The False Security of Fortress Mentality


People want to stay safe from harm. It's one of our basic drives of all biology: Survive, at all costs. This drive to survive is so overwhelming that to be in an environment where you think that your survival might be at risk will override your ability to think about anything else ... including things that are a greater threat to your survival than the things you are concerned about.

This natural tendency can be and is exploited by all sorts of unscrupulous people to impair your ability to think for yourself.

Constructing The Fortress

The idea of the Fortress is simple: I want to stay safe. There are threats out there. Thus, I want to create barriers around myself so that the threats that are out there stay out there rather than in here with me. If I'm powerful enough and/or privileged enough, I might even be able to create rings of protection around myself, where there's an innermost ring, and then a second wall around that, and a wall around that, and so forth.

We can often think of this more metaphorically as well: An office on the 75th floor of a skyscraper isn't a fortress really, but it sure feels like one.

The terms change: My home, my community, my safe space. But the concept is always "If I'm in here, I'm safe. If I'm out there, I'm in danger."


As humans, there is generally some desire or need for *some* human contact, so we decide to let some other people into our fortresses. There is a complex series of decisions we all make about who to let into each layer of fortress around ourselves, and this gatekeeping is an important human activity. This gatekeeping behavior starts at the borders and ports of entry of whatever country we're a part of, and then moves towards more local levels like a heavily-policed suburb rather than a less-policed urban or rural area, gated communities with private security guards, and ultimately our own front door or even the doors within our own home.

Again, this can also happen in a more metaphorical sense as well as in the physical sense: Deciding to remove someone from our company or organization, not inviting somebody to social gatherings, and so forth. Who's in, and who's out, is an ongoing battle.

Why This Is Wrong

There are two fundamental problems with the fortress mentality, and they have to do with the very nature of a fortress. There's an Inside, an Outside, there's an Us, and there's a Them.

Insider Danger

Imagine the most perfect fortress: Completely impenetrable, and you alone inside.

Are you free from danger? No! You can injure yourself or even kill yourself both by accident or by intention due to mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder. Or you can suffer a medical episode such as a heart attack, and since you are alone in your perfect fortress no help can get to you.

In fortresses with a somewhat larger number of people, namely your home and immediate family, that can still be a great source of danger: A very large percentage of assaults and murders take place as part of domestic violence rather than stranger violence.

In even larger groups and organizations, there is still quite a bit of danger: Sexual predators often are connected socially with their victims or their victims' parents. Fraudsters like Bernie Madoff prey on the people they are connected to. In these cases, they take advantage of the fact that their victims feel like they're inside of their fortress and thus "safe".

And this extends out to social spaces and perceived social groupings: Just because you're among people that look like they share your racial background or social class you does not make you "safe".

So the first mistake many people make when thinking in a fortress mentality is seeing those on the inside as safe, even though they aren't.

Outsider Help

Imagine you are at home, alone, and you fall badly causing serious injuries. You manage to get to a phone and call for help. Will that help have an easier time getting in if you're behind 3 layers of locked doors in a safe room, or if your home is unlocked?

That's true in families as well: If your family has a dysfunctional or abusive pattern, it's most likely going to be somebody or several somebodies outside of the family that either fixes it or provides you with an escape route. That's one reason abusers try to cut off their victims' social contacts outside of the abusive relationship. Even in healthy families, people outside the family group are an important source of support and aid, particularly when something bad happens to one of the members of the family and it's beyond that family's capacity to handle it on their own.

And yes, this extends out into larger groups and organizations: Large groups of people often have a tendency to ignore problems within their midst as "that's how it's done here" or sometimes "we can't talk about that - it would hurt the group". It took outside forces to, for instance, force the Roman Catholic Church to even acknowledge sexual abuse committed by priests.

And this again extends out into social spaces and perceived social groupings: In times of trouble, key help may and often does come to people who aren't like you in a lot of ways. One aspect of the Christian "Good Samaritan" story often not discussed is that the Samaritan was somebody who was an outcast in Jewish society.

So the second mistake many people make when thinking in a fortress mentality is seeing those on the outside as a threat, even when they aren't a threat and in fact could be a big help.

Why This Is Harmful

Not only is the fortress mentality wrong, it's actually extremely dangerous. It renders the people outside of the fortress invisible or at the very least abstractions. It creates a mindset where if all is well inside the fortress, all is well in the world.

