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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Troublesome freedom

I do not always write for children here (and there are a lot of 50-year old children around these days, I know), so here’s some serious stuff again.

This article in The American Scholar has set me musing over one of my pet themes once more: where does one (and a society) draw the line between freedom and responsibility (I strongly recommend that this earlier post be read in tandem with the current one)? Is it possible to have too much freedom? Do we perhaps make a fetish of freedom as with everything else, from God to science? Can a society go to the dogs with freedom just as it can asphyxiate or explode under tyranny?

Karl Marx once famously said ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Had that savant lived to see all that has happened since his day, all the change that freedom-intoxicated humanity, commoners by the millions as much as technologists and businessmen and politicians and pop-philosophers and ad-men have together done to change the world, he might have found himself breathless and very confused, if not also dismayed and disgusted (in personal life, as far as I know, he was a much more quiet and conservative man than I am). What would he have said when Revlon and Twitter alike can bring about instant and virtually painless ‘revolutions’, when the Higgs boson and Lady Gaga are equally ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ in the mass media for the passing moment, when nothing is sacred any more except what cults and loony fringes subscribe to, when schoolboys either hang themselves or shoot their teachers on failing examinations, and when change for change’s sake has become a hypnotizing mantra whose spell enthralls virtually everybody? Wouldn’t he have started looking desperately for people who still want to ‘stand and stare’, to make sense of the whirligig of life, and to make judgments they can live by, judgments they don’t have to change from one day to another to fit the fad of the moment?

Are we really free – whether we are children or adults, male or female, rich or poor – or simply tied to some eternally turning machine like cogs in the wheel: either studying for examinations, or making a living, or attending to social ‘obligations’, or shopping or watching TV simply because we can’t think of anything better to do? Do we really want very much freedom, or will most people’s lives fall apart if ever the ropes of routine and discipline were loosened a bit? Is it perhaps the primary duty of the ruling classes – among whom I include not just politicians and policemen but teachers, religious men and celebrities, too – to provide a little more discipline, more structure, more orderliness in our lives, and are they failing in their duty (which would explain everything from soaring graphs of divorce and death in road accidents to sudden economic crashes through unregulated and rampant greed at the bourses)? Are we being taught enough, at all levels from kindergarten to the university, about how best to use our freedom(s)? And, as the linked article very pertinently asks, are we forgetting that there are other, very important ideals to aim at, by being obsessed with freedom – even trivial freedom, like wearing abusive comments on t-shirts?

What is the point in thinking about such things, many readers may wonder. I am very clear about why I do it. It is the only thing that keeps the essential humanity in oneself alive: otherwise we are just living the lives of (sometimes glorified, but mindless) drudges. Cogito, ergo sum. Besides, all real change for the better comes from thinking in this fashion, and spreading the thoughts around. I am a cerebral man, and naturally all my heroes were cerebral over and above everything else. One of them said ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers… are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else… sooner or later, it is ideas rather than vested interests that are dangerous for good or evil.’ And John Maynard Keynes did change the world in a very significant (I’d say on the whole better-) way with his ideas about how governments should regulate capitalism in the larger public interest…


Sunup said...

For the serious reader, this post (and the linked post from 2007) is sort of a 'challenging treat' indeed. It makes is think in such ways as we are usually not used to. Freedom is relevant (or finds relevance?) only if the one(s) enjoying it enjoys it responsibly. Let me give 2 small examples from my personal life, where in one instance I am responsible and in another I am not. My parents never used to keep the family 'money box' away from us kids under lock and key. It was kept it an open area where anyone of us could take money if needed. So that was a freedom given to me from a very young age. But I was responsible enough to never misuse that freedom. Never once have I taken anything without keeping my parents in the loop. Now for the irresponsible part. The firm where I work currently has given us full freedom to use the Net. Nothing is filtered or monitored or blocked from anyone. But let me admit that I do use it for visiting social websites, blogs, do banking activities, and sometimes even trade shares in the stock market during 'company hours'. So this is a case where I am not so responsible in practicing the freedom given to me. The freedom that our country gives us citizens is also remarkable. We can sit and criticize our politicians, bureaucrats, colleagues, peers, teachers, managers etc. to our heart's content, and yet live to tell the tale. But then we should be responsible too. Just that we have the freedom doesn't mean that we can post vile things about the people we hate on social networking sites and the blogs. Though I am no admirer of the Gandhi family I am fed up and filled with revulsion on reading the thrash posted by Congress haters like Sonia Gandhi was a call-girl in Italy, Rahul has raped countless women etc etc. Who knows, such irresponsibility from our part may force the authorities to do a 'China' in the future.
And Sir, something that you've written in the linked post is a gem indeed -- "We have become technically overdeveloped while remaining moral cretins: Archimedes would have thought he was dreaming if he woke up in today’s world, but the Buddha would have found that hardly anything had changed!" How true it is! Most people in today's world have a feeling that mankind started 'developing' from the time of say Edison and that everyone before that age were naive cavemen. I am sure that people in the bygone eras were more mentally, culturally, emotionally, morally, intellectually (and many more) mature than most of the present day lot.


