Sunday, October 23, 2005

Post No. 36: How Free Are We?

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

There is no way we can deny it. All of us, I suppose, are well acquainted with the fact that humans do not enjoy absolute freedom and whatever freedom we do have, I believe, is greatly limited. Similar to puppets, we humans are constrained by “strings”, some of which we are conscious of, in how we behave, speak, think and perceive people & things around us. There is perhaps no sphere of our existence in which we are not bound by parameters or restricted by limits, rules & laws. Indeed, though I hate to admit it, we are, as what the quotation above has stated, in chains.

I can imagine you all out there protesting against what I have claimed in my opening paragraph. You all would argue that my claims in the opening paragraph are too sweeping in nature and that though we do not enjoy absolute freedom, the freedom that we do enjoy is nonetheless quite unlimited. You all would also protest against my claim that we are in chains, citing the evidence that you all cannot see or feel these chains which we are all supposedly in. However, though we may not be completely conscious of them, these “chains” still nonetheless exist. And for the sake of you all, I would, in this essay, show to you all what some of these “chains” are and how they limit our precious freedom.

I shall start with the most obvious “chain”: the “chain” of physical limits. Being physical beings, there are limits which our bodies cannot exceed. Some of us may perhaps run faster or be physically stronger than the rest of us but all of us still have our own limits which our bodies can’t breach. For example, though Olympian athletes may be able to run the 100m sprint at a pace which none of us can, they too cannot finish the sprint in under 3 seconds or less. As much as we hate to acknowledge it, it cannot be denied that certain things remain both physically and humanly impossible to achieve.

Next, I shall look at a “chain” which is less obvious to most of us. This “chain” is the “chain” of societal/“moral” rules. Though this “chain” is not as obvious as the “chain” of physical limits, it is nonetheless a very strong “chain” which few of us can escape from. One area in which this “chain” manifests itself would be the manner of how we clothe ourselves. For example, it is expected of us, when we attend formal functions, to dress in a certain manner; guys would be expected to don a shirt, pants, leather shoes and a tie while ladies would have to wear a dress. Few of us would dare to show up at an event such as a graduation prom night wearing a T-shirt, shorts & slippers (unless, of course, the theme of the prom night is “A Day At The Beach”). Why is this so? In fact, why do we even wear clothes in the first place? The answer, I believe, is that there are societal/“moral” rules that governed the manner in which we clothe ourselves and which most of us unconsciously conform to.

To further support my point that we are restricted by societal/“moral” rules, I shall be looking at the sensitive issue of homosexuality. Lest you all be mistaken, I am no advocate for homosexuality but my question would be: what is so “wrong” or “immoral” about homosexuality? Are we conveniently equating “the majority does it this way” with “so this must be the ‘right’ way to do it”? Well, it was only a few centuries ago that most people believed that the Earth was flat and that it was at the center of the universe but were these beliefs accurate? Since it is not my intention to discuss the issue of sexuality in this essay, I shall continue no more and just conclude that there is perhaps an unspoken societal/“moral” rule that leads most of us to perceive homosexuality as “abnormal” and even “immoral”. Hence, I believe that I have demonstrated how societal/“moral” rules determine how we behave (e.g. the way we dress) and perceive things (e.g. our attitudes towards homosexuality).

Okay now, after looking at the two “chains” of physical limits and societal/“moral” rules, I will move on to examine the “chain” of experience/tradition. I may be wrong about this but it is my opinion that most of us prefer to rely on our personal experience or perhaps refer to tradition when doing something and/or when we need to make a judgment on something. We call this preference to rely on past experiences and tradition as “thinking inside the box” and/or “following a well-trodden track”. Hence, being thinkers inside a box and followers of a well-trodden track, we tend to admire and revere those who are able to think outside the box and/or able to blaze a new trail. Wait a minute, you all may say, don’t examples of past innovators & trailblazers prove that we are not totally bound by personal experiences & tradition? To that I would answer that though there are indeed those who are able to transcend the restrictions that personal experience & tradition have on us, they are the exception and not the norm. If they were the norm, we wouldn’t remember about them, would we? Hence, despite the phenomenon of people being able to break free from experience/tradition, the majority of us remain chained to past experiences and tradition. Also, it is possible that those who jumped outside the box just jumped into a larger box; a larger box it may be but a box nonetheless.

In addition, another “chain” which limits our freedom of thought would be language. Of course, language allows us to communicate with one another and to express our inner thoughts & emotions. However, it should be observed that the limits of language are also the parameters of thought. By this, I mean that we are seldom able to think beyond what our scope of language allows us to. In other words, a concept or idea which is not within the limits of language, that is if that concept or idea doesn’t have a “name”, cannot be accurately expressed. For example, let us suppose that the word “red” has not been invented yet, how would someone be able to express or describe the colour “red” to someone else? Yes, new words may be created to describe new concepts but this doesn’t negate the fact that the limits of language set the parameters of thought. It is like what Wittgenstein said (though I may be misinterpreting him): “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”.

