Theory and Practice of Freedom
30 August 2013
It has been observed that, in Western countries at least, the idea of freedom is honored more in the breech than the observance. Individuals who make full use of their freedom are likely to be thought eccentric, and most social institutions both impose and expect a degree of conformity that makes a mockery of the idea of freedom. In other words, there is a bifurcation between the theory and the practice of freedom, in which freedom is celebrated as a wonderful thing in theory but is frowned upon in practice.
Every compromise to our freedom, no matter how slight, every expectation that we will go along to get along, every time we tolerate implicit coercion that channels lives in particular directions, all of the traditions and customs that we “honor” in the misguided spirit of filial piety, impinge upon our freedom, and it is this incremental encroachment of our freedom, the ever-so-gradual paring away of live options and possibilities, that develops into a world-view that prizes conformity over independence and authority over autonomy.
There is an important sense in which travel is the practice of the theory that is freedom. A fundamental part of freedom is freedom of movement, which is why, when we punish individuals, we incarcerate them and restrict their freedom of movement. To be deprived of one’s freedom of movement is to be deprived of one’s liberty. To make the most of one’s freedom of movement is to put into practice the idea of freedom, to live freedom and not merely to honor or respect it.
Some are deprived of their liberty by force, others by fraud, but the vast majority are deprived of their liberty by barriers that exist only because we allow them to exist. It is not quite accurate to say that most individuals live in a prison of their own making; it is worse: most live in a prison built by others, and accept it for what it is without questioning the walls, the boundaries, the perimeters, the accepted parameters of life.
There are degrees of freedom, as I observed a few days ago. One can cultivate additional degrees of freedom, but one can also leave freedom uncultivated, and in so doing implicitly and incrementally relinquish freedoms until the world narrows into something that cannot be called freedom in any sense of the term that is not a betrayal of its meaning.
When I get a taste of freedom by way of exercising my freedom of movement, it is a heady and intoxicating experience, and I want more. I think many freedoms are like this: shimmering just out of reach most of the time, but when possessed, embraced, indulged, and exhausted just the taste of it leaves us wanting more. The appetites of the body are readily satisfied, and, once satiated, leave us unperturbed for a time. The appetites of the mind — for freedom, for meaning, for value — are much more difficult to satisfy, but once we see our way clear to grasping them, we do not tire of them, and our appetite for them only expands with time.
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