Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments


The Two Meanings of Institution

Some institutions nurture us in our freedom; others kill our capacity for freedom and replace it with death-like certainty.

The word institution has at least two very different meanings.

It can mean something good.

It is something that we have established and which we may respect and value - a constitution, an organisation or even a habit - like forms of politeness. While such institutions may vary in their social purpose and moral impact they are essentially good. They are the means by which we connect, act together and sustain meaning within and between generations.

As Charles Williams puts it, "An Institution is the nurse of souls."

Without institutions (in this positive sense) our community would be a desert. We would have to make everything anew and we would have no traditions or systems for handing on knowledge, experience and wisdom.

But there is a second kind of institution, whose essence is bad.

For the word is also used to describe the buildings or camps that were set up - often deep in the countryside - where many thousands of disabled people or people with mental health problems were incarcerated. These institutions were very bad (although they were often established with good intentions). They were places where abuse was often rife and where people struggled to find lives of meaning or respect.

As these large institutions closed and people moved back in to 'community' there were many improvements - but often the institution remained. The institution seemed to follow people back into the community. People found that they were still not free, still could not connect, still could not contribute.

It turns out institutions can be large, but they can also be very small. Institutions can be far away, but they can also be next door. Institutions can be very obvious, but they can also be hidden. Community care - as it was called - was successful to the degree that it supported people to be citizens, to really participate in community. Sadly, for many, de-instutionalisation has only only meant closing down a crumbling hospital on the edge of town and transporting people into special units and day centres.

The essential difference between the first and the second institution is that the second kind of institution is a system of control. The buildings, rules and systems corrode human freedom, spontaneity and love. They dictate to us who we must be. [This is true both for the controllers as well as the controlled - often the guards, wardens or nurses are also damaged by this toxic environment.]

These institutions prepackage destiny. They are systems, habits or mentalities that determine how we should live and they exert their malign influence in many different ways.

Death is the only true certainty (it seems that even taxes can be avoided by some). But the institution brings death-like certainty to human life by killing our capacities for newness, creation and purpose.