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.This post addresses a very important question-one that is very close to my heart.Are any of us really free?Is free will an illusion,or is there some degree of freedom granted to us at all points in Life,which might be not influenced by our past actions?Is freedom without limits freedom at all?After all,the freedom that one whiles away irresponsibly is another sort of bondage,albeit very difficult to break free of.And in the truest sense,are any of us free at all in this world of the senses?All we have choices at crossroads,I think,and even the paths leading down to those crossroads are ones we have chosen in the past.India has attained freedom geographically,politically,but have the shackles of age-old superstition,dogma been cast off at all?I would say No.All around me,I find youngsters and my generation reeling under the barrage of the unreal that consistently attacks and bombards our senses,and forces us to become the slaves of matter,wherein the irony lies in the fact-In the first place we were supposed to be ruling matter!Now,apathy,greed,lust have become the hallmarks of an age of consumerism,wherein emotions are simulated and responses are programmed.None of us have ever tasted true freedom;for had we done so,we would have transcended all barriers and attained knowledge of our true selves.I have always liked an anecdote narrated by Sri Ramakrishna wherein he spoke about birds who used to lay their eggs while flying,in mid-air and mid-flight while passing the cliffs;the eggs would smash if they dashed down onto the cruel rocks below-so even before the babies could get a chance to be born,they would have had to take part in a battle for survival.Some of these babies plunged to their deaths below,but miracles did occur in the form of those birds which cracked their shell in mid-air,and managed to fly off,albeit floundering,to life and freedom.Are we not like those eggs?Before we plunge into the abyss of desire,can we not fly off into the glorious sunset?Can we not be Jonathan Seagull?

Finally,do we really want freedom?Could we really live without our bubble of illusory security?

I hope my comment has been relevant,Sir.

With best wishes,

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

Two of the things you have mentioned in this post are things I love to talk to people about: free will vs determinism and the thin line between freedom and anarchy.

The first one is something I read at length for the first time in 'Ghost in the machine' and I have been fascinated by it ever since. The second one, we (students and faculty from different parts of the world) discussed at lunch a few days ago. The American was open enough to admit that people here are overfed with the whole idea of 'freedom' since they are kids and that probably explains why they think that anything from buying guns to paying less taxes, from encouraging (and supporting) low-cost retail chains to being extremely blunt are all fine. I can appreciate the fact that a person here is free to burn the national flag because it's a free country, but I wouldn't support someone doing it. With freedom comes a lot of responsibility.

You should hear some of the arguments people here give in support of making guns legal everywhere and for everyone (citizen I suppose). And if you say something to the contrary, they just say: Second Amendment. It's the Europeans here who seem to be much more level-headed about guns and taxes and thinking of betterment of society as a whole rather than an isolated individual. Just today we were discussing something on these lines and a Korean student mentioned that the way they think in the far east is so different from how they do here: they always think of the 'big-picture'.

In the true sense, we are ruled by so many things, mostly material, that we probably can't say that we are indeed free. People gush over iPad 3 and Justin Bieber and all kinds of nonsense.

Anyway, more food for thought. It's always good.


Anonymous said...

Dear Suvro’da,

Your post is thought provoking indeed. To exercise freedom, in anything , from thoughts to actions, and do so responsibly is tall order indeed and hat’s off to the one who can achieve and demonstrate it..not just once or twice but everytime!

I would say, lots of us, on a personal experience, confuse ‘freedom’ with discipline or the absence of it. I remember those warm and sunny afternoons in my mid-school days when I used to find myself totally alone in the house and my mother’s watchful eyes not prying on me. Probably that was my first taste of ‘freedom’ in any sense; the joy in being able to do something of my ‘own liking’ outside the ropes of discipline that normally used to bind me in those hours everyday. The Tintin comic books and the chocolate biscuits used to come out and make my afternoons truly delicious then! Responsibility? It was a term unheard of to me then! As I grew into the higher school, music cassettes and television replaced those comic books until one day my father stepped in somewhere to show me how and where to draw the line. And he did it with so convincingly that it stayed as a happy learning for me for my years to come! Today, when I see my son sneaking out his comic books once he sees his mother asleep on a vacation afternoon, I cannot but help smile! Let the child enjoy his ‘freedom’, life will teach ‘responsibility’ in due time and as parents and teachers we will help ease and cement that learning.

