Learning to obey

July 11, 2023

We spend our lives controlled by institutions: family, school, college, work, government, law enforcement and others. The imposing nature of these institutions endows them with a solemnity and honor that is solidly formed in the minds of the individual. The assumption is that these institutions provide a suitable framework for the various needs and desires of those that must exist within them. How else could children be raised but in the family? How else can we be educated except in schools and colleges? You have to work to eat, right? Where would we be without the rule of law, enforced on the streets by the police?

These powerful forces of social control are questioned at the peril of the individual. Society is much more willing to punish, reform, expel or eliminate those who will not integrate themselves into these institutions than to question the nature of institutions that demand obedience. These institutions enable the categorization of people, and these categories are internalized as identities to be assumed. This has allowed the creation of the ideal of the tax paying, hard working, law abiding citizen. This fiction of the ideal citizen enables the creation of groups who are a threat to this harmony, and must be controlled and reformed: the welfare mother, the criminal, the immigrant, the sexual deviant.

Perhaps it is vestiges of the belief in a transcendental command that directs the organization of social life. That somewhere — whether in religion, or nature, or biology, or psychology — there is a fundamental purpose in being that can be rediscovered and that we can, after a period of pain and struggle, reconcile ourselves to. In this narrative, social institutions provide the framework that can integrate the messy and competing impulses of life into a unified whole. When individuals deviate from the norms of these institutions they must be forcibly reintegrated, or else face the pain of exile.

The religious impulse of our politics should be evident. Fallen from our natural state of harmony, we must discipline ourselves and others so that we may someday regain perfection.