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OP-ED: The unfreedom in our freedom

  • Published at 05:42 pm February 16th, 2021
File photo of Trump supporters attacking the Capitol. Are they free? REUTERS

We do not realize all the ways in which we are controlled

“Humans escape from freedom” -- this proposition might seem outrageous as we always talk about our economic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom from subordination or oppression, freedom of humanity from misery, and so on. But the more we try to sort out what we mean by freedom, it becomes clear that we actually escape from freedom.

Usually, proponents of the idea of “freedom” try to assess humans as autonomous entities. We learn from our childhood that we are the makers of our own destiny. We try not to relinquish our freedomwilfully.

An idea of freedom is promoted by our “democratic-liberal” state: We vote to elect governments, we choose the products and brands we like to consume, we choose the news channels we like to follow, we select schools for our children’s education, etc. As such, apparently, we exercise our freedom.

Nonetheless, in doing all these supposedly “free” activities, we forget that as humans we are governed by myriad forces. Many socio-religious, political, and psychological forces continuously guide the “free” choices we make in everyday life.

The attack on the US Capitol and the anti-farmers’ protests in India revealed that we are blinded by our ideological stances. Even in Bangladesh, we find religious and political doctrines that guide our actions. Consequently, we leave behind “free” thinking and succumb to ideological blindness. Freedom is diminished as much in the name of a fundamental view as it is in the name of anti-fundamentalism.

The idea of freedom is poignant, and there is a thin line between freedom and unfreedom. We -- humans -- have an innate desire for freedom, an insatiable lust for power, as well as a wish for submission. Our submission is not always to an overt authority; we also submit to internalized ideals of “duty” and/or “public opinion.”

In evaluating the irony of human freedom, Erich Fromm in the 1941 book Escape from Freedom claimed that humans are paradoxical in nature. We want to achieve freedom from all the forces that constrain our choices and actions -- freedom from social conventions.

At the same time, we always tend to escape freedom -- our endeavours for freedom do not really end up in self-realization, and rather turn into elements of a totalitarian system. 

Astoundingly, during any crime against humanity, for instance, the Liberation War of 1971 or the Holocaust, thousands were complicit in killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. These incidences raise an unbearable moral question: Why did so many people support these genocides?

One may treat such acts as “the madness of a few individuals” or results of mass manipulation, trickery, or brute force. But Fromm proposed: People surrendered their freedom or escape it through submitting to a particular ideology. So, a new question appears: Why did the submission to an ideology happen?

Erich Fromm argued, as our civilization advanced, our intellectual abilities increased, but emotionally we could not transform into being independent and objective, hence, we need ideals and idols. The learnings of politico-socio-spiritual leaders across generations have in many instances led to irrationality. As such, historically there is a lack of coherence between our “intellectual-technical over-maturity and emotional backwardness.” This mismatch is part of our social psychology.

Civilizational advancement has dissolved many primordial associations, giving a sense of individual achievements, but at the same time it has created “isolated, anxious, powerless” individuals. The transition to capitalistic democratic societies has suppressed humans’ true nature of “love, reason, and faith” and has produced the “economic individuals” who are asocial and competitive.

The idea of success in our life under capitalism has forced us to leave behind many ties -- we left behind our families in the quest for “success.” The competitiveness has transformed us; we do not make friends for the sake of human connection. Rather, we choose our friends considering socio-political status and stance. As such, we think of everything with the measure of exchange value in an abstract form.

Losing concrete ties that gave us a sense of security, we are becoming increasingly alienated in today’s world. Therefore, we turn to relationships which promise relief from uncertainty, even if these deprive us of our freedom. Gradually, we have stopped being in control of our life and society.

For the smallest of things, we hold the government responsible. For instance: We all litter the streets, but when in the rainy season drains are clogged and roads are flooded, we criticize the government for not performing its duties. Then, again, we forget our roles and start living life the usual ways. This tendency gives the people in power an opportunity to control us in manipulative ways and exert their authority over our lives. 

Why do we not realize that we are being controlled? While many social ties are dissolved, we only feel secure if we can conform to mass culture. We crave the approval of others and always try to follow mass culture.

The extent is revealed by the fact that in local markets, we find different “fake” versions of many branded products. Many of us buy “fake” products because we like to be in coordination with what is portrayed as the “ideals” in mass media. We all chase certain products and their symbols rather than actual use value. As such, we do not have any unifying experiences as humans. 

We stay content with being well-fed, and wearing the latest fashion -- apparently “free” but really an automation. As modern individuals, we surrender our freedom to all kinds of dictators or transform into one of the many -- a cog in the (social) machine. Here, mass communication technology plays a key role as a form of social control.

In the same vein, many of us surrender to fundamental views of religion and nationalism as it connects us (alienated individuals) with others and helps overcome the fear of “isolation.”

Freedom in the truest sense can only be achieved if we can free ourselves from mass indoctrination and establish solidarity with other fellow humans through spontaneous activity, love, and work as free and independent individuals.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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