche called “the herd instinct”.

Politics, advertising, brainwashing and indoctrination - information about how society operates “which could, I believe, transform us - transform our lives and how we view ourselves.”

“We have now reached the stage where a political leader not only uses, skilfully, time-honoured rabble-rousing tricks (see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) but employs experts to make it all the more effective. But the antidote is that, in an open society, we may also examine these tricks being used on us. If, that is, we choose to examine them, if we don’t switch off to see Dallas, or whatever, instead.”

Part 4: Group Minds

We may be subject to pressures that make us considerably less individual, and free, than we would like to imagine. And this imaginary picture of ourselves makes us more vulnerable and less likely ever to achieve true freedom.

“But is it possible that all the bad things going on (and I don’t have to list them, for we all know what they are) are a reaction, a dragging undertow to a forward movement in the human social evolution that we can’t easily see? Perhaps looking back, let’s say in a century, or in two centuries, is it possible they will say ‘that was a time when extremes battled for supremacy. The human mind was developing very fast in the direction of self-knowledge, self-command. And as always happens, as always has to happen, this thrust forward aroused its opposite: the forces of stupidity, brutality, mob-thinking’? I think it possible. I think this is what is happening.”