Dehumanization: The Total Institution (Produced in the mid-1960s)

An educational short describing a place of work and/or residence where individuals are separated from the broader community, leading to an isolated and formally administered way of life. (Run time 13:48)

(Posted May 19, 2010)

Ralph Spy: Hello? Ralph Spy speaking. Oh, hello Chief. Ah yes, right away, Chief.

Chief: Spy, we've got a problem. DE is on the rampage.

Ralph Spy: DE?

Chief: DE!

Ralph Spy: You mean "may"!

Chief: Here this is a checklist from Central Intelligence on DE.

Ralph Spy: Hmm, looks like "Ed"...

Chief: Spy, that's upside down.

Ralph Spy: Sorry, chief. Oh yes, DE, hmm, the International degrading of words, in the words meaning less than... What's that got to do with me, Chief?

Chief: They've started on a really good word - "humanization".

Ralph Spy: You mean they've add a DE to that?

Chief: They've added DE to humanization.

Ralph Spy: Where?

Chief: In front of it, and now we've got to find out how and, most important, why.

Ralph Spy: Anything to go on, Chief?

Chief: Not any more than it's been going on for a long time.

Ralph Spy: I'll be alone?

Chief: No Spy, get Invisible Agent Five to help you.

Ralph Spy: Aww, chief!

Chief: I said get A5.

A5: You need help again, Spy?

Chief: A5, help Spy with this one. I know you've been interested in this for a long time.

A5: Thanks Chief, this is a problem that needs better understanding. I'd be glad to help.

Chief: A5, thanks.

Ralph Spy: Chief, I'm sure I can handle this alone.

Chief: A5, please?

A5: DE, the arch enemy of human dignity.

A5: Ralph Spy, quick at pointing out a problem but not always reasoning why.

A5: The Chief. He's not satisfied just to fix blame, but must first find the cause.

A5: Invisible Agent 5. That's me. I'm never seen, but my power of reasoning influences all decisions.

Ralph Spy: A5, I think this is a ridiculous place to start the investigation.

A5: Quick, Spy, look to your left.

Policeman: [shouting] Look, I told you not to go back, what you gonna do 'bout that!

Ralph Spy: It looks like DE has infiltrated the police force.

A5: Spy, take a look at this.

Ralph Spy: Wowee!

Boss: [yelling]

Employee: Well!

Ralph Spy: DE has gotten into management!

A5: Spy, it isn't just the police or management. We've all been exposed to DE, but we have the opportunity to yell back, laugh at, ignore, or walk away from DE, but in a controlled community this isn't possible.

Ralph Spy: Wait 'til the chief hears about this... controlled communities... Controlled communities?

A5: Controlled communities are total institutions.

Ralph Spy: Aha, total institutions, wonderful! What are total institutions?

A5: You'll understand it better if we take a look at a few total institutions. Let's start with the military.

Ralph Spy: DE is in the military? Why would DE try to infiltrate the military, A5?

A5: Because, Spy, it's one of the easiest places for him to operate. The military is for the most part a total institution.

Ralph Spy: What makes a total institution?

A5: A total institution is a closed world like this army camp, a ship at sea, or a hospital, where the total living experience is within the institutional boundaries.

Ralph Spy: Hmm, that's probably why they have this fence around the camp, A5. Now I understand total institutions.

A5: That's just part of it, Spy. Another feature of a total institution is that a large group is governed by a smaller group who is in authority.

Ralph Spy: You mean like the officers in charge here?

A5: Yes, Spy.

Ralph Spy: But where does DE fit in?

A5: Well let's watch this typical recruit and see.

Ralph Spy: Hmm...

A5: This is a new recruit. Up to the time of his induction he lived a normal civilian life with all the freedom that goes with it. But upon entering the army he becomes more or less just one of a group. He's dressed as a group and treated as a group.

Sergeant: All right, you meat heads... ten hut! Right face... about face... forward march... hut hut hee ho, hut hut hee ho.

A5: The recruit works, eats and sleeps, in a controlled community and is so regimented that he begins to feel less like an individual and more like just one of the batch. That's one of the ways DE is slowly creeping in.

