Emancipation as a Negative Freedom

Free play for the self is a goal to be achieved and not a gift.” Jacques Barzun.


    One of the main thrusts of western culture over the last five hundred years has been personal liberation.  In fits and starts, the individual has been emancipated from; sexual, racial and religious persecution, gross legal inequality, enforced ignorance, guild restrictions, repressive marriage laws, strict familial obligations, and yet more.  A Jewish woman in Madrid five hundred years ago could not own land, travel, receive an education, work in any but the most limited number of trades, change her religion, choose whom she married, leave her house without permission from her father or husband, or own property.  However imperfectly realized, the emancipation of the individual has been astonishing. 

    Significantly, no equivalent cultural shift has been present to support the individual in the realization of these new won freedoms.  If one were a Jewish woman in Madrid today, we could travel, marry, live, work, worship, learn, and own as one wished.  However, having the opportunity to chose is not the same as making sound choices.  The removal of external barriers is a negative freedom: it removes barriers to the free play of the self, but does not create it.  The realization of one’s individuality requires imposing the precise restrictions that used to be impressed from without – partners, work, education, religion – on oneself.  Freedom and the expression of the individual take place in the process of choosing and then pursuing one’s choices.  While our culture indoctrinates us in the joys of emancipation, it provides little or no examples of the necessity of relinquishing our freedoms in the name of developing the self. 

    Two seemingly contradictory social ills grow from this tension.  One need only reflect on the widespread social conformity to realize the existing gap between possibility and actuality. Faced with so many possibilities, millions and millions of Americans attempt to construct an identity through going along with everyone else.  The craze for SUV’s stands out as a supreme example.  Individuals who never drive off-road, live alone or with one other person, commute long distance’s on freeways and rarely if every tow anything suddenly discover a desperate need to own a large, four wheel-drive vehicle with room for seven, power for towing and poor gas-mileage.  The impulse to conformity extends even to modes of rebellion, hence the aging middle class’ love of the Harley Davidson. The ready-made self delivered by conformity provides a simple solution to the problem of emancipation.  Why make all these choices when others have already made them for you?
Simultaneously, much that passes for eclecticism or individuality is simply enslavement to emancipation.  People travel endlessly, switch partners, jobs, religions, and even families.  Faced with choices, millions of Americans cannot bring themselves to choose.  They wander, ghost-like, from place to place, person to person, refusing to be pinned down to anything, including to any sense of self.  Not choosing (the logical corollary of conformity) serves the same function: it prevents the individual from ever having to face the difficulties, and potential disappointments, of deciding.

    Emancipation does not create liberty, it creates the possibility of the free expression of the individual through the selection of one’s own restrictions.  It is the taking on of restrictions that creates liberty. One can chose to live in a myriad of places, but any single choice precludes countless other possibilities.  Nonetheless, the choice must be made.  We face the necessity of having to impose on ourselves the same list of limits that used to be imposed by Mediæval societies.  We, however, have the advantage, and temptation, of being free to change our choices at any time.  The responsibility inherent in emancipation is daunting.  Each individual is responsible for constructing, from scratch, a sense of self and, if displeased, has none but themselves to blame.  Small wonder so many attempt to sacrifice their individuality on the Janus-faced altar of conformity and non-conformity.

    Thus, our great struggle with emancipation that can be seen throughout our culture. Amongst other problems, modern education emphasizes content over character.  An information based education is invidious in a world replete with facts and lacking in developed individuality.  Because knowledge only takes on meaning within a context of values, the emancipation of the individual, the liberation of values if you will, erodes the meaningfulness of facts.  When students complain about learning algebra, “when will I ever use this?” they are quite rightly declaring they do not understand the meaning of what they are learning.  They do not understand why they should learn algebra because, as a society, we do not understand why they should learn algebra.  That algebra requires the acquisition of an orderly, logical capacity for thought is the simple, obvious answer.  However, to promote algebra on this basis requires one to argue that a capacity for orderly, logical thinking is both desirable and useful for the formation of a thoughtful individual.  As a society we would, in essence, be declaring a preference for a certain kind thoughtfulness over others.  Our love of faux liberty says we should let each chose for oneself, not force all minds into a single mode.  That none argue for such an indoctrination, were it even feasible, is beside the point.  We rebel against the very idea that a certain way of thinking should be favored.  To the millions of students who say “why should I learn algebra?” We answer implicitly, “You shouldn’t.”  And, by and large, they do not. 

    In a culture with an overriding set of moral guidelines, the use of the education system to reinforce those morals is oppressive.  Access to knowledge in such societies is itself libratory because broad learning will expose the limits and inequities of any moral system.  Witness the profound impact of internet cafes in countries throughout Asia and Africa.  Where governments and social mores try to impose strict guidelines and maintain a hold on knowledge, the access to a world of data is nearly revolutionary.
However, in a culture that emphasizes liberty, access to data is necessary but insufficient.  We need to know why we should chose any particular career, place to live, clothes, spouse, etc.  Yet, this is not to argue for the reintroduction of a narrow education based on any particular set of morals.  Such attempts, usually promoted by Christian conservatives, are both misguided and pointless.  Rather, education could and should focus on both the range of possibilities and what these possibilities mean.  Why, for instance, would someone want to be a vegetarian, a vegan, a fruititarian?  What ethical issues are at stake in such decisions?  These and myriad other questions could be profitably explored, but such explorations would require the discussion of values, and hence must be avoided.  Faced with an infinity of individual choices, an education which precludes the meaningful discussion of these choices is, in sum, fruitless. 

    Our education, though, is simply a reflection of our general inability to deal with the implications of emancipation.  Discontent, that plague of the modern world, grows from the failure to construct any viable sense of self.  A bigger car, better house, another trip, the next move, a different partner, a new religion, a Buddhist retreat, a trip to Paris, a new career will be the one that really does it this time.  None or all can be an answer.  How we choose, what we choose, and why we choose, all form a part of the identity we build.  Whether prepared well or ill, the choices are still ours.  The drive towards free play of the self is strong.  We have each been gifted a great responsibility and, if we do not shrink from it, we may choose the nature of our own limitations, and thus truly free ourselves.