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Preserving Autonomy Under Mass Peer Pressure
Honors History 102
April 23, 1990
Fyodor Dostoevsky and Bruno Bettelheim are two intellectuals of the last on hundred and ten years who have focused on the nature of freedom and autonomy. Both seem to agree that mass society has been detrimental to the individual and can destroy a person's freedom and autonomy. However, these two men disagree on the proper human attitude towards this condition. Dostoevsky believes people want this condition, while Bettelheim thinks that, when people lose all freedom, they stop wanting to live. I believe that Dostoevsky's observations are more relevant to modern society but that Bettelheim's recommendations are more applicable to society in general.
Dostoevsky's views are based upon his observations of the Russian Orthodox Church specifically, and all institutionalized religion in general. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky portrays humans as striving for freedom, but, as the editors of Classics of Western Thought put it, they "fear and reject it in favor of the ease and security of obedience to authority." He states that humans are anguished and tormented by "the gift of freedom." They want to find someone to whom they can give that gift so that they can "[rejoice] that they [are] again led like sheep." Complete obedience to authority is what the average person craves.
Bettelheim draws his ideas on autonomy and mass society from his personal experiences in two Nazi concentration camps. In The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, he describes how the Nazis tried to destroy all of the autonomy and freedom each prisoner possessed. Bettelheim states that when the Nazis were successful in doing this, the prisoner lost all will to live and soon died. Prisoners wanted to remain "alive and unchanged," that is, remain the same people they were when they entered the camp throughout their experience there. The Nazis tried to destroy each person by destroying his or her personality and values. Because of this, the prisoners hated the camps.
Both men agree that mass society causes the loss of autonomy and freedom, even though each uses very different examples to illustrate this. Dostoevsky's is the Russian Orthodox Church and Bettelheim's is the Nazi concentration camps. Dostoevsky sees people as freely giving up their freedom in favor of security. Bettelheim sees freedom and autonomy as those forces in human beings that keeps them alive and striving to maintain "basic attitudes." Under the different circumstances on which their observations are based, each thinker is right. However, Bettelheim's observations are based on a very extreme example of forced mass society and do not have much bearing on society in general. Dostoevsky realizes that people were freely giving away their freedom, not fighting to protect it. His views are even more important in today's information age.
Both men have different recommendations for the preservation of autonomy in a mass society. Their differences stem from the fact that each is drawing his example from a different segment of society. Dostoevsky is primarily dealing with religious issues. He believes that institutionalized religion destroys the freedom that Christ has given to mankind. To keep one's autonomy and freedom, each person must listen to the teachings of Jesus and choose for himself what they mean to him. People must bypass the Church and seek Jesus and his message directly. This recommendation is good only when dealing with institutions and cannot be applied to society as a whole.
Bettelheim's formula for keeping autonomy and freedom is more general, even though it grew out of a specific and extreme situation. He states the necessity "to carve out . . . some areas of freedom of action and freedom of thought." A person must define some spheres of his or her life that he or she has control over. Without this, the environment's influence over the individual becomes complete and the individual eventually loses the will to live. When this happens, death soon follows. Bettelheim's advice can be applied to all segments of society.
Keeping individuality intact in the mass society of the twentieth century is a goal that all people should work towards. With the invention of television and radio and the advent of mass publications, the influence possessed by mass society has increased and it has become harder for people to keep their individuality. It seems to me that the average person is not concerned by this loss. This needs to change. It has been at the initiative of great individuals that great discoveries have been made, great works have been written, and great inventions have been created. The United States was built on the work and strength of the masses as well as the innovations of great men and women. Both Dostoevsky and Bettelheim realized the dangers of conformity to mass society and they tried to show people how they could escape this trap. I believe that Dostoevsky's observations are more important because he realized that men and women are willing to give up their autonomy and freedom in return for guidance and authority. Bettelheim, however, gives recommendations that can be applied to all of society. Both men became concerned that people were not thinking for themselves and I believe their concern was justified.