Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for December 2011


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When I was a girl growing up in Syria and Saudi Arabia, I used to dream of someday living in the West, so I could experience all the freedoms that exist in Western societies, especially for women. When I finally got the opportunity to study in the West, my biggest disappointment was seeing how people squander their freedom of speech. There are so many things that one could talk about, but 95% of the conversations I heard among my fellow students were about food and sex and buying things. (Afra, a former student at McGill University, reflecting on her four years as an undergraduate)

Some of the most meaningless words are also the most emotionally charged. One of the most vacuous words commonly used in American society is also one of the most explosively emotional: “Freedom.” Anyone who has seen an automobile from the state of New Hampshire has witnessed the enigmatic slogan stamped on the license plates, “Live Free or Die.” The form of the phrase is that of an imperative sentence, a command that one must either live free or die. But if the only alternative to living free is death, then it is reasonable to ask whether while alive one has the freedom to choose not to live free. Apparently not, at least in New Hampshire. The command seems to be firmly rooted in self-contradiction and therefore meaningless, but that makes it no less capable of stirring emotions into a pointless frenzy of enthusiasm for an abstract idea that few people bother to think about beyond registering some sort of positive response. “Hooray for Freedom! Whatever it is, I’m all for it!”

Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between two kinds of freedom, often informally called freedom to and freedom from. In an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ian Carter writes this about positive and negative liberty:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

It seems fairly clear that when the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America wrote of freedom, it was positive liberty that they had in mind. They were preoccupied with having the capacity to make decisions collectively that reflected the realities of life on the North American continent, and they hoped to make those decisions independently of the will of the King of England and the British Parliament.

Those early Americans who opposed the new constitution, on the other hand, were preoccupied with individual liberties, the negative liberties such as the absence of constraints on individual behavior. Those who opposed the ratification of the newly written constitution were called anti-federalists, and they had their greatest strength in New York, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas, but they were also well represented in New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts (which in early days included the present state of Maine). The anti-federalists were vehemently opposed to the idea of a President of the United States, which they feared would evolve into a position hardly distinguishable from that of a monarch. They opposed a centralized federal government, favoring instead strong state governments, which were perceived as less likely to abridge the freedom of individuals to do what they wanted to do without governmental restraints. The anti-federalists tended also to oppose taxation, which they viewed as an instrument of tyranny, and therefore a threat to individual liberties. Many of the concerns of the anti-federalists found their way into the first amendments to the Constitution, called collectively the Bill of Rights. While initially skeptical of the prospects of successfully writing provisions that would limit the degree to which a government, whether at the federal or the state level, could interfere in the private life of a citizen, even such strong federalists as James Madison eventually came to see that without this concession to anti-federalists there was no hope of the new constitution being ratified. And so the Constitution originally written in 1787 came to have a Bill of Rights in 1789. (People who call themselves Constitutional originalists should probably take care to specify whether they favor the original constitution of 1787 or the amended Constitution of 1789. And when they heap praise on the so-called Founding Fathers, they should probably specify whether they mean strong-central-government federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton or the states-rights anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Robert Yates, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee and James Monroe.)

Most of the religious systems that have evolved in India—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—are also preoccupied with freedom, but their focus is not so much on freedom from constraints imposed by governments as on limitations imposed by one’s own damaged psyche. The human mentality, they say, is damaged by vicious tendencies such as greed, hatred and delusion. These vicious tendencies imprison the person who has the them. One who is in the throes of attachment to acquiring and holding onto possessions, power, recognition and approval is no more free than an addict to walk away from the pursuit of these ultimately unsatisfactory commodities. One bound in the chains of hatred is not free to interact productively with other sentient beings (or with a God whose nature is supposed to be unconditional love). One wearing the fetters of unwarranted assumptions and prejudices is not free to explore avenues that lead to truth. As pitiful as the condition of one encumbered with greed, hatred and delusion may be, it is, say most Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, precisely the condition almost all human beings are in. As individuals, they say, most of us are in those conditions because we live in societies that are based on the cultivation of collective greed, hatred and delusion.

The kinds of social and political freedom that many modern Americans seek are diametrically opposed to the kind of psychological freedom that Indian religio-philosophical practices are designed to cultivate. For many modern Americans who are obsessed with freedom, what they seek is summed up in the words of a character played by Peter Fonda in a forgettable 1966 motion picture called The Wild Angels:

We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man. We want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.

Freedom, in this view, means not freedom from greed, hatred and delusion but exactly the opposite. It means freedom to act without constraints—even the constraints of self-discipline—on one’s greed, hatred and delusion. That this is so becomes clearer if one looks at the kinds of freedom from government interference that many people are calling for these days:

  • Deregulation. The self-proclaimed freedom-lovers say they oppose governmental regulations that were designed to protect the environment from degradation wrought by the extractive and manufacturing sectors of the economy, regulations that were designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices, and regulations that were put in place to protect the health and safety and economic viability of workers. Ridding the nation of environmental regulations, safety regulations and minimum wage and worker safety regulations would, so the argument goes, allow the economy to grow and provide jobs. In short, people who advocate for less governmental regulation are seeking to guarantee the right to be greedy, the right to acquire wealth without any regard whatsoever to the consequences that acquisition may have on others.
  • Right to bear arms. It may have made sense in a time when people shot squirrels for their dinner to make sure that governments did not limit access to efficient methods of killing game, but it is dangerous and ridiculous to extend the right to bear arms to include assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill human beings rather than squirrels. Some argue that the right to bear arms is meant to give people a method of overthrowing tyrannical governments. The assassins of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy no doubt thought in those terms. In her recently published autobiography, Condoleeza Rice staunchly supports the right of all citizens to bear arms with her claim that if the state of Alabama had required the registration of firearms, Bull Connor would have confiscated all the weapons of African Americans, thus making it much more difficult for them to achieve freedom from the limitations of racial segregation. Given that it is impossible either to shoot someone or to threaten to shoot them without wanting to eliminate them from one’s life, and given that the definition of hatred is the desire to eliminate what one finds unpleasant or obnoxious, those who cling to their second amendment rights are in effect seeking to guarantee the right to be hateful.
  • Right to do what one wants to do. Not everyone wants to do stupid and dangerous things, but many do. While it may be quixotic to try to protect people from their own folly, many laws are designed to promote public safety. Laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles are examples of such laws, as are speed limits, laws against driving while using cellphones, laws requiring pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, laws requiring vehicles to signal before making turns and so forth. Laws requiring people to carry various kinds of insurance (including health insurance) and to pay into the Social Security system are other examples. People who find such laws offensive are seeking to guarantee the right to be foolish. It may seem harmless enough to allow people to be foolish, but rarely is it the case that the fool is the only one who suffers the consequences of his own folly. Causality does not honor the fictitious boundaries of personal identity; the consequences of actions leak out into the world at large. While it is undeniably true that many governmental regulations seem stupid, it should be borne in mind that most of them came into being because there are so many dangerously stupid people to govern.

While I am sympathetic to those who would prefer not to live in tyrannies and totalitarian states, or even in small towns in Nebraska where one’s every move is monitored by well-meaning busybodies, I have not yet managed to be sympathetic to the American craving for undisciplined and excessive lifestyles. If demanding pointless forms of personal freedom to be greedy, hateful and deluded is un-American, then I am not at all unwilling to be considered un-American. My preference is the kind of freedom that the Buddhists (and sober-sided Quakers) have taught me to seek.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 16:27

Posted in Society and polity