Disneyism: Religion, Mickey Mouse, and the Morality of Control

Few of us reach adulthood without having heard of Walt Disney’s iconic characters. It’s only natural that when Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida in 1971- after over ten years of planning shrouded in secrecy- it was to much anticipation and fanfare. Children and adults world over flocked to see Walt Disney’s dream that- ironically enough- he never lived to see realized. Home to Magic Kingdom and the Epcot Centre, Disney World is the stuff of our five-year old dreams. Perhaps one of the biggest attractions is the atmosphere that surrounds the theme park; happy endings and a sense that everything is just right. How bad could anything really be when Cinderella Castle is right around the corner? It may come as no surprise that this isn’t the result of the alignment of stars. We’re talking about a multinational conglomerate that brought in over $55 billion in revenue last year.

Commenting on the nature of control structures in Disney World, Shearing and Stenning (1987), point to a mechanical, vastly less romantic account for Disney World’s success in From the Panopticon to Disney World:  the Development of Discipline. Embedded within its structure, Disney World operates a carefully planned system of private corporate policing.  The framework is implemented at three points; constant instruction (where to park your car), physical barriers (guardrails by the trams) and the Orwellian presence of smiling employees. These measures, put in a different context, quickly take on very different implications. Take, for example, organised religion. The control structures in place are similar to those at Disney World: religious texts provide instruction, physical barriers separate the worshipped from the worshippers, and there is both an imagined and/or implied presence of a higher omnipresent being.    

In both cases, the genius lies in overshadowing attempts to control. At Disney World, there is constant reinforcement that it’s a ‘fun place’. This feeds into our own confirmation bias (the fact that we have a pre-existing belief that it’s a ‘fun place’ is only confirmed with the reinforcement), and takes the focus away from the tools of control. Religions make it clear that by following tenets, we are working for payoffs at a later date (the afterlife and a pass at the pearly white gates). Self-interest distracts from control. This phenomenon of acquiescing to requests- whether they are implicit or explicit- is compliance. In these particular instances, compliance is consensual.

A form of compliance that is exclusive to organised religion is conformity through internalisation. This particular case brings up interesting findings on the use of rituals as control structures to keep out non-believers. In the relatively new field of the cognitive science of religion, Sosis’ work on the pro-social adaptation of religion shows how rituals as control measures ensure a level of devotion and thereby avoid the free rider problem. The fundamental proposal is that religious activities ensure group cohesion. The cost of part-taking in these rituals is high enough (i.e.: it takes a significant amount of time, money and energy) to ensure that someone who isn’t invested in the belief simply won’t have the incentive to join the group. In other words, it ensures private conformity.   

There is another facet of organised religion that differs from Disney’s control structure: Compliance is often achieved in the former through harsher means. Large scale forced conversion campaigns that have marred our history books are testament to this.  Here, there is a glaring emphasis on the fact that the individual doesn’t believe in the tenets underlying the rituals they are being forced to partake in. This compliance to orders from authority is obedience. Milgrim (1963) studied this in the context of the Nuremberg Trials and concluded that we (ordinary people) tend to follow orders from authority figures. While in organised religions the orders are apparent, at Disney World they manifest in the form of instructive signs and employees dressed as characters who we, whether we realise it or not, consider figures of authority. As Shearing and Stenning point out, the result is a consensual disciplinary system akin to that of the World State in Huxley’s Brave New World where citizens are ‘seduced’ into conformity by the drug soma; the exchange is discipline for ‘the Disney experience’.

The fact remains that control is an infringement on personal freedom. The literature available on control is vast and highly contextual. For example, Foucault's writings on discipline are hardly suited as a guide to governments that holds our personal information or, say, a binding labour contract. The question remains; how should we feel about control, and what do attempts to control us say about the society in which we live? Perhaps this too is subjective.

The morality of control structures depends largely on the goals they seek to achieve. At Disney World, they are far from insidious. Put in place primarily to ensure safety and smooth running of the theme park, the payoff from being controlled is getting through crowds and onto the rides quickly without being physically harmed. The same can be said for the use of rituals as control structures within religions. If members of a group share a deep belief, surely they should be allowed to deny membership to those who don’t.

Violence and authority as a means of control have very different implications. The conflict appears when we consider the cost- Festinger’s cognitive dissonance (1957). By being forced to comply with religious standards (and take part in rituals), the converted engage in behaviour not in line with their beliefs and attitudes. The resultant mental discomfort due to this nonlinearity is cognitive dissonance (not to mention potential physical harm).

In the interest of drawing conclusions, a quick glance at human history tells us that violence only incites more violence. It’s justified to condemn Boko Haram for converting Christian women at knifepoint in Nigeria, and the International Christian Concern for beheading Somalian Islamists.

As for Walt Disney, while he may not have lived to see Splash Mountain come alive, Disneyland to him was larger than monetary concerns. In his own words, ‘Disney is a work of love’ and Mickey Mouse ‘a symbol of independence’.

Varsha Ashok