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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A delectable sense of freedom

It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is yet not quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom.

W. Somerset Maugham – The Human Element (1931)

Some years ago Sackerson wrote a very interesting post on freedom - Three levels of freedom. The following post is intended to add another aspect to the debate. Not an alternative view of freedom but a possible way to frame questions of freedom - what it could be, why ideas differ so much and why freedom seems to fade away so easily.

In the above quote Somerset Maugham is clearly referring to freedom as a feeling - a delectable sense of freedom. Equally clearly people differ in how they react to restrictions placed on their freedom. Some appear not to notice many restrictions and may even welcome some of them. Others have a greater tendency to see restrictions as an oppressive burden, an imposition to be resented at every opportunity.

To take a familiar example, some motorists see our vast array of traffic laws as oppressive while others see them as necessary for road safety and not particularly oppressive. These are different reactions to the same situation and perhaps this is the important yet entirely familiar point - it is extremely common for people have different reactions to the same situation. Consequently they interpret the same situation differently – as we all know too well.

In which case neither freedom nor oppression are clearly identifiable situations in the outside world. There is an inescapable human element, an emotional component to do with feelings about oppressive situations and those feelings are far from universal. Maybe we should go further and suggest that freedom is not only a state of affairs in the outside world but also an emotion, a state of affairs in our brains. Hardly a surprising conclusion but worth exploring consequences.

How could freedom be an emotion? Not necessarily a strong emotion such as anger, but something more subtle such as unease, contempt, frustration or dissatisfaction. In her book How Emotions Are Made, Professor Lisa FeldmanBarrett says emotion is our brain’s way of interpreting an amalgam of bodily sensations linked to events in the outside world. An emotion is a concept, a way of making sense of things which affect us or seem to affect us.

This is not to suggest that ideas about freedom are caused by emotions. Ideas about freedom are themselves emotional concepts. They are rationales we use to explain and link our bodily sensations with events and situations in the outside world. Why am I fed up with all the traffic laws? Because sometimes they feel oppressive, life-sapping, frustrating. Not always though - and that is another clue.

Driving on modern roads can be mildly depressing and in some cases the feeling is explained quite well if linked to an objective reality of vastly complex traffic laws. Hence the label ‘oppressive’ applied to modern traffic laws. Yet without a feeling of oppression the laws are not oppressive. Oppression has to feel oppressive or we don’t notice because it isn’t there until we do notice it. We can’t work it out from the bare physical facts of the situation because it isn’t there - it is in our brains.

In other words, people who do not see traffic laws as oppressive are people who have little or no emotional need to interpret them as oppressive. There is no point arguing about it, no point saying that some people fail to see the oppressive nature of traffic laws. In themselves they are not oppressive. We make them so via our emotional concepts or we don’t. These emotional concepts are not our emotional reaction to the laws but our emotional concept of the laws – the laws plus our feelings about them.

To take a much more extreme example, most of us see North Korea as a grotesquely repressive regime, but from the outside this is an emotional concept of a situation we do not actually experience. Stories about North Korean oppression coupled with a sense of unease or outrage that these things can happen are probably conceived by most people in democratic countries as extreme violations of freedom.

However it is possible that many North Koreans have different emotional concepts of freedom and oppression. They may be familiar with heavily regimented lives and their sense of oppression may not be as generally acute as we suppose. In our terms they may not perceive the oppression as strongly as we think they should. Or they may perceive it more strongly than we imagine – it is not something we can simply work out from what little we know of North Korean realities.

The oppression does not cause the emotion because there is no oppression without the emotion. The oppression is an emotional concept we label as ‘oppression’ and we interpret the oppression as happening beyond our own minds, out there in the real world. Some of it is happening out there in the real world, but the concepts, the use of words such as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’, these lie within our own minds. Not in every mind though – that’s the point.

This is why familiarity may inhibit concepts of political freedom and oppression. It seems likely that many people do not see their heavily circumscribed modern lives as oppressive or as lacking certain important freedoms. Not because they are obtuse, but because they do not make the same use of emotional concepts others label as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’.

However -

In her book Professor Barrett makes a fascinating claim. She suggests that our emotional concepts are our own responsibility. We may choose to react differently to the same situation for a whole range of reasons. That’s something we see regularly too. We see it all the time in politically correct outrage – emotional concepts with a political purpose. The outrage feels artificial because it is – it has to be.

This may imply that people who do not interpret an oppressive government in terms of restricted freedoms are not well informed about what the government is actually doing or failing to do. Freedom may be an emotional concept encompassing the outside world, but people with a limited understanding of the outside world will have a limited ability to interpret their world as oppressive. Possibly no ability at all.

Perhaps a democratic government may become as oppressive as it wishes if it is also conspicuously benign – if it spins benign emotional concepts. If it also manages to avoid generating too many emotional concepts of oppression or lost freedom then there is no real barrier to totalitarian government within a democratic shell. Bare reality won’t expose it.

Freedom simply disappears.

And is finally –



Sackerson said...

Perhaps we could approach this from the perspective of linguistic history - when freedom began to be an important concept?

Looks like 1930!

A K Haart said...

Sackers - good point and probably worth another post. Maybe the meaning of the word 'freedom' is also changing. Freedom to have fun, freedom to indulge in virtue-signalling, that kind of thing. Not so much political freedom.