Freedom is a term often stripped of its true meaning and simply used to indicate that something is good (Freedom Fries anyone?) just like fascism is used to indicate that something is bad. Yet have you ever considered what freedom actually is?
Consider geographical freedom or the freedom to go places. Most likely everybody reading this are allowed to travel freely. You could, therefore, say that you are free to go anywhere. This freedom, however, typically stops at the borders of your country. Well, no matter, you say, I don’t really care to move to another country anyway, so this particular constraint does not matter to me. Fair enough, but stay with the thought. Consider being restricted to the state you live in, would you consider this a lack of freedom. Quite likely, you don’t go out of state often, so this will not be an issue for many people. How about staying inside the city limits and not being able to leave? Staying inside a city block? Staying inside your home? At which point would you consider that your freedom is lost? What is a proper or decent amount of freedom? How do you determine that?
The question is not trivial. When I was a young and hopeful grad student still full of dreams, I worked on my project almost 24/7 as did many of my fellow students. We used to joke, that we might as well move our offices to the city prison (which was right next door) since we were in here anyway. It was generally agreed that the prison food had to be better as well. When you are fully absorbed in something, the desire to go somewhere else is irrelevant and hence freedom of location matters very little. On the other hand, if we had asked to be locked up in our offices, people would probably have thought we were crazy.
Locking someone up is typically what we do when we say we are taking someone’s freedom. Others include free speech, free press, and the freedom to practice your religion. These are all external freedoms.
Dog owners are likely very familiar with the need to keep a fence around their yard if they ever want to let the dog out unleashed. This fence restricts the dog’s external freedom. It is highly visible. Thanks to wonders modern technology, it is possible to install an electronic fence. Put the shock collar on the dog and arrange transmitters along the corners of the yard and rather than having the dog know its boundaries by sight, the dog gets shocked if it crosses the invisible line(*). After a few tries, the dog will have learned where the line is and it won’t go there anymore.
(*) I am told that the shock is “humane”, but I have not had the guts to try it out on myself. Incidentally, we use a longer leash when we let our dog out.
The external constraint has thus been transformed into an internal constraint. If the dog is sufficiently compliant (maybe the shock was really nasty), the electric fence can even be removed altogether. As the dog has been thus “encouraged” not to behave in certain ways, it will no longer consider leaving the yard, nor will it have any idea what to do if it actually left the yard.
Oh, how humankind is similar!
Many of us have a ton of such internal constraints which have been meticulously incorporated into our brains ever since we were old enough to talk. In school we are “encouraged” to perform certain activities within certain hours of the day. We are “encouraged” to behave like everybody else and wear the same clothes and say the same things. Later we are encouraged to say the “right” things. Interview skills, anyone? In short your life is mapped out for you by an electronic fence. Just walk this this way and you won’t get shocked.
It is important to note that our fence is mental and not physical. We can comfortably move wherever we want, we can change our employers, we can choose between many different products. However, analogous to the dog, we find that entertaining certain ideas is uncomfortable if not downright impossible. We never consider the area outside the fence. Like the dog we are free to roam the yard, but leaving the yard will be a pain in the neck. It will be almost impossible if not downright undesirable to leave. Just think of the shocks.
And think of what the neighbors will think.
If the fence is gone, it is possible to leave at any point. fnord. It will naturally be difficult in the beginning since the ideas necessary to live freely have been severely atrophied by the constraints. Mistakes will be made. In retrospect, it may not even be desirable to do so, but once you find out the fence is gone, you know you have to try.
Originally posted 2009-01-07 16:19:27.