Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Environmental Vow: Part 14
An Alternative Model of Freedom
I've raised the idea of restorative justice not to solve the problems of our criminal justice system, but instead as a bit of a “thought experiment” to illustrate the different ways in which the concept of “freedom” can be understood. My suggestion is that the ideal encapsulated in the ethic of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” (at least as popularly conceived) is based on a flawed definition of freedom, one that is specifically centred on the individual. As I've suggested, as people naively express this ideal in their personal lives, it boils down to “do your own thing”. And, as I've pointed out, the ethic of “doing your own thing” has no real answer to the question “Why not become a crack whore? Couch potato? Greedhead? Sex Maniac? etc.” Adherence to this ideal has not only discredited so-called “progressives” in the eyes of the Right, it means that they have no moral grounds for suggesting that there is an imperative (moral, religious or patriotic) for people mobilize in order to deal with our climate catastrophe.
At this point, I'd like to introduce a more sophisticated definition of “freedom”, one that can go a long way, I believe, in answering the problems that have arisen from the “do your own thing” worldview. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the ancient Roman, once wrote that “Freedom is participation in power.” This definition will probably sound startling to some readers, so it might be helpful to mention that I first heard this quote mentioned by the consumer advocate and community organizer Ralph Nader. What he was saying was that “freedom”, in the political sense, does not flow from the absense of the Gestapo or the Inquisition, but instead from how engaged the citizenry is in the daily life of their society. It is possible to consider an enlightened dictatorship with complete freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc. But insofar as the people who live in that state do not have feel that they have any control over who is making the big decisions in their life, they still live in a dictatorship and they are not “free”. As a result of this reasoning, Nader was saying that if you want to be politically free you have to be actively engaged in the political process.
I believe that this new definition also works when we go beyond the realm of politics. “Power” is more than just government. Engineers and scientists, for example, gain power by learning more about the physical world that surrounds us. Even ordinary people who know how to fix a leaking toilet or change the operating system on their computer insofar as they can do so participate in the power of modern technology. It is certainly the case that when people are confronted by something that they don't know how to repair or even operate they feel especially powerless and unfree.
I would further suggest that the fundamental issue is not the specific knowledge that a person gains from learning about the machinery that surrounds them. Just because I can change the operating system on my computer doesn't mean that I know how it works or could even write a very simple program. The “mastery” I feel is ultimately pretty shallow and inconsequential. But the process of learning how to download open source software and install Linux on my laptop has resulted in my becoming personally “engaged” with the technology in a way that cannot happen by going into a store and buying a new computer pre-loaded with a MS Windows package.
In much the same way, the “freedom” that Cicero and Nader are talking about comes not from having all that much real control over the political process (even citizen groups have to have leaders and followers, after all.) Instead, the relevant issue is how much the person has invested their own personal well-being into the group project. This means that when we think about the phrase “freedom comes from participation in power”, the emphasis should be upon participation, not power.
At this point we can see where the value of restorative justice comes into play. It sees the key issue in criminal activity as being that of an individuals's alienation from society instead of their personal “evil”. The solution, therefore, is to reintegrate the offender into the community instead of merely punishing him. The Lakota elders reintegrated the murderer by making him responsible for supporting the wife and children of the man he killed. The modern example I gave teaches the offender that there really are individual human beings who are harmed by property crimes like burglary, which thereby deflates the comforting illusion that their offenses are only against impersonal, inhuman insurance companies. Insofar as this initiative is successful, it means that if the would-be criminal contemplates committing similar crimes in the future, the crime will have to be understood specifically as an act that is done to specific human beings who will suffer as a result. This makes the crime “real” in a way that it wasn't before, which is to say that the criminal has been brought back into the community of man.
Once we start seeing freedom in this way, we can see how religious people like the Benedictines and soldiers like General Wolf could see themselves as being “free”. Insofar as they felt that they were emotionally “participating” or “engaging” in enterprises much bigger than themselves---the monastery or regiment---they felt “free” in the same sense as understood by Cicero and Nader. Obviously the individual soldier driven into the army by poverty or oblate given to the Benedictines while still a young child, did not initially “participate” very much in the “power” that compelled them. But even so, many of these people no doubt did end up identifying with the community that they found themselves in, accepted its ideals, and ended up finding satisfaction in the life. Proof of this fact exists around us insofar as many people still find enormous personal satisfaction from living in religious communities. Similarly, a great many veterans of the Armed Forces are tenatiously loyal to their branch of the service even many years after being discharged.
The important point to understand in using Cicero's definition is to change the emphasis from that of being free from constraint to that of engagement in something bigger than one's self. The “free” man is not one that is free from coercion---a necessary, but not sufficient state of affairs---but rather one that is engaged with something that fulfills him. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre pointed out much the same thing when he suggested that there is a difference between what he called “freedom from” and “freedom for”. Many people seek freedom from constraints of one form or another (work, rules, etc), whereas the truly free man seeks freedom to follow some sort of higher idea (art, justice, etc.) This is where the difference lies between the crack whore and a great man like Martin Luther King Jr. comes into play. The former never set out to become enslaved to cocaine, it was just the result of a series of bad choices and/or consistently bad luck. The latter, on the other hand, devoted himself to the ideal of civil rights and did what was necessary to pursue it. Both came to a bad end, but the former is a sad tragedy whereas the latter was heroic martyrdom.