Ralph Spy: I'm beginning to see, A5. This is a vicious plot to dehumanize the American fighting man.

A5: Not quite, Spy, the Army has a rationale or special purpose for setting up the rules and procedures they follow.

Ralph Spy: Yes, to dehumanize the individual.

A5: No, the rationale of the Army is to make soldiers out of a large group of young men in the fastest, easiest way they can. Now, whether they could do it another way may be a legitimate question.

Ralph Spy: Yes and I would like to ask it.

A5: Before you do, let's take a look at another total institution, the prison system.

Ralph Spy: You mean...

A5: Yes, DE is at work in the prisons.

Ralph Spy: Does DE operate in prisons like in the Army?

A5: Yes, in many ways. A person enters a prison because of some crime of his against society, for 2 years, 10 years, 50 years, maybe even for life. He enters as an individual, but soon becomes just one of a total group of inmates that make up the institution. This large group of inmates is in turn governed by a small group of guards and a warden who sets up the rules the inmates are to live by. In the prison files, he has a number instead of a name. His working, eating, sleeping and recreation are a never-changing routine that makes him feel more like a human robot than a human being.

Ralph Spy: Aha, this is where DE comes in.

A5: Well, yes. Through this whole process of rules and regulations, DE tends to make the inmate feel less than an individual.

Ralph Spy: Let's do away with the rules and regulations.

A5: There's nothing wrong with rules regulations, but we should examine them and see if they are accomplishing what we intended them to accomplish. In the case of the prison, the rules are supposed to help make a bad guy into a good guy.

Ralph Spy: Hmm, A5 are there any more total institutions?

A5: Yes let's take a look at the hospitals for the mentally ill and mentally retarded and make a study of the total institution and DE.

Ralph Spy: A5, it's two o'clock, why the ringing bell?

A5: There must be a reason for it.

Ralph Spy: Pardon me, doctor, but that bell - why is it ringing?

Doctor: It always rings at this time.

Ralph Spy: Why?

Doctor: Because... you know, I've never thought about that.

Ralph Spy: Very interesting, doctor. Thank you.

A5: Spy, this is a good example of how practices can be built into total institutions. They're perpetuated, even if no one knows why.

Ralph Spy: You mean that there probably isn't a reason for that bell to ring?

A5: I'm afraid that's it.

Ralph Spy: Nurse, why are these doors locked?

Nurse: Three months ago, a patient tried to escape.

Ralph Spy: So you locked everyone's room because of what one person did three months ago?

Nurse: Yes, but it's for their own good.

Ralph Spy: What'd she mean, for their own good?

A5: The rationale of mental hospitals is treatment, therefore anything that happens to patients can be interpreted as treatment, thus for their own good.

Ralph Spy: Some treatment! Hello ma'am, may I ask what you're doing?

Hospital Administrator: Yes, you may.

Ralph Spy: What are you doing?

Hospital Administrator: It's an annual check we give patients and this is the last of four units to be processed.

Ralph Spy: A5, I'd call that DE grading an individual into thinking he's a part of a unit.

A5: Spy, a unit is a term used not to degrade but to aid in handling groups of individuals. No one degrades or dehumanizes anyone deliberately or just to be mean. It usually comes about because of the way a system is set up or because circumstances make it seem the right thing to do.

Ralph Spy: Ma'am where are these people going from here?

Hospital Administrator: They will be going to industrial therapy.

Ralph Spy: Hmm, washing clothes, A5. Can DE work in here, too?

A5: Yes, Spy, DE can work here and that's why there's a need to examine the working conditions and employees benefits to see if they're the kind you and I would like to work under.

Ralph Spy: What kind of benefits? Name one.

A5: Coffee break, vacations, bonuses, pay, incentive plans...

Ralph Spy: Okay, okay, that's fine,

A5: Let's take a look at that list the chief gave you about mental hospitals and discuss it.

Ralph Spy: Just the thing I was going to say myself,

A5: Spy, it's in your inside coat pocket.

