Why Are We Afraid To Be Free?

Why are so many of us preoccupied with the subject of "freedom," and yet seem so unclear about the conditions essential to its existence? The one question that dominates the inquiries I receive from others is this: "what can we do to bring about a condition of freedom in our lives?"

It is encouraging that such questions are being asked, and with far greater frequency than was the case in my young adult years, when the prevailing concern in the culture had more to do with devising "plans" by which state power could be used to refashion people and society into forms desired by various ideological interests. Still, the question is almost always misfocused, for the inquiry is generally framed in terms of how other people's thinking, or institutional systems can be changed to bring about a greater degree of individual liberty.

Let me begin by distinguishing the concepts "freedom" and "liberty." Freedom is a state of mind that is not in conflict or contradiction, a mind that has integrity (i.e., is integrated into a consistent whole). Liberty describes a social system in which free men and women live and cooperate with one another. Because their minds are free of conflict, their relationships with others tend to be peaceful and respective of one another's autonomy.

Does any of this describe our current world? How many of us have minds that are free of conflict? Since most of our holidays have long been co-opted by the state in furtherance of its interests – even Independence Day has been turned into a celebration of state militarism! – our minds are subjected to a steady iteration of how those who have fought in wars were "fighting for our freedom." But is this true? Those who have been conscripted to fight on behalf of the state were not able to defend their own freedom: how can they be said to defend the freedoms of the rest of us?

One who is fighting is in conflict. One who is in conflict is divided, seeking to satisfy incompatible ends. When we are fighting, we are, at best, seeking some sense of integrated wholeness, by playing out the contradictions in our lives that pull us in different directions. Can one whose very being is so divided, struggling to reconcile the inner antagonisms that have turned so many of us into the "normally neurotic" persons who comprise our modern world, be said to be "free"?

One way in which we seek to harmonize the contradictory nature of our thinking is by corrupting the meaning of the words we use to describe and communicate with others our understanding of the world. As George Orwell reminded us, the corruption of language is essential to the success of all political systems. If we can delude ourselves that "war is peace," "freedom is slavery," and "love is hate," we can ease the sense of incongruity of which our unconscious minds struggle to remind us. Whether we choose to face the fact or not, the corruption of language is really the corruption of our own minds.

Look at how Orwell's message continues to play out in our thinking. The Air Force's "Strategic Air Command" motto, "peace is our profession," is straight out of 1984, just as "affirmative action" programs remind us of the amended principle of Animal Farm that while "all animals are equal, some are more equal than others."

I recall, as a child during World War II, pictures of American soldiers giving chocolate bars to children whose homes and neighborhoods had just been destroyed by these same soldiers! This same phenomenon is taking place in the "war" against Afghanistan: U.S. planes drop bombs on Afghan people in order to kill them, and then drop food, medicine, and other goods as "humanitarian assistance" to those victimized by the bombings! Are these but awkward efforts to bring our contradictory beliefs into some apparent consistency?

We have been raised to love and respect one another, while religious holidays remind us of the importance of "peace on earth." At the same time, we have become conditioned, by school systems, to be obedient to those in authority, a message that is reinforced by motion pictures and television programs extolling the virtues of wartime "heroes" and peacetime police officers. With our assistance, the institutional order has trained us to be conflicted persons, so riddled with inner contradictions as to make a life of integrity impossible as we seek to satisfy these expectations.

The conflicts inherent in such contradictory premises immediately reveal themselves when a young man is conscripted into military service, and ordered by military authorities to fight and kill others that the state has defined to be his "enemy." Having been told that he should be obedient to those in authority while, at the same time, adhering to his own principles of proper behavior toward others, how is this young man to reconcile such contradictions? After World War II was over, the allied forces endeavored to synchronize such contrarieties through the "Nuremberg trials." In punishing German government officials for their atrocities – while carefully insulating American and British officials for their wrongs to humanity – the state employed psychological "projection," a device by which some condemn others for their own felt sense of moral or ethical shortcoming. We seek integrity in our lives not by ending our inner contradictions – an act that would call into question our prior learning – but by deluding ourselves that our undesired qualities can be transferred to others, who we can then target for punishment. It is this practice that the state carefully nurtures and mobilizes in wartime.

As President Bush and other government authorities prattle on about how their self-proclaimed "permanent" war will produce "enduring freedom," we should remind ourselves of one of the most important of history's lessons: wars invariably restrict freedom, they do not enhance it! Wars increase the powers of the state, a truth borne out in Randolph Bourne's classic phrase "war is the health of the state." The American Civil War greatly expanded the powers of the state, both in terms of how the war was conducted and the role played by the federal government thereafter (see Richard Bensel's Yankee Leviathan). World Wars I and II also extended state power and diminished individual liberties, as did the so-called "Cold War." While the ostensible enemies in wartime are foreigners, the real foe to be subjugated is the state's own citizenry. It is the extension of domestic control, and the reinforcement of the sense of obedience by its own people, that most interests the state. Who do you think the increased military presence in America is designed to control?

