Who does not want freedom? We all do, we love it. We all wish innately and strive – actively or passively, consciously or subconsciously – to be absolutely free from the unwanted clutches of everyone out there, including our own parents, siblings, friends, partners, neighbours and bosses. Many of us love to defy the authority of all kinds and shapes, at all levels. We despise being instructed or ordered or pushed to do anything that we do not want to do in the first place. We want to be our own ultimate free-masters – of our bodies and minds. We want to do (or say) whatever we feel like doing (or saying) – unrestrained, untethered, unbridled and unfettered. We hate taking orders from others as much as we hate being punished for being disobedient, defiant or unruly. As we rise through the intoxicating hierarchy of power – social, professional or political – we wish to do whatever we feel like doing or saying – unhindered, anytime and anywhere. We want to say whatever we feel like saying, unchallenged, to anyone who exists around us or who tends to boss us. In tricky and sensitive situations, however, our defiance and insubordination can cost us dearly; sometimes, it can cost us our limited and relative freedom; sometimes, our livelihood; and sometime, even our own life.
Freedom may be considered, albeit arguably, as the ultimate goal of our life – freedom from disease, poverty, slavery, drudgery, oppression, suppression and incarceration. In essence, we do everything – work and education included – to become free from the commands of other people and rise as the absolute masters of our own lives. Innately, therefore, each one of us could be taken to pursue freedom and attain an impossible state of freewill. In doing so, we incessantly strive to amass as much wealth and power as possible, by both fair and unfair means, to buy our autonomy. In the pursuit of absolute control over our lives, however, we may tend to intrude upon the freedom of others, which, in turn, can potentially cost us a portion of our own freedom if the offended individuals bear authority upon us or are more powerful than us.
Utopian versus real world
In a perfect, utopian world, our wishes, whims and wants for achieving total freedom may be justified as our birthright or a human-right. In the real world, however, we are and must be held accountable for what we do and how we do it, as well as what we say and how we say things that may potentially offend others or encroach upon their intrinsic human dignity, material interests or human-rights. No wonder that outlaws, deviants and rebels are usually humbled, subjugated and brought to account in the end.
Absolute freedom and total autonomy, therefore, must be considered as utopian and a distant dream for most of us if not all. In the real world, therefore, freedom must be considered as relative and limited to our position in the socio-economic hierarchy and, as such, only some of us are relatively freer than others but none of us is absolutely free. Our limited and relative freedom comes with our accountability and, therefore, responsibility towards other people. While enjoying it, we must exercise due care, with sensitivity towards the freedom and human-rights of other people. The freedom that is exercised and discharged carefully, with accountability and responsibility towards others, may be expected to remain sustainable in general but not always where we are treated only as commodities (and not as humans).
On an individual level, our material progress must not be defined by the amount of our material wealth or our educational qualifications (gained through tutored education) or the collection and display of our facilities and gadgets. In essence, it must be defined only by the degree of autonomy that we enjoy in the expression of our thoughts and activities that we undertake in the public space. Our non-conformance with the commands of our elders and superiors can earn us a tag of being called a rowdy, unruly or a rebel. Where we deviate from societal norms, we are called as anti-social. Our flirtation or confrontation with law makes us an outlaw or a criminal, with legal consequences against us.
We generally tend to lose what we misuse. This applies to our fundamental rights also. The law and authority decide what can be deemed as acceptable and what as punishable. In the food-chain, the mighty rule and the powerful write the law. In the human jungle, conformity with written (and unwritten) law is a trusted path to safety. However, where the authority is prejudiced against us, for whatever reasons, our conformance with law may mean nothing.
A complex life and social structure
In our early years of life, we enjoy very little free space or autonomy. Our life remains primarily tethered to those who look after us – our parents, elders, teachers and the society at large –and our freedom remains dependent upon their whims and wishes. To a lesser or greater extent, we attract punitive reaction for using uncivil language or indulging in unacceptable behaviours of defiance. Of course, for some of us, the degree of our relative autonomy increases as we grow but also dwindles in the sunset years of our lives when many of us become dependent on our children and health professionals.
Due to the known complexities of life, and how we remain interconnected with other humans around us – socially, professionally or politically, not many of us succeed in achieving an absolute control upon our lives. Most of us remain chained lifelong to the accepted norms – societal, professional and political. In our growing years, we learn the art of political correctness to save our skin in those complex, confronting and challenging situations where we are required to speak or act, albeit without incurring damage in return. Understandably, the lives of court jesters in the past world, who would spew bitter criticism upon their rulers or the ruling establishments, would have been hanging on the edge by a delicate thread, with the sword of Damocles hanging constantly over their heads.
In the real world, human lives have always remained fettered to the law of the land or, in the absence of the law, to the whims and wishes of the ruler, and the mighty and the powerful.
True and uninhibited knowledge can, of course, set our minds free but for that, one needs to have the rare gift of freedom of thought and the ability to think outside the box. Sadly, not many of us have that kind of gift or the freedom to think critically and ask questions. Young minds are ridiculed for challenging their elders and asking uncomfortable questions. As adults, they continue to be muffled and gagged, and sometimes punished severely. In the world of beliefs, myths are passed on to newer generations as facts and historical occurrences that must not be challenged. Political ideologies and religious mythologies are thrust upon most of us since we begin to walk and talk. As adults, most of us get swayed; we are gullible and fallible.
Plato (circa 429-347 BC) – the ancient Greek philosopher and the illustrious student of the great Socrates – proposed the Allegory of the Cave (in his famous work Republic), to ruminate on the nature of belief versus knowledge. He likened the people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave and unable to turn their heads. With a fire burning constantly behind them, they would see only the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave in front of them and that becomes their reality; they cannot be imagined to have any idea of the real world outside their cave. He said: “Those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses.”
Holistically, true education must help us in attaining freedom from the darkness of our ignorance. True education, with openminded critical thinking, transcends the tutored education, which must be expected to have limitations. Unless our tutored education sets us free on the unbridled path of independent and critical thinking, with ability of question anything and everything, it can potentially trap us within a box where we live with a limited set of knowledge that can potentially be exploited by others with agenda.
Freedom demands accountability and responsibility from those who exercise it.
Our best safety comes from exercising political correctness that we learn through our enculturation at home and / or from school. To save our relative freedom – of thought and expression – we learn the delicate art of cultured speech and polished writing. We learn about the potential consequences for being rebellious and how our wings can potentially be clipped if we offend the authority – at home or at school or at workplace or the government. We risk the complete loss of our limited freedom — of expression and activity — if we are seen to be on the wrong side of the authority.
On social media, one may remain hidden and evade punishment for offensive posts as long as the authority chooses to turn a blind eye. But where the cyber hunters, employed by the authority itself, remain on the constant prowl, one is bound to be caught and punished. A social media user, deemed to be an actual or potential threat by the authority, can be punished for sedition.
In conclusion, while venting out our thoughts — in spoken or written words — we must remain always cognizant of the sensitivities of the authority and the audience (and readership) and, therefore, exercise our (limited) freedom responsibly and cautiously. While we enjoy and exercise our fundamental rights, we must not infringe on the rights of other people. Irresponsible social media users – who are incapable of intellectual engagements with other users or tend to make fun or indulge in personal attacks on them – exposes their own limitations, fallibility and shallowness. Civility demands that one focuses on the topic under discussion, without becoming personal or attacking other people.
… Bill Koul [Perth, Western Australia (03 August 2022)]