The net effect of all this is that those with power will create idyllic fortresses under their control, while those without power have to live without a fortress. And those without a fortress respond to that fear of being outside the fortress by getting progressively angrier at those within the fortress until they actually become the threat that the fortress rulers pretended they were. And those inside the fortress respond to that threat by building thicker and taller walls, and engaging in more draconian gatekeeping, until either the Insiders manage to force or scare away the Outsiders, or the Outsiders manage to destroy the Insiders' fortress. Or sometimes some of the Outsiders manage to get together and build their own fortress, and become Insiders of their own (who of course are still facing threats from their Outsiders).

This often becomes a source of or at least an excuse for bigotry of all kinds. Those on the Inside want to preserve their safety by keeping the Outsiders outside, and look for distinguishing characteristics they can use to identify Outsiders as Outsiders, and in relatively short order there's discrimination based on skin tone, eye shape, hair, genitalia, accent, language, etc, all justified by "The Outsiders are dangerous!"

As mentioned above, the beginning of setting boundaries is the boundary of national governments. And the fortress mentality is used to justify wars and atrocities carried out by governments worldwide, in all times known to history. Whether it's Spartans slaughtering helots to keep them down or modern-day Americans waterboarding Arabs, the rhetoric is always the same: They are out to kill Us, so that justifies Us doing whatever our leaders have decided is necessary to stop Them.

Tear Down This Wall

So if the fortress doesn't protect us from danger, what can?

There Is No Inside Or Outside

The idea of a fortress necessarily creates in your mind the idea that safety comes from where you are and how many barriers there are between you and some unspoken evil lurking beyond. But as we've seen, that's simply not true, and we have to get rid of that mentality.

This is different from using barriers to defend yourself against a specific threat - if it's cold outside, I want the insulation of the walls of my home to help keep me warm. It's about generalizing the nature of the threat from "this particular person" or "this particular problem" into a Them.

And yes, as with the examples above, this expands outside of yourself and your own personal bubble of space to your family, your organizations and friend groups, and your wider social spaces. Each person is different, regardless of which side of any borders or boundaries they stand on. Each person has their own goals, their own morals, their own way of being in the world. One of the first things you learn when you get to know people who are well outside of those you normally think of as "Us" is how similar they are to you, really.

Their Problems Are Our Problems

Once the walls come down, there is no "Them", so there's no way for "Their" problems to not be "Our" problems. And the thing is, "Their" problems are pretty much identical to your problems: Everyone wants to be relatively safe from harm and some people aren't safe. Everyone wants to have some kind of home and some people don't have that. Everyone wants to have enough food to eat, and some people don't have that. Everyone wants to be warm enough or cool enough to be reasonably comfortable, and some people aren't.

In the vast majority of cases, if you give people a way to get those basics without doing harm to you and yours, they will take that option. The two situations which tend to lead to terrible violence and harm are desperation because they can't get the basics without harming others, or ambition because they believe doing harm will help get them safely "Inside". That leads to 3 answers of how to protect yourself:

  1. Work to make it so that those all people have enough to manage. I know, that's a tall order, but at the very least we need to be collectively making this our goal. This is entirely possible with the technology we have now - there are many more empty homes than homeless people on both a national and global scale, there is more food than there are hungry people, and the safety net created by whatever solutions we come up with to address these problems will reduce the desperation that leads to violence and robbery.
  2. Work to curb the ambitions of those that seek to cut themselves off from others (not introverts seeking solitude to recharge, but those who believe others' lives don't matter at all). Make sure our social structures keep those that are in charge answerable to those who aren't in very tangible ways, and not so used to being in charge that they forget what it's like to not be in charge. We should also ensure that we treat those in charge as just people who are in charge of things for the moment for whatever reason, rather than treating them with fawning obsequience or absolute obedience.
  3. Build a network of mutual support with others. Humans can generally keep track of the faces and general character of around 150-250 people. Get out of your home and meet those 150 people, in actual person. Talk to your neighbors, random folks around town, people in your religious group, people in the pub. Listen to them. Connect with them. Empathize with them. Support them. Let them learn about you and your life, and let them support you (and, importantly, make sure they are reciprocating as they are able). These are the people you can turn to for help when you're in trouble, and these are all people who can band together to protect each other without putting up walls and gates.

But That is Impractical!

Is it any less practical than huddling in your safe room, afraid to go outside or do anything because some unspecified bad person might be out there somewhere? Is it any less practical than spending $5000 in alarm systems to protect a $300 TV?

The fortress isn't about making you safe. As we discussed above, it doesn't do that. It's about making you feel safe. Those are two different things entirely.

And if you're wondering, no, I often don't lock my doors, and definitely don't lock my doors when I'm at home. Locking the doors won't stop anyone who is really determined to get into my home from doing so using simple tools like rocks through the window. What will stop them is the fact that my neighbors keep an eye on what's going on in the neighborhood and look out for each other's well-being.

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