Freedom in a rigid society, is like wisdom in fools paradise. A land with nothing but limitations upon limitations, flies a grey flag. Bright and beautiful colours that pure individual expression brings forth, which breathes life into the surroundings, would either be pale or absent.
Freedom is a word with quite a number of synonyms and several meanings to different people, in different places, at different times. In some places, it’s the ability to move about freely without any form of harassment. Elsewhere, it means being able to walk down the streets safely without being mugged or shot. To some, freedom is the leverage to do whatever you want, regardless of the implications. Some persons believe it’s the right to fully express one’s self without any inhibitions or fears. Some others see freedom as being able to aspire towards being anything one wishes to become in life, no matter how unconventional or seemingly “impossible”. To certain individuals, it’s a state of living without restrictions, be it in the form of enslavement, imprisonment, strict societal rules, eagle-eyed parental supervision or even restraining dogmas.
Given the varying definitions of freedom, one may be tempted to think that the concept of freedom is arbitrary, since restriction in someone’s dictionary might mean autonomy in someone else’s and what is bondage to an individual could be freedom to another. What then, can be said to be the standard by which freedom can be described? To simply call it a lack of restrictions would seem like generalizing, because there are some restrictions that have been put in place for the good of the society, after serious thought and considerations. Going against such thoughtful barriers can, to an extent, jeopardize social stability.
Every individual alive was born into a community, whether large or small, complex or simple. Any society we find ourselves in, has governing rules, norms, cultures and traditions. Everyday life occurs within these lines and in most cases, there are consequences when such lines are crossed. As a result, by merely existing in the society, we are subconsciously conditioned to act according to certain social precepts. The implication of this, is that we are expected to think, talk, act and live our lives, just as the society has prescribed.
In most typical societies, a child is born -much joy to the world, particularly the immediate family- she or he is expected to go to school after the initial weaning years, make friends, “read”, pass, graduate, join the labour force, locate their missing rib, settle down, be fruitful and multiply, then, make a living to ensure social security. Anything you want to do in-between is totally up to you. For the other “basic” things, one is not exactly free to do as one pleases; or at least the society makes us to believe so, possibly due to years of social conditioning.
All the things society subtly compels us to do aren’t all that questionable, neither are they altogether obligatory. When subjected to quiet introspection, they are just what survival, through times, has ingrained on our subconscious as what seems like the proper things to do.
At different points in history, certain individuals, due to one reason or the other, chose to walk a path different from the one the society laid before them or uphold a philosophy that was unpopular or frowned upon by the general public or even the authorities. In a lot of cases, such individuals didn’t exactly break the law or impose themselves on anyone’s way of life. They only expressed their freedom within the ambit of the law. Some of them were killed for it. Some were loved for it. Some were ostracized, while some were revered. Some were worshiped and some were exiled.
In the year 1610, the Italian polymath, Galileo Galilei, published The Starry Messenger, a book on astronomy, which supported the theory of heliocentrism – the belief that the earth, along with other planets in our galaxy, revolved around the sun. The catholic church strongly opposed this view because it was in conflict with the popular belief then, that the sun and other planets revolved around the earth (geocentrism). This belief helped to accentuate the notion that God loved man so much and so, made the earth the center of attraction in the whole universe. Galileo was instructed to stop writing about, teaching or backing the theory of heliocentrism. He refused. Consequently, he was accused and tried by the Roman inquisition for heresy. They found him “guilty” and sentenced him to indefinite imprisonment, placing him under house arrest until he died in 1642.
To Galileo, freedom must have meant bravery. We all love the idea of being free but freedom isn’t exactly free. Most times, it comes at a price. For African Americans in the 60s, freedom was bought with beatings, police harassment, lynchings, burning at the stakes, imprisonment and even assassination. Majority of their ancestors, during the dark, depressing years of slavery didn’t even have the chance to buy their way out of much worse and atrocious conditions of human existence. Only a few managed to buy themselves through years and years of loyal service or by gathering enough “peanuts” overtime doing side-jobs for other slave owners and then paying their owners an agreed sum of money.
Many people heave sighs of relief, thanking their stars they weren’t existing in such a gloomy era, waving off slavery as a thing of the past but sadly, this evil trails us still. It has shape-shifted from what it was in the 1800s, into the form of human trafficking. These days, unsuspecting victims are usually lured by traffickers, using poverty and hopes of a better life overseas as a bait, and sold off into a life of bondage and servitude. Unlucky individuals, mostly children and young ladies, are subjected to the whims of their new owners. Some are put to use as house servants or made to do strenuous jobs, with little or no pay. Worse off, are those ones who are forced to be sex slaves, sex workers or even used for child pornography. Oceans away from the comfort of home, young and alone in the world, they live their lives, exposed to degrading situations that rob them of their esteem and humanity. To such unlucky people, freedom is the slightest opportunity to utilize their free will.
Given the different conditions that freedom comes with, when can one be said to be truly free? Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) opined that, “a freeman is he that in those things by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.” If however, we all choose to go this route, everybody doing what they feel like doing and living according to their own rules, it might just set the stage for anarchism to settle in. In contrast to this philosophy, John Locke (1632-1704), spoke of freedom not being the liberty for everyone to do what they like, to live as they please and not to be tied by any laws but that “persons have a right or liberty to follow their own will in things that the law hasn’t prohibited and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown and arbitrary will of others.”
In the days of old, freedom to the Greeks meant someone not being subjected to the will of a master. Yet, even though one is independent of any form external control, it doesn’t mean one is totally free. One can appear to be free and still be a slave to one’s self, one’s thoughts, one’s work, ambitions, addictions and even possessions.
So, when we speak of freedom, how little is too little and how much is too much? Where is the line between being free and being delusional? Although seemingly simple, freedom is quite complex a concept in the sense that, living with so much limitations isn’t really living and being too free could impede on another’s personal space, whether mental or physical. To know that one must be free, yet, one must be cautious is but another of life’s paradoxes.
We all want to be free but the fleeting state of freedom, like that of peace of mind or happiness, makes it rather elusive. At different points in time, there seems to be an urge to be free from one thing or the other. Being free from want or lack. Being free of worries, problems, fear, shame, guilt or hate. Being free from ignorance, injustice, oppression and suppression. Being free of torment, war and so many other things.
At the end of the day, freedom might just be the constant fight to establish what appears to be right and dignifying for all humans at a particular time. From a certain angle, it looks as though humanity is and has been on a very long walk to freedom, right from our baby steps. Little wonder why Emma Lazarus, perhaps, after so much reflection, concluded that “until we are all free, we are none of us free.”