The title above would be a perfect introduction into a listicle full of inspirational quotes written in a lovely font and superimposed over a backdrop of majestic mountains.
However, I intend to absolutely steer clear of that sort of communication. To get to the deep, hidden heart of things, the means of communication have to be slow, deliberate, and demand an investment of time.
So here we go.
Freedom is a powerful word. Not only does it embody the human striving to dissolve chains, but it also contains a past tense. The tense realization that if we are now free, it is only because we have once been enslaved. Freedom is an idea to mourn if lost, cherish if had, and hoped for in the vague tomorrow.
It is also an often misused word.
History is a smoldering battleground of people who have briefly demanded freedom before their heads were cut off. Few things cause as much death as the desire to be one’s own master.
Then there are people who most often did the cutting, either literally or by proxy. Dictators of all kinds, historical or contemporary, have tried to chop off each and every head that had dared to demand freedom. The philosophy of kings and dictators is always the same:
“There is only one kind of freedom possible and, conveniently, it happens to be the one I humbly propose at the tip of a bloody sword.” — Random Dictator
If you step back far enough and survey the entirety of human history, you’ll see that it is like a playground see-saw, albeit with higher stakes. One side demands freedom, the other utter submission, and on we go, again and again, up and down, an endless game of see-saw.
But, the game is rigged. It is rigged in favor of the side that demands freedom. Yes, they die, by their hundreds and thousands, but each death adds a little weight, a little more burden for the dictator to carry. Eventually, the dictator is outweighed and launched into the air.
Usually, that’s when the party demanding freedom becomes the oppressor, until it, too, is tossed off the see-saw. That is how we, as a species, have traveled from outright slavery under the king or the Dear Leader, to the modern-day ideas of human rights. After much blood, and many rolling heads, we are now freer than ever before.
And therein lies our trouble.
There are two kinds of freedom, two sides of the same coin. The negative freedom, which is the freedom from something, like the revolutions in France, Jewish catastrophe in Nazi Germany, or the crumbling of the Soviet regime. It is the urge in people to get away from something.
The other, positive kind, is not only the freedom from but the freedom to do something, like the women’s movement that sought the freedom to vote.
The negative freedom is, on a minute scale, similar to the emancipation of a child from the authority of parents. It is necessary and exhilarating, but it also brings with it a sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Who hasn’t felt the occasional terror of being completely responsible for his or her own conduct? In many ways, it is easier to continue being dependant on an external authority, because it allows for avoidance of responsibility.
That is what happens when masses of people gain freedom from something. Necessity, exhilaration, excitement, but also dread because it is one thing to be free from the authority of others, but quite another to embrace the freedom and become one’s own authority. Negative freedom talks of authority and oppression, and positive freedom requires embracing responsibility.
That’s when people begin to feel the tyranny of freedom, the demand to make one’s own choices and to be responsible, day in and day out.
It is not easy.
It is the moment when we begin to want to be free again, but only this time we want freedom from freedom.
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.” — Erich Fromm
We want to be told what to do and be lead by a strong hand. A parent, a partner, or a pharaoh. The new authority will never appear exactly the same as the old one, but its underlying function remains the same — to alleviate the uncertainty of everyday life by providing a firm code of conduct. In other words, let the authority decide.
I only follow orders.
Now the true trouble arises. To assume responsibility, you have to make a choice. To abandon responsibility, you also have to make a choice.
What is this ability to choose if not freedom? Even unfreedom requires a free choice, hence we cannot truly be unfree. There can be no circumstances in which you are not making a choice (except outright mental illness and unaccountability). Whether it’s the choice to assume responsibility or to abandon it and follow orders doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have made a choice and out of that choice springs your future. In other words:
At the heart of what happens to you, is you.
So what are we to do with this? Freedom, far from being the romantic ideal we find in the movies, proves to be a troublesome burden. Its work does not end with Mel Gibson’s dramatic shouting in Braveheart, that’s where it begins. To want freedom is easy, to win it is difficult, and to maintain it is the hardest task the human animal can face. That is why we often wish to be rid of it — so that the burden of thinking, choice-making, and consequences would fall on someone else. We can remain marionettes.
The exact moment our wish becomes true is the exact moment when the worst aspects of humanity become possible — utter subservience to authority, destructiveness, conformity. It all arises from your and my choice to suppress our own freedom in favor of following orders. That is the butt of the joke.
And where does it all leaves us?
If what I’ve written above is true, it leaves us, of course, with a new choice. Remember, we cannot be unfree, because even to be unfree requires a free choice.
The only real question then is what that choice will be — abandonment of responsibility and submission to authority, or the acceptance of the burden of your own actions so that, when the river of the next mass-delusion begins to rage and foam, you and I might find ourselves walking upstream.