If you doubt the tyrannical nature of all wartime practices, observe the Draconian measures already put in place in this country by the Bush Administration, and those additional restraints upon our lives now being proposed. Observe, as well, the facility with which so many Americans have permitted their thinking to fall in line with the mass-mindedness upon which all statist systems depend. Echoing the mantras of various government officials, 71% of persons alleged to have been polled expressed support for the "assassination" of Osama bin Laden, rather than a public trial. A trial might, after all, reveal that bin Laden had no involvement with the September 11th attacks, and to simply assassinate the man would save the Bush Administration untold embarrassment. Like any lynch mob, those who have whooped themselves into a mass-minded frenzy don't wish their prejudices confused by factual disputes!

If it is our desire to live as free men and women, we must abandon our habits of looking outside ourselves for answers. It is to our own minds, our own fears, to which we must have resort. To be "free" is to live without division, and yet the state – as well as other proclaimed authorities – insist that we obey their mandates. To the extent that we must choose between pursuing our own interests and obeying others, we are internally divided into conflicting purposes.

How do we end such divisive thinking other than by confronting, and ending, the contradictory thinking that has produced it? Can we understand that trying to overthrow the state, or to reform it, or to select less-demanding leaders, will not end the thinking that has produced it? Neither is the answer to be found in science fiction or utopian/dystopian novels, in which efforts are made to deal with freedom in the setting of imaginary worlds, thus relieving the reader of the responsibility of doing so in reality.

It is the existential depths of our own beings that we need to explore if we are to discover the meaning of freedom. When we are prepared to do so, we will begin to discover some important truths about ourselves, one of the most important being that we are, by nature, self-controlling beings. I, alone, can energize my will and my body on behalf of purposes to which I must choose to act. The fact that political systems must resort to violence – and the threat of violence – to persuade us to obey their directives, is the clearest evidence that neither they, nor anyone else, can control our actions.

Because we are self-controlling beings, we are also responsible for our actions. This is not a moral or ethical proposition, but simply a causal one: I am responsible for what I do because I am the one who controls my actions. By the same token, to the degree we seek to control the lives and property of others, we help to foster, in their minds, the illusions that they are not responsible for what they do.

Is it any wonder that, as the state has increased its regulatory powers, micromanaging the ever-finer details of our lives and social behavior, such efforts have been accompanied by the modern phenomenon of victimhood in our society? If I believe that I lack freedom over my own actions, and do not enjoy decision-making control over myself, why would you not expect me to exhibit irresponsible behavior, and regard myself as the "victim" of some faceless others?

Why do we continue to think this way? Why are we so fearful of looking deep within our own souls and confronting both the creative, loving, joyous nature of our beings, as well as those "dark side" traits that we would prefer to project onto others?

The answer to this question lies, I believe, in the nature of freedom to integrate both "self-control" and "self-responsibility." We tend to fear freedom, because we have a dread fear of being responsible for our actions. Walter Kaufmann coined the word "decideophobia," by which he referred to the fear we have of making decisions in our lives. What we fear the most in a sense of responsibility is not so much that we might be answerable to others, but to our own judgments. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, expressed the point this way: "It is impossible for that which is free by nature to be disturbed by anything but itself. It is a man's own judgments which disturb him."

Freedom is a state of mind that each of us must discover for ourselves. In so doing, we will find that there is nothing that anyone in authority can do to make our world more peaceful orderly, or free. There are no institutional reforms, or ideologies, or more fashionable gurus to save us: such thinking only continues our sense of irresponsibility.

I have often asked – as have some of my students – "if I were completely free, how would I live my life? What would I do differently from what I now do?" Let us suppose that the education of children is an important purpose in my life, and that I have been spending my time trying, without success, to reform the government school system. Suppose that I now determine to start my own school for children, to operate it according to my judgments as to what methods and curricula are important for children, and to ignore the bureaucratic mandates of the state's education hierarchies.

If taking the responsibility for my actions – which would include committing my own resources, rather than trying to persuade the state to confiscate and employ yours – is what it means to be free, is it not clear that if, today, I begin conducting myself in such a way, that I would thus be free?

Some may respond that I am only playing "word games," but such a reaction ignores the fact that we have twisted ourselves into the kinds of contradictory, anti-life, conflict-ridden people we have become because of "word games" others have helped us learn to play at our own expense. If you wish to end such practices and to discover the life-sustaining freedom that inheres within you, you need do no more than confront, in your own thinking, the means by which you have cooperated in your own psychological crippling. Having done so, you will be able to cast aside your institutional crutches and walk away from your self-confinement. You will then experience the liberating insight so beautifully expressed by the late F.A. Harper: "The man who knows what freedom means will find a way to be free!"

November 27, 2001

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts