The myth of the institution is that it exists to serve the needs of the individual person — the unpleasant truth behind the myth is that it exists to serve the needs of the institutionalized person, which is to say, the person as they have been recreated or reconstructed by that institution. This is a sneaky trick, therefore — the system transforms us, via the process of institutionalization, into its own version of us (a version which is ‘a reflection of itself’) and then once this has taken place, it takes care of our needs in an efficient and methodical fashion. What’s really going on here is that the institution is ‘serving itself’, only it’s doing this in a disguised fashion.
This is true for all institutions across the board — first the institution creates us in its own image, and then it bestows its blessings (such as they are) upon us. Only when we have been brought into line, do we deserve the benevolence of the system. As the Cathars of old observed, all institutions are inherently malign. Observations like this did not endear the Cathar religion to the institution of the mediaeval church, naturally enough, and This is why the Church put so much effort into eliminating every last trace of Catharism, which it did with extreme brutality by instigating a special crusade against the Cathar strongholds in southern France. The Albigensian crusade, of course, did little to disprove the Cathar’s thesis that the established Church (which claimed, as it still does, to be the sole representative of the will of God on earth) is actually the perfect antithesis of what it claims to be. Foul is disguised as fair, which is ever the way in fairy stories, as it is in real life.
On the face of it the institution exists to serve the good of all — secretly, however — it exists purely for itself and this is the origin of its limitless malignancy. The malignancy of the institution (which by its mode of functioning transforms unique human beings into mere things, mere numbers, mere tokens of humanity) might be limitless but it is also very well disguised, as we have said. As a result, when news leaks out — as it does quite frequently — regarding cases of institutions found guilty of cruelly mistreating the very people they are supposed to be caring for, this is inevitably written off as an anomaly, as an exception to the rule. And as far as the 'Great Institution' of society is concerned, we never (or extremely rarely) come close to seeing this; we might complain about society (since it feels good to blame the authorities for whatever has gone wrong since they should have done something about it) but we never spot what’s really going on. We never smell a rat, even though the rat is very much in evidence (and not lacking in odour, either).
There can hardly be any doubts that the institution of society does condition us (how could it not?) but the point we’re making here is that when it ‘conditions’ us what it’s actually doing is recreating us in its own image. It’s as simple as this. Society is like a controlling parent in that it rewards us for having the behaviours and views that it values and punishes us for not having them. In this way, a carbon copy of the original is created — a faithful duplicate of what we started off with. What’s malign about this is of course that the socialisation process involves the denial of who we actually are, the brutal repression of who we are. The denial or repression of our true nature causes us suffering — ‘The most common cause of suffering is not being who you are’, says Kierkegaard, and the system is then able to utilize this suffering (which is to say, our need to avoid it or pass it on to others) in order to run its machinery. This is what runs the whole thing.
It’s not as if we know when we’ve been conditioned, when we’ve been moulded. Of course we don’t — on the contrary, we generally experience great loyalty to the identity that we have been provided with. “Yes — this is me!” we say proudly, “this is what I’m all about.” Such is the conditioned sense of identity! The sense of impassioned loyalty is immensely strong — if I am arbitrarily identified with a particular social group (a nationality, for example) and you come along and flagrantly insult that group then I am likely to become angry, which is of course utterly absurd — if only we could see it. For me to see that the identity to which I feel such allegiance is no more than a random label that I become absurdly attached to, an alien implant which is being used to prevent me from having any connection with my actual innate nature, would constitute something of a miracle therefore — in the normal run of things, it’s just never going to happen!
In the conditioned state of being we are saddled with a source of suffering which is entirely invisible to us; we are flatly unable to see it where it belongs and — instead — we encounter it in refracted form, in all the places where it doesn’t belong. We can’t see the pain where it belongs because ‘the lie is too big’, so to speak; we’re not going to suspect that ‘the problem is ourselves’, after all — the mechanism of pain displacement means that the enemy always has to be somewhere else. When we don’t deal with the problem ‘where it is’ then we are condemned to be perpetually caught up in a never-ending series of perfectly futile attempts to solve all the dummy problems, all the surrogate problems that are coming our way. This sounds like a disaster (which it absolutely is for us) but from the point of view of the system managing us things couldn’t be better; from the system’s POV this is the ideal situation — we’re kept busy, and we’re also kept looking in the wrong direction…
The pain of having our actual nature repressed and replaced with something utterly banal, something utterly generic, is not generally apparent. Often it doesn’t impinge on us at all. But even though we’re not feeling any actual pain (even though we don’t know that we’re suffering) we are — we are leading vastly impoverished and inauthentic lives and even though we’re totally convinced that ‘this is how things are supposed to be’, it isn’t. That’s the illusion. Everything in this situation happens beneath the threshold of consciousness, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening — it’s just happening without us being aware of it, that’s all. There is pain in our situation but it’s being managed, it’s being dealt with via unconscious mechanisms…
One way in which we distract ourselves from our impoverished (or inauthentic) situation is via entertainment and we are given plenty of that. It’s no exaggeration to say that our modern way of life runs on entertainment, depends on entertainment — as time goes on there is less and less real life and more and more distraction, and this insidious process is rapidly accelerating. Another way in which we can ‘get by’ is by displacing our pain onto others whilst contriving at the same time not to be aware that this is what we’re doing. The social system offers us the opportunity to climb the power / status hierarchy — if we are able to — and this means that we get to crap on people rather than being crapped on (so to speak). This is the principle by which humanity has organised itself throughout the millennia — this is the archetypal ‘Social Game. Essentially, we pass on our legitimate pain to those below us in the hierarchy and we do this by judging them, by disrespecting them, by treating them as inferiors.
