How we collaborate in our own enslavement (and how to stop)

Photo by Jesse Martini on Unsplash

Imagine being a prisoner, and over time your incarcerator begins to refer to you as a “guest.” And they treat you nicely, like they would a guest, within certain bounds (e.g., you can’t leave). After a while, you begin to feel better about your situation by embracing this “guest” narrative. You think and talk about your relationship with your incarcerator as a “my hosts” instead of thinking of them as “prison guards.”

You know, deep down, that there are certain things you cannot do, and which would be over-ruled by the guards, but instead of thinking of it that way, you prefer to think that you are acting in “partnership” rather than “obedience.” You might even begin to assist your “host” in their “hosting duties,” making their job easier. Your occupier might even offer a heroic narrative for you to embrace about how your own work to help them keep you incarcerated, which you are prone to swallow and follow in your susceptible mental state.

You find the “guest-host” storyline to be much preferable to thinking of yourself as a prisoner. Visitors to the prison, having a broader view of your situation, would be surprised to hear your take on the situation, and how far it skews from reality…but you would dismiss them if they tried to explain it to you. “Oh come on,” you might say, “that isn’t true because…[some BS reason you tell yourself],” or tell them to “stop being so negative.” You might even lash out at them, “shoot the messenger,” and so on.

This is a very real example of the psychology of domination…call it brainwashing, propaganda, “Stockholm Syndrome,” or whatever you like.

The same analogous situation plays out in virtually all aspects of our lives. This is how an occupied nation can come to think of themselves as “allied with,” as opposed to “occupied by,” their occupiers. It is how people with no genuine input in their government nevertheless think of themselves as “free people” or having a “democracy.” It is how impoverished people come to accept the property claims and rationale of rich people. And so on.

Sure, there are always some who don’t follow the narrative. There are poor people who don’t respect the property and status claims of the rich, and they are handled by the police. There are people who speak out and criticize their government’s abuses of power and repression, but who are smeared, shamed, and/or marginalized by mass media machines that are aligned with their dominators’ interests. And there are countries who don’t follow the wishes of the dominant empire, who are sanctioned, embargoed, blocked from trade deals, isolated, destabilized, subjected to propaganda, coups, and military “interventions” ranging from targeted bombing campaigns to full scale invasions, and so on.

After a while, those who buy in to their dominators’ narratives do not even realize that they are living under a fantasy that serves to facilitate their own domination. “Ignorance is bliss,” or so they say. It is better to “accept one’s situation” or “lot in life” than to try and fight against the prevailing forces that shape their lives. “Just grow up, be an adult,” they might say. “Stop complaining,” “get a job,” etc., is what they tell young people to condition them for a life of servitude. For these people, it is much better to think of themselves as part of the narrative, buying into it, going along with the fantasy that eventually consumes all meaning for their lives. These are NOT “free” people, they don’t even know what it means to be free (and their overlords prefer that they never get a taste of true freedom).

How does one find out if they have been brainwashed in this way? It is actually very simple: If you are the prisoner…stand up and try to walk out of the prison, and see what happens. If you are the occupied nation, try to go against the will of your occupier in an important affair, and see what happens. In general, think of the constraints on your life choices and freedoms that effectively keep you from doing certain things. And think about the excuses that you make for yourself, how you think about NOT doing those things, but which covers up the fact that you are not free. Search yourself, and you will find out that you are, in fact, a slave.

We are all slaves, to some extent. Simply knowing that you are a slave will not free you from your bondage. However, it will allow you to think more clearly about your situation, and put your life in its proper perspective. If there is nothing to be done about it, so be it. But you can at least accept reality, and know that you have made certain conscious, open, and honest decisions in light of your circumstances. You will have broadened your mind and learned something valuable, which will allow you to see and understand the world as it truly is…outside of the narrative bubbles that are our self-perpetuated prison cells.




Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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John Hernlund

John Hernlund

Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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