Institutionalized Violence Vs. What We’ve Been Conditioned To Fear
I suppose we are genetically hardwired to fear the attack of a predatory animal. And from there, it is really no great distance for us to fear the attack of a stranger, a human who means us no good. But as humans evolved and created ever more complex societies, they created a new kind of danger to us humans, not the individual predator but the institutions that are used to keep others in line and obedient, the kind of structures and systems that permit one group of people to rule over another.
Biologically speaking, we have not had time to fully develop an instinctual revulsion of such situations. While early adapters have been aware of them for millennia, most of haven’t yet caught up. We fear what lurks in the shadows, the wild animal or the savage man. When it comes to fearing the threat posed by civilization itself, it does not trigger a fight or flee action but instead sits in our guts, causing prolonged stress and neuroses, ruining our lives because we are not aware enough to fight against it. But the greater threats we humans face nowadays are not from attacks by individual animals or humans, but by the very systems of a society we cannot help but belong to.
Too often, the very social structures that seek to rule over us and determine our lives use our primary fear of the lone madman, the violent beast that lurks outside our home, against us.
From the very first lines of my first novel, The Amazing Morse, it is apparent that I have a greater fear of institutionalized violence than I do violent individuals. Here then, is the beginning of The Amazing Morse, an introspection on the fear so many of us fear, consciously or no, of stepping out of line and suffering the power of institutionalized and impersonal violence:
David Morse stared at the book in front of him with a mixture of fascination and fear. It was not the sort of thing that would be of interest to most people, would not even have held his attention on an average workday. But it was a Friday afternoon, a slow ending to an otherwise hectic workweek. And so he allowed his mind to wander over the Folger Adam Security Hardware Catalog, a collection of items intended for use in institutions and prisons. He gazed at pictures of heavy iron hinges built for use on bullet-proof prison doors, at a door slot that allowed food trays to be passed from guard to prisoner, at steel stools attached to steel tables where prisoners were to sit a prescribed distance from their dinner. From these individual items, he constructed within his mind the kind of prison that so many humans called home. A prison cell arranged itself around him, formed from his imagination and his deep-seated fears. A world of gray impenetrability, where every movement was controlled. Such hardware lacked utterly any consideration for color or style or anything that might speak to the humanity of those who lived in such confinement. Their cold metal exteriors were merely meant to be functional. Or perhaps their utilitarian design was intended to convey a message, one of cold indifference to the humans they were meant to contain. Each item was made to erase freewill, to make otherwise unwilling individuals conform to the mechanization of society.
To be sure, there were certain people in the world who could not be controlled in any other way. That there were people capable of killing without remorse was something television was always ready to remind him of, whether through detective dramas, real-life crime shows, or the ever-sensationalistic nightly news. But the institutionalization of such inhumanity scared him more than the individuals it was meant to contain. The criminals and murderers behind these bars were still flesh and blood. In some manner, there was still hope that they might possibly be reached, swayed, appeased. Not so the indifferent metal. It stood between humans and freedom like an immutable law of physics, the first corollary being that bars of steel were stronger than flesh, stronger than bone, stronger perhaps even than the human spirit.
For the moment, the walls of the office cubicle that surrounded him were less real than the prison walls he had conjured in his head. He had long had a fear — perhaps even a terror — of confinement, and he began to feel this fear take control of him. He shuddered as he wondered what would lead a person to such a place where words like choice, freedom, trust, and kindness had no meaning. And then he thought of the Nelson Mandelas of the world, those who had willingly endured such environments, people who had such a love for freedom that they were willing to sacrifice their own for the sake of other’s. Surely prison must be even more dreadful for such gentle and developed souls. He could not imagine having the kind of strength needed to make such sacrifice. Neither could he understand the weakness of character that would lead others to such a place. What crime would be so compelling as to risk such an existence?
Then his mind returned to the project on which he had been working. The bid wasn’t for a prison or mental institution, it was for a recreation department building in some God-forsaken area of Chicago’s inner city. It was the kind of place that people like him — people who went to college and worked in offices — were fortunate enough never to see. The specifications called for such high security applications that it was in violation of numerous safety and fire codes. Some people are born into prisons, he thought. Some people never know any other kind of existence than the ugly and the brutal.