Thursday, July 29, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Thirteen

The Paradox at the Base of Freedom

Another way of understanding the problem with the ideals of self-actualization and spontaneity is the fact that both terms are intimately connected to the concept of “freedom”. And that idea is very complex and paradoxical in a way that popular followers of “self-actualization” don't, I believe, understand.

It is relatively easy to think about “freedom” when we contrast public life in a Liberal Democracy with that in a Totalitarian Dictatorship, such as Nazi Germany or Catholic Europe under the counter-reformation. People can point to the greater opportunities for expression, less oppressive police presence, etc. Where the problems begin, however, is when we contemplate exactly what freedom means when we already have freed ourselves from the Gestapo and Inquisition---which is exactly the position that many North American citizens found themselve in during the post-WWII era.

The complexity is that people can find their freedom limited by a lot more than nasty people in uniforms or cassocks.

They can, for example, find themselves addicted to recreational drugs. Walk down just about any street in the world and you will find people who are so addicted to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, etc, that they are worse off than all but the most desperate of chattel slaves. Indeed, the popular parlance admits the fact when they are described as “slaves” to their addictions, or, that they have a “monkey on their back”. Walking by these people who are begging for the means to get high, are many others who have almost as dangerous addictions: smokers, people who eat too much, are in debt up to their eyeballs, who never exercise, etc. These “addicts” are able to live functional lives1, but they still pay a huge price in terms of longevity and/or diminished quality-of-life. The paradox of freedom is that it isn't just the “freedom to do as you please” because that would seem to imply that people can, and often do, “freely choose” to become crack whores or do nothing more than sit on a chesterfield watching television and eating potato chips until they have a heart attack.

It is often argued that these people's freedom is constrained by “private demons” that they aquired during traumatic childhoods. I have no doubt that this is often true. But it doesn't change the fact that these people exist without any significant outside physical contraints upon their freedom, yet it is perfectly reasonable for observers to question just how “free” these people truly were to choose the lives that they find themselves in. Once we accept that people can be “unfree” because of a “monkey on their back”, the realization isn't weakened because we find that in some sense the metaphorical simian was placed there many years ago by an abusive parent. Either way, the idea of “freedom” has been made dramatically hard to understand once this observation has been acknowledged.

Another equally complex wrinkle to consider is the term “discipline”. Who is the freest person: the man who follows whatever momentary idea pops into his head at any given moment? Or, he who is fixated on an idea that popped into his head a while back and which he has developed into a game plan that he follows day after day for a long period of time? A long-term task like writing this essay can often seem like an onerous obligation or a crazed obsession---either way, it seems to be a constraint on the writer's freedom in those given moments that he sets aside to write. Yet if a man is incapable of planning and executing this sort of long-term goal, it seems that he is like a leaf blowing in an autumn wind---totally at the mercy of the moment's fleeting fancies. That too hardly seems to be a life of “freedom”.

Even more to the point, it seems an inescapable fact of human existence that often the most exhilarating freedom can only come as the result of significant drudgery. Musicians---even people who play the wildest improvised jazz---are only able to freely express their fleeting emotions if they are willing to spend years and years grinding away at scales, arpeggios and etudes. Martial artists are in much the same boat: that momentary glimpse of “mushin awareness”2 will only come from years spent grinding away at forms practice. All the ways in which a person can “actualize the self” offer the same lesson: True spontenaity seems to be intrinsically linked to the drudgery of disciplined practice.

This raises the point why I have tried to emphasize that I am responding to the popular understanding of Maslow's theory, not the theory itself. I often meet people in positions of some prominence who espouse some version of it, but when you look at the way they live their lives you see that they too have put in the disciplined years necessary learning the “finger exercises” of their art. Professors, writers, psychologists, etc, who espouse the value of “sponaneity” and “following your bliss” have shown in one way or another that they have large reserves of discipline, or else they would never have been able to learn the skills and credentials needed to follow their avocation. Unfortuantely, they rarely will admit how important discipline has been in their careers, though, because that would force them to back down on the extreme position. 3

I would suggest that the reason why we have a hard time undersanding the paradoxical nature of freedom is because we assume that personal freedom is exactly that: “personal”. Our society bye-and-large assumes that human beings are atomic, isolated entities that find themselves confronted with having to choose between different, universally-understood, options. Our legal system, for example, is based on this assumption. That is why crimes are considered as being the result of a single individual and justice as being exclusively the result of what the state decides to do to the convicted criminal. Liberals believe that this criminal needs to be re-educated. Conservatives believe that he should be punished. But neither sees any role for either the victim or the community at large in the process.

In contrast, certain so-called “restorative justice” models might suggest that whenever a crime is committed it is both the result of complex social forces at work, and, it affects the entire of society. Under this model, when a crime is committed the “balance” of society has gone out of whack, and the entire society needs to come together and reconfigure people's relationships so it will work in the future.

I can remember reading a short book about the Lakota Indian legal system that gave an example of a restorative model in practice. A man had killed another man and had been found guilty by the elders. Under our system of governance, he would be punished and the story would end there. The Lakotas understood, however, that there were other issues at play. For example, without the dead man's work as a hunter, his widow and children would suffer from poverty. The tribal elders decided that the killer would have to marry the widow of the man he killed, which meant that he would be obligated to provide for her and her children.4

The emphasis in this situation was to rebalance the outcomes of the crime, namely the loss in livelihood for the dead man's family. But it is possible to consider a restorative model that would attempt to rebalance the initiating factors that led to the crime in the first place. For example, people who are arrested for certain property crimes sometimes are asked to engage socially with the people that they have stolen from in an attempt to force them to rethink their relationship to society at large. It is one thing to burgle a home with the assumption that no one is hurt because “insurance pays for everything”, another to meet an individual with modest means and a large deductable who suffers real problems as a result of a break and enter. The hope is that once the criminal puts a face on their victims, it becomes harder to justify the crime to one's self.

In a similar vein, people who follow a criminal lifestyle often do so in order to fuel an addiction. In a restorative model, instead of being punished they would be offered treatment for their addiction. A further expansion of the restorative model would include a rethink of our laws against recreational drugs, which dramatically increases their cost---which makes it necessary for addicts to become criminals in order to afford their habit. An even greater expansion of the restorative model would be to examine the informal social network that these criminals inhabit in order to try and foster new associations that would make it easier to re-integrate into mainstream society, which would make it less “normative” for the individual in question to take recreational drugs and pay for them with crime.

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