A Study on Freedom: To Be or Not to Be Free
This is a free country, but the people living in it are prisoners. Societal expectations, social constructs, fear of failure, and increasingly competitive work environments are the ruthless jailers.
What is freedom? It is the right to act in any way one wishes without restriction. To achieve this freedom, people must first learn to tolerate and respect opinions different from their own. In a famous speech recorded by the historian Thucydides, Greek orator Pericles introduced the idea of social tolerance. Following this train of thinking, both Plato and Socrates taught that all members of Grecian society should have the freedom to pursue thought and shape their own destiny.
Philosophers, politicians, and even common citizens have discussed the concept of freedom since ancient times, but one thing has remained constant—the idea that freedom can only be practiced under limitations. Despite all their talk of freedom, ancient philosophers like Socrates and Plato catered towards the wealthy. The poor were not free to pursue thought because their poverty was considered a defect. In modern day, people are free to act as they wish until their actions infringe on the freedom of others. People are granted freedom of speech and freedom of press, but slander and libel are punishable by law. There are always restrictions, and sometimes rightfully so.
Freedom is a funny thing. Imagine a man in prison. He must follow prison protocol, adhere to the prison timetable, and maybe wear an orange jumpsuit. He is clearly not a free man, but he is still free to think about whatever he pleases, pace around his cell, or even do a few push-ups.
According to one of the world’s greatest novelists, Leo Tolstoy, this imprisoned man will be free when he stops rebelling, and instead, learns to sit behind bars willingly and acceptingly. John Dewey, an American philosopher, summarises Tolstoy’s idea that “the ox is a slave as long as he refuses to recognize the yoke and chafes under it; while if he identifies himself with its necessity and draws willingly instead of rebelliously, he is free.”
But are people who willingly accept yokes and make homes out of prison cells really free? One phrase that flutters around the concept of freedom is “locus of control”; this is the degree to which people think they control their own lives. When people think that they are in control, they believe themselves to be free. Hence, when people actively surrender to their jailers, they may consider this an act of freedom.
Greek historian Polybius described a free person as one without a “dominus,” or one without a master. If this is true, a free person should be able to do whatever they want.
What do you want? Perhaps you want to drop out of university and start your own business, but you are plagued with fear of failure. Perhaps you want a week of vacation, but your work will not allow it. Perhaps you want to move in with your significant other, but society will judge you for “cohabitation before marriage.” In all these cases, you are controlled by fear, external environment, and societal expectations. They are your masters, and you are not free.
No one is free from the grubby grasp of social constructs. Social construction is the idea that human beings and the world they live in are the “product of historical configurations of relationships.” Some social constructs include marriage, gender roles, and organized religion. People follow these constructs mindlessly—they are machine people with machine minds, living mechanistic lives.
Consider a married couple that has been together for five years and an unmarried couple that has been together for an equally long time. All four of these people might have an equal amount of love for their significant other, but why is marriage considered more esteemed?
Gender psychology and research proves that stereotypical gender roles are not built into the human psyche, but from a young age, girls might learn to play with dolls because society expects it from them.
For years, people have followed these social constructs and norms without question, and it infringes on human freedom. According to writer Lee Harris, “the road from serfdom is far less frequently traveled than the road to serfdom.” People want to stay in their comfort zone, they like things that are familiar to them, and they would rather not question the constructs under which they have grown up. People can never truly be free if they continue to act according to these constructs and expectations.
Freedom is uncertainty, but people would rather be unfree and happy instead of free and uncertain.