Before I continue to examine another “chain” in this paragraph, I would like to warn you all that this paragraph is going to be even more difficult to understand than the one preceding it. This is partly due to the profound nature of the concept that I will be discussing in this paragraph and partly due to my limited vocabulary (which, in a way, support my point in the preceding paragraph). But rest assured that I will attempt my best to present this paragraph in a way which is easier to comprehend. Now that I have warned you all, let me continue. Though we may not be conscious of it, there is, as proposed by Kant, perhaps an a priori/innate system (which Kant terms as “categories of understanding”) by which we absorb, sort out and process information. This system, in my opinion, limits how we think. For instance, our mind is structured in such a way to recognise the colour “red” as “red”, this means that it is not possible for us to see “red” as “blue” or vice versa (unless, of course, we are suffering from colour blindness). Another example, which I adapt from Hume, would be our tendency to recognise the movement of a billiard ball as being caused by the occurrence of another billiard ball hitting it. In this case, our mind is structured to see “A causing B” but what we actually saw, as observed by Hume, was “B occurring after A”. According to Hume, this is because after repeated witnessing of “B occurring after A”, our mind is somehow “conditioned” to recognise this phenomenon as “A causing B”. Well now, considering that you all may be already confused by all this, I shall summarise this paragraph. In short, there is perhaps a system by which we process information we receive and since this system is beyond our conscious control, it, indirectly, acts as a “chain” on our freedom of thought.

Well, I hope you all understood what I was trying to tell you all in the paragraph above. However, regardless of whether you all have understood or not, I will be moving on to discuss another “chain”… This next “chain” I would be discussing would be the law of causality. In other words, cause and effect (or as Newton’s Third Law of Motion puts it: “For every action, there is a reaction”). I am no believer in Fate, Destiny or a Divine Plan but it cannot be denied that almost everything happens due to a cause. Though this may sound deterministic, it may be observed that most, if not all, of us are trapped in a long chain of events which is perhaps impossible to escape from. Sometimes we are the ones providing the “cause” and sometimes we are the ones feeling the “effect” of a “cause” caused by someone else. In other words, we may be the ones starting the fire but we may also be the ones being burned by a fire started by others. Hmm… I suppose that I have said enough about this “chain” of causality and I shall not belabour my point any longer.

Well, considering that I have meandered long enough for this essay, I shall be brief. Besides those “chains” which I have discussed above, we are also chained by the “chain” of propaganda/indoctrination. By this, I mean that our thoughts, attitudes and perceptions are influenced by those who have access to “opinion-influencing” mediums (e.g. the mass media) and have their agendas to promote. Those agencies which seek to influence our opinions through propaganda/indoctrination can be the State, challengers of the State, businesses, the Media (which is itself a medium of propaganda/indoctrination) and organised Religion. These agencies seek to, as observed by Gramsci & Chomsky, “manufacture consent” in us so that we would accept their agenda as ours. One good example of this, as examined by Naomi Klein in “No Logo”, would be the branding campaigns by certain corporations, such as Nike and McDonalds (and yes, Bodyshop also), to associate certain positive values, in the minds of consumers, with their brands. Don’t be mistaken, though propaganda/indoctrination can be obvious and jarring at times, it can also adopt a form so subtle & insidious that we are not even conscious of it. Beware the “chain” of propaganda/indoctrination.

Okay now, after reading all that I have written above, I suppose you all would understandably have the impression that I’m a very pessimistic person. Well, you all are wrong; I remain an optimist, albeit the realistic sort (that is I see & seek hope where it can be found). My purpose in writing this essay wasn’t to discourage you all or to advocate that we all resign ourselves to our fate; it was to give Hope (though Hope may well be both the source of our greatest strength & greatest weakness) to you all. Yes, the freedom we have may be greatly limited but it is nonetheless freedom. We may be chained by many chains but that doesn’t mean we do not and/or cannot struggle against these chains. Hopefully, this essay of mine have made you all aware & mindful of the “chains” that limit our freedom. Though it may perhaps be impossible to break free of all the “chains”, we must nonetheless safeguard whatever freedom we do have and not let it be taken away from us without a fight. And if possible, we should also attempt to increase the quantity of freedom we possess. Remember, though we may be in “chains”, we remain, in essence, beings that are free.

1 comment:

cos they lied, said...

that depends on what your definition of 'free' is? because to some people, being free to them is actually being shackled up in chains! that is where their comfort zone is and is what they're familiar with. it might be, ironically that they can't HANDLE what we've all come to term as 'freedom'. so it differs from each and every individual. of course i understand that your stand is a generalisation, so it's perfectly alright.

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