The Paradox of Freedom
Across all cultures and eras, people have always preferred the freedom of choice over coercion. Whether it’s choosing what to do for a living, where to go to school, where to live, who to marry (or not marry at all), what car to drive, what meal to eat,a free choice is certainly more satisfying. Even those rare gems who prefer being told what to do than have their own opinions, choosing to be coerced is still better than being coerced to choose coercion...
The first time we got to taste freedom was the day we said “no” to our parents (or teachers or other figures of authority), stood our ground no matter the reaction, and won. But until that day, all the days and years between birth and that first taste, we would have already been trained by society how to behave – how to sit, where to stand, when to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” and a thousand other norms and etiquette standards. Whether it was in the pursuit of acceptance or from fear of unpleasant consequences, we learned how to talk right, we learned not to pick our noses in public (and perhaps in private as well), how to be hard-working (and that hard work pays off), and we swallowed pre-packaged beliefs from religion or nationalism or any other kind of predominant ideology. Had we been totally free from day one onward, we would all be wild beasts, pissing and shitting everywhere without a moment’s hesitation. So when you really think about it, our lives begin in mental and physical bondage, and continue to be so throughout our formative years, until that day we say “no,” probably around the age of thirteen. And once we get that first taste of freedom, which was gained through struggle, we can’t seem to get enough of it. And the struggle continues throughout our teen years to keep pushing the boundaries, until we finally gain independence!
But by the time we have gained independence, bondage would have already achieved its core objectives. Society will have planted inside our heads thousands of psychological controls. Like when you choose to go to college and get a degree – do you really think that choice was completely free? Or are you simply choosing what society had already planted in your head about a college education being a key to success, fortune, and fame? When you speak cordially to total strangers and agree to shake their hands or nod your head, are you really exercising your free will? Or has society programmed those unconscious responses in your head? And you can go down the list, until you realize that, in fact, all of us eventually “grow up,” and become the very adults whose dominance we hated. And if we end up having children of our own, we would raise them in bondage for their own good, to plant in them a set of prepackaged ideas that would help them survive as individuals, inadvertently also allowing the group to survive.
Some people resist. Some people never grow out of the rebellious teenager stage, and continue to fight the programming instilled in all of us – seeking not only independence from our families, but from society and the world at large. They welcome being considered socially awkward.They openly reject and ridicule social norms.They break taboos, drop out of school, do drugs, get piercings and tattoos in the most unusual places in their bodies, and they love giving the middle finger to the most revered personalities. But even with all that rebelliousness, some residual of their culture’s norms remain.They find other like-minded individuals, and they form a new sub-culture, where they conform to a somewhat new set of norms and etiquette, which means they eventually give up their pursuit of total freedom and independence. It seems no matter how much we love absolute freedom, it is so taxing on our minds and bodies to constantly swim against the current that we can’t wait for a pillow of norms to lay our heads on.
Nevertheless, there are a very few of us, so very few, who are on an endless quest, truly seeking the abolition of virtually all socially endowed controls, and somehow manage to live a painful yet delicious life of perpetual freedom. They will be admired by the youth, and shunned by grownups as extremists and lunatics. These ultimate freedom seekers abandon all groups. They might go and live in the woods, or in a cave in some mountain, or on an uninhabited island, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. But if they insist on living among us, or if we accidentally encounter one of them, we’d want them locked away in the loony bin.
In much rarer cases, as history has shown, the fascination of our youth to these “loonies” gains ground and turns into a massive movement of change. And in even much rarer occasions, the loony’s followers eventually outnumber the “normal” people. The loony leader becomes the all-wise and all-revered, while the normal people become the persecuted minority, dismissed as fools who were living in blindness and ignorance. The “emancipated” folks look back at the old normal and wonder how everyone was okay with it! But they often cannot see, in the end, that all they have actually accomplished was to replace one societal bondage with another.
Total and perpetual freedom, when you really think about it, is not only very difficult to achieve, but it also has dire consequences. If you decide to join a group that swims against the social majority’s current, you’ll suffer persecution, rejection, and economic immobility. Employers will refuse to hire you, without having to tell you why (but you know why). In some cases, the persecution could turn violent, especially if your group’s way of life hinders or even threatens the majority’s. And if you’re a lone wolf rebel, you’ll suffer the worst of all torture methods ever devised: solitary confinement (only in your case it would be self-inflicted). And if you somehow end up gaining a following and a movement grows based on your “extreme” views, you’ll be hunted by the authorities for the crime of corrupting the youth.
If you’re in doubt of what I’m saying, you can always test it (if you haven’t already). The next time you’re at a party and someone asks you what you would like to drink, tell them, with a straight face, that you no longer drink alcohol because it’s a gateway drug to necrophilia.They’ll laugh at first as a knee-jerk reaction, but when you show them you’re dead serious, they’ll call you crazy to your face. And if you still don’t tell them you’re kidding, it’ll be the last time you’re ever invited. And when the story spreads, no one will ever want to have anything to do with you, no matter how “open-minded” they claim to be.
You might be thinking, “well come on, your example is so ridiculous! Alcohol is a gateway drug to necrophilia? How could anyone in their right mind accept such a deranged idea?” But let me remind you that for ten thousand years slavery was normal! And just a few decades ago, homosexual activity was a social abomination and a punishable crime (until 2003 in Texas, and still is in many countries), while having sex with a twelve-year-old girl was normal! Can you imagine a sixty-year-old man, approaching a family with a twelve-year-old daughter, and asking her hand in marriage? And they accept?! Well according to the marriage laws in Massachusetts, that is still legal today. What’s considered normal and abnormal is determined by the majority, not some kind of a divine charter of human rights.
But let’s get back to the grownups. What do conforming people do when they face a new situation they have not been trained to handle? Do they go out on a limb and dare to exercise absolute freedom? As a matter of fact, most adults do not. Most of us would turn to someone we look up to for advice: a parent, a priest, a guru, a psychiatrist, a fortuneteller, a trusted friend, etc. We want answers from others because we’ve been trained as kids to never trust our own judgment when facing an unknown situation (and for good reason; because when we were children we thought of stupid things, like crossing the road without looking at incoming traffic).
But where do parents and priests and gurus and shrinks get their answers from? They, too, have gotten them from their predecessors (their parents, priests, gurus, et al.). This docile feature of our species (to accept answers from our trusted elders) has enabled us to advance by building upon their past experiences instead of reinventing the wheel every generation. But it also makes us feel good and safe and unaccountable. After all, why should we be held responsible for doing what someone else told us was the right thing to do?
You know who was totally and absolutely free? Genghis Khan. At the age of thirteen, he killed his tribe’s elders, assumed command, united the Mongol tribes under his rule, and declared war on the whole world. One kingdom after another, he invaded and raped and pillaged till the last day of his life. You know who else was totally and absolutely free? Jesus and Moses and Muhammad and Buddha, and many other peacemakers and justice warriors throughout history. But despite their stark differences, all free people have something in common: they are all big risk-takers! They all paid a very heavy price for that freedom, including risking their own lives.
I am no guru or buddha to recommend which lifestyle is best. There are very powerful arguments for both freedom and conformity. All I can do is acknowledge what you already know to be true: you might find yourself sometimes calling people sheep because they all follow a “stupid” rule. But are you so sure you’re not also a sheep in other situations?
It’s true that real freedom is very delicious, even in the smallest of servings. But even in the smallest of servings, it always comes with a heavy cost; sometimes your own life. So ask yourself: do you really think you’re free? And if not, do you really want to be?
ODAY BADDDAR | Feb 8, 2020