We’re all prisoners, and we’re also the guards
Back in September 1966, filming began on what was to become one of the most iconic TV shows of the period: The Prisoner. Starring actor Patrick McGoohan as the nameless prisoner (he’s only ever referred to as “Number Six”), the show captured 60s zeitgeist from its pop-art costumes to its core theme: the inherent conflict between the desires of the individual and the accepted moeurs of society.
In the show, Number Six is a former British Intelligence operative who, for reasons we’re never privy to, resigns and is then drugged and kidnapped. He awakes, seemingly in his bedroom but in fact on an island (or an isthmus; the ambiguity is never resolved) that contains a population of former spies and informants, all contained with in The Village from which escape turns out to be impossible.
(For anyone unfamiliar with the show, this link will take you to Episode One: Arrival)
Number Six represents the individual battling to maintain his identity and core values against the demands of society, as represented by his unknown captors who are instantiated by a series of replaceable Number Twos. The other inhabitants of The Village are largely depicted as passive burned-out husks who doubtless ceded their individuality in return for continued life and a tranquil existence within its confines.
While the show is tremendously good fun and a superb encapsulation of a time in which an entire generation emerged from the conformity of the preceding decade, it nevertheless fails as social commentary for mostly the same reasons that 60s radicals failed to achieve the social changes they sought.
In The Prisoner, “the man” is in charge. “The man” is faceless, unreachable, seemingly omnipotent. It’s a conspiracy-theorist’s view of the world.
As such, it’s hopelessly unrealistic.
Even the most powerful king or emperor discovered sooner or later that ordinary human incompetence, competing objectives, internal politics, and a whole host of other factors mean that there’s never anyone who’s absolutely “in charge.” Even kings and emperors just try to muddle through as best as possible. When it comes to systems of governance wherein politicians compete for votes, the situation is even less coherent as they fluster and flail in their attempts to determine which course of action is likely to result in the most votes next time around.
So how do societies maintain their norms over extended periods of time? Why do we as individuals feel real pressure to conform?
For nearly all of our evolutionary history, we’ve lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. As we lack powerful muscles, are not particularly fast or agile, and have neither sharp claws nor teeth, we’ve depended on being part of a group for our survival. Even today with all our technological sophistication we still depend on groups. It’s just that today these groups are larger and often anonymous.
Uncle Leroy, who proudly imagines himself to be independent and beholden to no one, relies absolutely on the group of workers who collectively ensure he receives insulin he needs to treat the Type II diabetes that’s a consequence of his obesity. He relies on another unknown group of people to supply his local petrol station with the fuel he needs to keep his SUV going. And he relies on the efforts of thousands of people he’ll never know to ensure that his weekly trips to the supermarket result in him driving home with everything he needs. These are just a few of the many groups “independent” Uncle Leroy depends on absolutely for his continued existence.
Meanwhile Uncle Leroy wouldn’t dream of contradicting his pastor, who tells him that abortion is an offense against his god. Nor does he question anything he hears on Fox News. His only complaint is that liberals and dark-skinned folk don’t know their place any more, and he’s sure he’s right because all his friends say the same thing. In other words, Uncle Leroy is conforming to the norms of his “tribe” and will defend those norms to the best of his ability whenever they come under threat.
The Prisoner would have been more realistic if it had shown how powerfully ordinary people strive to maintain group norms often even while being unaware that they are doing so. In only one episode, called, A Change Of Mind, does the series even touch on the matter of group-enforced conformity and even then it’s always apparent the group is acting on the orders of Number Two.
Stuck thus in the erroneous conviction that “the man” is somehow controlling everything and that there’s a Grand Plan in operation, The Prisoner turns its wheels with great fury but never really gets anywhere.
One could argue that the same phenomenon of much sound and fury yet little action of significance is true of a great many contemporary social postures.
Whenever we abstract something we receive an odd sort of comfort in the idea that we’ve “identified” the cause of our discontent, but it comes at the price of disempowering us. If we believe “the man” is, like the Wizard of Oz, operating all the levers from an unassailable position of power then we’re helpless to create change for the better. All we can do is moan and whine, passive victims of a force too great to contend with. We disempower ourselves automatically by taking this stance.
People who wish to affect change, however, address specific problems. They don’t hide behind complaints about some amorphous undefined force. They state the problem concisely and they take action to remedy it. Emmeline Pankhurst didn’t sit comfortably on a sofa complaining endlessly about “the Patriarchy.” She believed that women should have the same right to vote as men, and she campaigned tirelessly for this right, which in Britain was eventually granted in 1928. Rosa Parks didn’t satisfy herself by complaining generically about US racism; she simply insisted on her right to sit on a bus regardless of the nominal seat designation.
These two women, and a great many other social reformers, identified specific wrongs and set out to address them. They set themselves achievable goals instead of idly complaining about vague abstractions.
This is an important lesson, but there’s more.
What’s largely missing from history is the fact that Pankhurst and Parks and so many others who took action in the face of wrong-headed social norms were strongly criticized by the people around them.
History whitewashes the fact that the strongest resistance to change came not from “the man” but from ordinary people who were scandalized and outraged that group norms were being violated. Many women attacked Pankhurst for her “unnatural” ambitions and not a few African-Americans likewise criticized Parks and Martin Luther King for creating unnecessary antagonisms.
Wherever we see injustice, we see ordinary decent people believing that such things are necessary and normal. Whenever we see someone trying to stand up against injustice, we see ordinary decent people attacking them with great ferocity. The reason that repellent creatures such as Stalin and Mao and PolPot and Hitler and Trump succeed is because ordinary decent people fall into line behind them and thereafter enforce group norms with assiduity.
We are thus captives of social norms and the guardians of those very same norms. We imagine they are inevitable because most of us have never lived anywhere that has significantly different norms. If we do travel, we regard foreign ways as “quaint” but inapplicable to us. We are prisoners inside our own patterns of behavior.
Real life is highly complex. Our “leaders” are usually adept only at crowd-pleasing and have limited intellectual capacity; therefore they deal with new situations by trying to determine what will result in the most votes, not by trying to determine what may actually be best for the society they supposedly serve.
So the next time we feel eager to enforce a group norm on someone who’s not conforming, we perhaps ought to pause and consider whether this hardwired behavior is in fact in anyone’s best interest.
Because for much of the time, despite all the stories and all the media sensationalism created to justify the particular group norm that we see being flouted by a lone individual, the group norm may well be harmful and by seeking to enforce it we are ourselves causing more harm.