*Apologies to those who are not big fans of my more essay-like posts, but I’ve got this crazy old brain just churning away and I gotta do something with these thoughts before I loose them or they drive me mad.
I have written before about the idea of freedom, especially as it finds itself on the tip of the tongue of every politician (particularly within the United States, but certainly not exclusively). Previously, my basic conclusion, one of which I was admittedly unaware at the beginning of my efforts to synthesize my thoughts on the topic, was that “freedom” is not as unqualified of a term as dogmatic ideologies would hope. In other words, “freedom” is infinitely nuanced and subtle, subject to just as much bias and corruption as any other aspect of society. It is far from the innately good and righteous aspiration that popular rhetoric might have us believe. Instead, it must be continually analyzed and reanalyzed not for the sake of freedom itself, but for the greater aims of creating a more just society. We must always ask ourselves ‘what freedoms?’ and at ‘what costs?’ do we pursue such freedoms.
Of course, this is far less convenient and far more cumbersome of a notion than simply an emblazoned slogan on a gas-station t-shirt (Freedom Isn’t Free!—or something along those lines), but without such qualification we would find ourselves in a sort of Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged) dystopia. Most of us, under the guise of absolute individual freedom, would in fact be completely un-free in any and all significant senses of the word. Lucky for us, such appeals to “absolute individual freedoms” (underhandedly touted by a shocking number of conservatives) are ultimately incongruous with the construction of any sort of functioning social fabric. As members of a society, we daily all offer up any number of ‘individual freedoms’ in the name of greater ‘social freedoms’; this concept in itself--Rousseau’s “social contract”--is an innate part of social life and has been as long as humans (and society) have existed.
An obvious and yet illustrative example of this: all individuals in society have surrendered their freedom to kill other members of society at will so that, as a whole, society itself can gain the freedom from needless and untimely death or the threat of it. This exemplifies differences along a spectrum of freedom, which ranges from freedoms to and freedoms from (or as they are more academically referred, positive and negative freedoms, respectively). The plane that lies between these two poles along this spectrum is the space in which freedoms are negotiated and resolved, a phenomenon that occurs through democratic processes that are ultimately (hopefully, but perhaps also unavoidably) founded on social values and ethics. Again, not cut-and-dry, as democracy tends to be a slow and arduous process—as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, but it’s better than all the rest.” Still, the idea of a democratic negotiation of freedoms and their relative importance is the cornerstone of any stable and just society.
Even so, as a society, how do we evaluate the freedoms that we, through democratic choice, have come to guarantee? While democratic processes have generally proceeded towards progress and equality, it has not been without considerable, sometimes dramatic stutter-steps. It is quite true, and many events in history would substantiate this claim, that democratic consensus is just as capable of yielding truly heinous results as it is capable of perpetrating good ones. Many would claim that democracy, therefore, is an imperfect process (agreed, but what aspects of human nature are not) and would take such irresolute disillusionment as a cue to adhere to ideological platforms instead. The human desire to hold certain things as ‘absolute’ often causes a descent into the unverifiable abyss of dogmatism, which to me almost universally seems to be a proxy for un-critical and undemocratic group-think.
But in the absence of ideology and the false absolutes that it promises, on what basis can we honestly frame, reflect upon and critique our social contract? From what moral perspective can the freedoms of society, in all their complexity and subtlety, be interpreted so as to understand their shortcomings and improve upon them? There are many lenses through which these freedoms can be viewed. I propose the following:
Freedom cannot be regarded as an ends within and of itself. It is a means toward achieving a more equal, peaceful, compassionate and just society. Its value must be measured against a metric of achieving these purposes, with the ultimate goal being not the maximization of individual freedoms but the optimization of a human society oriented toward harmony and the alleviation of suffering.
Freedoms must not automatically be assumed to contain an inherent quality of goodness, especially if its consequences themselves are ultimately inequitable or immoral. No individual exists within a vacuum and therefore, freedom, as the ultimate fulfillment of individual human agency, cannot either. Such “freedoms” should only ever represent an indispensable tool to be used by a conscious, compassionate society, not a weapon wielded by the strong to oppress the weak and further injustice (and thanks to the economic cult of global neo-liberalism, it is becoming clearer and clearer that such ‘absolute individual freedoms’ will yield exactly this—and I am choosing to ignore the fundamental hypocrisy in our global economic order and it’s selfish understanding of ‘individual freedom’).
At the same time, such an idea must be regarded with caution. Those who pursue individual freedoms for its own sake fail to understand the communal nature of life, but just as well, those who curtail freedoms for purely utilitarian purposes fail to understand the individual nature of the human experience. The optimization as such through a democratic process will never be a linear process. While the steady march of modernization may apply to certain aspect of civilization, democracy will forever be imbued with the inherent imperfection of human nature. It is both a curse and a blessing, affording us ample time for self-reflection and deeper understanding.
The opportunities to realize a greater global society have never been more abundant. Despite unprecedented challenges, the age of communications and the freedom of information (in itself a great question of negotiated freedoms) has infused a new generation with the capacity and energy to engage in radical change, should they choose to take advantage of it. Going forward, freedom must be as much of an act of justice and compassion as it is an act of liberty. Otherwise, will have once again stutter-stepped and allowed history to pass us by.
Oh yeah, and the US should just fucking pass marriage equality already.