Ralph Spy: I'll find it A5, I think it's in my inside coat pocket. Yes, here it is. Is the patient required to sleep, work, and play in a restricted number of places, or does he have relative freedom of movement?

A5: Spy, remember we talked about this happening in the prisons. You can see now this would limit a choice of companions as well as other choices.

Ralph Spy: Is this necessary?

A5: Well, let's say it's an easier way of handling people and knowing where they are, or should be. How many specific arrangements are dictated simply by the need to regulate many by few?

Ralph Spy: Oh boy, this reminds me of the Chief back at the office.

A5: What would happen if the Chief didn't dictate and regulate everyone's time?

Ralph Spy: I've often wondered about that.

A5: Look at this next one - do we disregard the patient's normal privacies?

Ralph Spy: Normal privacies?

A5: Just look at the rest of the list - no privacies in toilet or shower facilities, constant surveillance by staff, personal possessions removed, censoring of mail, no privacy when having visitors, no place to go when you want to be alone. You can see from this list, Spy, that a complete lack of normal privacy would certainly dehumanize a patient.

Ralph Spy: That DE will stop at nothing!

A5: Do we subject the patient to the sickness treatment rationale of the institution?

Ralph Spy: What does that mean?

A5: Spy, all actions of the patient are interpreted as signs of illness. No matter what the individual does, he's wearing a permanent badge of his diagnosis.

Ralph Spy: Agent!

A5: Let's go on. Does the punishment plan overlap work and play?

Ralph Spy: What do you mean by that?

A5: If the man in the laundry goofed off at work, would he be punished by not being allowed to go to the ball game?

Ralph Spy: If I goofed off the Chief would punish me!

A5: By calling your wife and telling her she's not to let you go out with the boys?

Ralph Spy: My wife would do that on her own.

A5: Do we make the patient feel that he's a worthwhile, contributing member of society? It's most important that the patient feels he is involved rather than just being a pawn of the institution. Do we identify the question of release with a privilege system? Do we give the patient the feeling that all he has to do to get out is to behave? Can we confuse conformity to rules with mental health?

Ralph Spy: Behave and you'll get out. Why, this could lead to serious problems.

A5: It does, because the patient adapts himself to the depersonalization process and the privilege system. This could lead to institutional neurosis.

Ralph Spy: Institutional rhinoceros?

A5: Institutional neurosis. Your list has some of the things that contribute to it. Loss of contact with the outside world, enforced idleness, bossiness of staff, loss of personal friends, possessions, and personal events, ward atmosphere, drugs, loss of prospects outside the institution.

Ralph Spy: These lead to institutional neurosis? You mean that patients actually condition themselves so they don't want to leave?

A5: They go along with being called a good patient and don't cause any trouble, finally ending so wrapped up in the institutional ways that to leave scares them back to the security of the institution. Institutional neurosis.

Ralph Spy: It doesn't have a DE in front of it.

A5: No, but it contains some of the worst DEs: depersonalization, detachment, denial.

Ralph Spy: Then this list does check out. Let's get back to the chief.

Ralph Spy: Well, Chief, that list certainly proves that DE has moved in.

Chief: A5, how can we get dehumanization out of the institutions?

A5: Chief, as Spy and I have said, most of these dehumanizing examples can be rationalized or can be the result of built-in practices that no one recognizes as outdated.

Chief: Spy, you have that other list. This list contains some questions that should be asked in regard to dehumanization. They pertain to mental hospitals, but could be applied to any total institution. In your inside pocket, Spy.

Ralph Spy: Just where I was going to look for it next. Here we are, Chief.

Chief: Hmm, do these processes all go on in my hospital? If they do and I approve of them, do they conform to the goals of the hospital and are they in the best interests of the patient? If they do and I don't approve of them, what can I do to eliminate or to
minimize their effects on the patient? Are we perpetuating outdated and obsolete practices?

Ralph Spy: That's no answer. Those are only questions.

Chief: There seems to be no simple answer, Spy. Only a constant re-examining of the methods being used and of the rationale behind them. We must always ask the question - is what's being done really what is best for the patient? - and to keep in mind that there is an inherent dignity in every human being that must not be destroyed.