Much later in life, as a Manager of a bunch of young ad chirpy lads in a corporate sales team, perhaps I truly learnt to manage freedom and responsibility in real life. You have to ‘walk the talk’ and only then can you influence others to follow you. I guess this is where our leaders and ‘role-models’, politicians and celebrities alike fail mostly. And this rubs off equally in our personal life as well. At home, I often see my son trying to compare himself with me in things both big and small. He is quick to point out if I have skipped brushing my teeth at night when his mother pushes him to brush after dinner! So somewhere we become the ‘default’ role model and the leader and then understand that it is in our own best interests that we learn to ‘responsibly use freedom’!

Charity begins at home, goes the clichéd saying! With every child learning from the adult, and with every adult understanding the need to responsibly exercise freedom, and this rubbing off on the professional and social spheres, the true change can be seen on the social fabric someday! I would say, we must remember and act that “discipline is what we are doing when no one is watching us!”



Abhiroop said...

Sir, Am visiting your blog after a long time, and it is so nice to see some things do not change one bit. WHAT a post! Very thought provoking and insightful, couched as usual in your delectable writing.

I had a few thoughts (more than solutions, it is oft said that lawyers only speak and argue and rarely offer solutions!) and let us hope it shall lend some colour to this conversation.

1. The great John Quincy Adams, in his closing arguments in the Amistad mutiny case in the US Supreme Court had said that "the natural state of mankind... is freedom. And the proof of it is the length to which any man, woman and child will go to regain it once taken . He will break loose his chains, he will decimate his enemies, he will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home". There is much wisdom in what he said: freedom, and the urge for it is perhaps the most primeval of all human emotions. The search for it is ingrained in our souls. Being responsible, on the other hand is quite possibly, not. But I feel (and maybe Im jumping the gun a little bit), that responsibility can, and often, follow. I think human evolution, to some extent has been sustained in light of our ability to, at some point of time, allay excessive freedom with "some cold drops of" good prudence. If that was not the case, we would still be little better than ape-men running around in loincloth, giving effect to only the most base of emotions such as hunger, thirst, lust and others just because we could do so. I think perhaps it is the human condition itself to go ga-ga over any new manifestation of freedom (I'm sure the discovery of fire and the wheel must have evoked similar emotions as the I-phone 4 and message T-shirts) initially, and subsequently to allow recourse to wiser counsel.

2. An instance of the above is possibly the internet. After all the initial euphoria had died down, after chat-rooms and all the naked banality, abuse, obscenity therein had become redundant, and porn kings started offering their best to kids young enough to type, Web 2.0 gave us open source, Linux, and the gigantic compendium of knowledge called Wikipedia. Today we have people from Brazil to Borneo sitting at home, working on their old spare computers trying to sculpt together open source software like Ubuntu, blog about their experiences and make movies about their pet iguanas. Maybe I am over simplifying but I would like to imagine that humankind decided finally to get its act together, and realise that such a gigantic virtual free-space could be better used than hurling abuse, spreading hate and watching pornography.

3. Last, before the comment gets too long: just like there is a thin line between freedom and sensationalism, there is also an equally slippery slope between frivolity and a grand march for freedom itself. Call me crazy: but as much good has been done to the ideals of free speech in America by Hustler Magazine's Larry Flynt than perhaps generations of law-makers, jurists and philosophers. When the US Supreme Court upheld Hustler magazine's claim to publish a parody portraying an evangelical goody-two shoes individual having incestuous sex with his mother in a barn, they didnt merely let a smut king get away with a lot more sleaze- they affirmed that individuals have the right to parody and ridicule public figures (as long as the same was not libelous), an ideal which I goes to the heart of free speech and democracy. The right thing to do is not do it the Hustler way: but sometimes a very loud shout is what is required to establish freedom itself.

To end: quoting Time Magazine: there is really no roadmap to which an organism which is not an amoeba can be subject to really. But I think humanity in the past has proven that it can, and will learn to use its freedom responsibly.

Apologies for the rambling.

Abhiroop Lahiri
Email: alahiri@luthra.com

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, all who wrote in, and Abhiroop especially, since it was not only after a very long time, but most pertinent too. I shall look forward to more comments on other posts of mine.

Considering that more than 400 have visited this post already, it is a pity that so few people have written in, though. I should have at least expected thoughtful young pupils to write in with questions that are raised in their minds in the process of reading something like this (and the links).

Amit parag said...

