When I watched Shawshank Redemption for the first time, I was struck, among other things, by a conversation among the prison inmates. It is when Red explains that old Brooks, a long-term prisoner, resorted to violence on being granted parole because he was “institutionalised.” He then elaborates on the psychological effect of imprisonment on those who have been jailed for decades together, but what made a strong impression on me was the apparent connection between ‘institutionalisation’ and incarceration. Is every institution a kind of prison-house, I wondered.
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Once you recognise the process of degeneration that sets in with institutionalisation, you can apply the same principle to evaluate any of the powerful social institutions that exist today. For instance, the highest aspirations of intellectual curiosity and the liberal pursuit of knowledge have been converted into the degree-producing education system that we are saddled with today. Or, think of how the law, with its bureaucratic judicial system and ridiculous loopholes, has come to represent the more abstract ideal of Universal Justice. Every institution is, in fact a huge grinding system that works by simplifying emotions into conventional expressions, ideas into procedures and inspiration into habit. Once reduced to such an unimaginative and impersonal set of rules, rituals and formats, every ideal becomes a shadow of itself. The practical advantage of this, however, is that all those who cannot be convinced of ideas can be conditioned and disciplined into following conventions. A major share of humanity, unfortunately, falls under the category of those impervious to ideals, and this is where the idea of ‘organised social behaviour’ comes into play. Institutions are super-efficient, self-sustaining engines that can be run with minimal effort and zero imagination.