This pain-displacement mechanism wouldn’t work if we didn’t buy into it however — it’s not enough that we are treated as inferiors by those above us in the power hierarchy, we have to see ourselves as inferiors too. We have to buy into it, we have to join in with the game. This — again — is simply ‘how the system works’ — by each one of us accepting our place in the scheme of things. The same principle can be seen at work in abusive relationships where the abuser doesn’t just say degrading things to the person being abused but — rather — they get them to believe it too. We are presented with a degraded, contemptible image of ourselves and we are induced to accept it, we are induced to ‘take it on’, and this is how the mechanism of pain displacement works.
In terms of the classic societal Power Pyramid, we can say that the internalisation of this model, of this scheme of things, means that when we’re at the top of the pyramid we have respect for ourselves (just as everyone below us does), and when we’re at the bottom or base level we disrespect ourselves just as everyone above us disrespects us. Thus, we can say that the whole system is designed to facilitate pain-displacement; this doesn’t work so well for those of us at the bottom of the hierarchy, but we don’t care about that. Even if we’re right at the bottom of the pile we don’t see anything wrong with this scheme since we’re so focused on moving up the ladder (which is of course the key mechanism involved in maintaining stability in a capitalist society). We don’t mind being crapped on (or exploited) by billionaires because one day we hope to be a billionaire too!
Just as long as we are in Unconscious Mode then we’re going to refrain from ever looking under the surface (either of society or ourselves) — that is the only way the system can keep working, after all, and we are very much committed to that system continuing to work. We are dependent upon the system and so we’re also dependent on ‘not seeing the system for what it is’. We don’t want to see what the real cause of our problems are, in other words — we absolutely don’t want to know that, and we don’t want to know that we don’t want to know, either. We put on this big act of being interested in the truth! We put on such a good act that we even fool ourselves (for some of the time, at least), but the bottom line is that our entire way of life is predicated upon not ever seeing the truth. It hangs on us not seeing the truth. And the icing on the cake (the ‘cake of denial’) is of course our collective approach to mental health.
If our entire way of life hangs on not seeing the truth then obviously our approach to psychological therapy isn’t going to be any different. What we call ‘psychological therapy’ is an extension of our rational-purposeful culture, in other words. This is more than clear from the language we use — we talk about beating this or beating that, managing this or managing that, regulating this or regulating that. What this shows is that we are (although we will never admit it) trying to help people by giving them new ways of ignoring (or turning their backs on) their own emotional pain. If we were genuinely interested in seeing the truth then we wouldn’t have to struggle, we wouldn’t have to control or manage stuff. We don’t become free through our purposeful striving, if we may paraphrase Krishnamurti, but through our willingness to see the truth. This is a willingness that we simple don’t have — either on a societal or individual level. As individuals we do have the possibility of being interested in the truth, but when it comes to the collective, this is never going to be the case. Society is the enemy here therefore because when we become sick as a result of our lack of connection to the truth, the mental health industries are going to compound the problem rather than support us.
Pain-displacement is all we know - this is the only tactic open to us in the mechanical realm. We either pass it onto others — which we do quite automatically — or we try to bury it in ourselves (we repress it, in other words). We can’t (in the world of mental health care) legitimise passing pain onto others, but we can (and do) legitimise repressing it, although we wouldn’t use that word. Instead, we talk about ‘distraction techniques’, or ways of ‘managing emotional pain’. What is called ‘self-soothing’ is all about repressing our own legitimate mental pain, and so are therapies such as DBT — we don’t want to look into the pain, we want to bury it, we want to pretend that it isn’t there. We want to ‘keep up the façade’. These self-calming or self-soothing therapies are just another way of not listening to ourselves, therefore; we are numbing ourselves and pretending that this has some sort of scientific basis! And ‘the icing on top of the icing’ is that when the therapies we endorse as professionals don’t work (which they can’t do) then we as therapists pass this pain back onto our clients, “Well,” we say (washing our hands in an act of unconscious victim-blaming) “we gave them the tools so it’s up to them if they want to use them or not…”