But is freedom appreciated and understood by the majority of people? Yes it is true that people have rebelled against those who have sought to curb their liberty, but has not this process taken a long time to achieve the desired effect? People have made allowances with their freedom, started a course of decay and finally when they become very poor and hungry-hunger, I believe, arouse far more desire to overcome bondages than poverty- they revolt. The idea of freedom is so common that its true worth is hardly noticed, except by a greater mind, which in turn seeks to oppose any design of captivity, however mild it may appear. This, I think, was precisely the reason Patrick Henry proposed amendments after amendments to the American constitution, and this exactly why people appear to be bamboozled or do stupid things if all restraints are suddenly lifted.
The questions that are we truly free or are we characters in a play who must exit the theatre when our part is done cannot be answered definitely. If we be some part of a play, then any concept of free will vanishes and a veil is fashioned which creates the illusion of control and choice making. If we are truly free then death, birth and luck cannot be sufficiently explained. Therefore what I choose to believe is that in a fixed limit people are free to make their own choices, that is, between one’ birth and his eventual death, he can make independent choices limited by nothing whatsoever, however resultant fate may not be guided solely by one’ choice-suppose one makes an choice to live a healthy and physically fit life but gets his legs amputated in some accident.
This seems to be a possible explanation of all the facts.
Can a society go to the dogs with freedom? I believe the answer is yes. Society in a very subtle way imposes restrictions on us for the benefit of all, for the clichéd ‘greater good’, which implies that it cannot contain something which it seeks to curtail. In certain conditions that challenge or are contrary to normal the beast in man always rises, nearly always if one counts exceptions, and if the beast has full freedom then neither it nor anyone else survives. So in a way it is prudent to impose restrictions on people, but these limits become a nuisance to a well cultivated mind-“The loss of liberty to a generous mind is worse than death”- but nevertheless keeps the process of progression ongoing.

Shilpi said...

It's rather odd that you wrote this particular post the day you did. Just the day before I found this post, I'd been sitting by the river and pensively and consciously wondering after many months whether thinking about the things I still do (freedom, happiness, wealth, pain, karma death, and love being some) have any purpose. It was a relief finding this post and that last paragraph especially, and for different reasons. That statement too 'cogito, ergo sum' rings a very loud bell too.

Your paragraph about Karl Marx was evocative. I didn't see Marx scratching his head while wandering around but the whole paragraph sounds in the mind. It also brought back memories of some of the very interesting stuff that you told me about socialism and Marx many years ago that very simply and quietly changed the way I had wanted to throw both out of the window and for about ten years. Although at that point I had yelled quite loudly inside saying, 'you haven't changed how I see things!'

Your connected linked essay on 'Freedom and Responsibility' is an unusual essay. I waited to comment because I wanted to get this thought out right while writing. I have read it twice, at least, every year barring the last year and this year when I've returned to it more than twice.

It can be read as just an essay, and as an intellectual piece like the rest of the essays in your book for your daughter but it can be read to be realized, which is a different matter. This particular essay speeds along with freedom and travels through states, democracy, totalitarianism, social categories (the races and the sexes), the lunatic, the man twirling his walking stick, and it pauses at the individual and the divine, and it connects to one's very own personal life. In short, it does take one's breath away but one needs to basically catch one's breath too, and think and reflect very sanely too at some points over the essay as a piece pertinent to one's own life, and at different points in time.

I can say this, no matter where I'm posited in my life (because I have my own faults set too deep and maybe not a few just run too deep?), and no matter where I go from here and no matter whether I 'succeed like success' , that that particular essay needs more than one reading and it needs to be absorbed, and if one follows it or puts it into practice and doggedly through time, no matter what, because of one reason or the other - there are certain aspects of one's own life - in how freedom (to do what exactly? and freedom of how many layers? of what final form?) and responsibility and other matters are personally experienced - which will be altered forever. 'The world - one's internal world and external - changes colour' and becomes sharper. I can safely say this bit for now. Something very significant is bound to change in an individual's life. In this sense, the chapter is strange and mystical and does make one feel that one is right in making certain choices. As for the rest, time shall tell and there is the matter of one's own karma as you point out time and time again. So one rolls with the punches and prays too. Another day, I shall write another comment for that post. Course what makes that essay a pure relief and a joy to read is the you with your inimitable sense of humour who gallops through it.

I find one thing rather odd. I'm still not absolutely sure why people call you mad but how can they possibly have called you 'feckless'?

I have to note with a dangling wry smile that the sudden females who so hold an indefinable grudge against you for being who you are - did not comment on this post...wonder why. I shall someday write a comment for that linked essay as well. I'm not sure why I hadn't commented when you'd put it up. Probably had something to do where I was placed in terms of my own life.