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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

What Does It Really Mean to Be Free?


How much freedom do we really have?

Freedom of speech. What about it? What is it suitable for and how much of that do we really have? If you think about it, not so much, it turns out. We toiling minions certainly don't have it at work, and work we must to maintain our middle-class pretensions. First off, your employer gets to dictate what you can say or not say. There goes at least 40-hours a week where our freedom to say what we want is strictly regimented.

Of course, even when we're off the clock, we're still accountable. In theory, you could say just about anything you want and be protected, at least from the government, though in reality you'll find yourself unemployed and unemployable. Canceled. Freedom of speech is a mirage for most of us; quiet conformity pays, and silence is golden.

Everyone knows.

At some point, we've all been in a situation where staring at the floor and keeping our mouths shut in the face of some obvious injustice is the best option, in fact, the only option. Those little moments of cowardly (or pragmatic?) surrender keep the paychecks coming, the mortgage paid, and the fridge filled. It pays to shut the hell up.


The Illusion of Freedom by Proxy

The fact that people believe it's otherwise is a byproduct of the popular screen culture we users consume like mad junkies. Not that there was ever any idyllic past where we could say what we wanted. But let's not fool ourselves that it's gotten much better. It hasn't. Only the voices on our screens get to say what they want, or so it seems.

Yet, even they have to follow a script lest they get canceled. If they stick to the script, these our vicarious voices get paid out in the currency of our attention. Our attention then translates into their paychecks, a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one. Our consumption of media content is a sort of passive wish fulfillment. Media personalities say what the average person can't and so become proxies of expression.

Donald Trump epitomizes this kind of repressed expression angrily vomited back into the world. Regular working folks can't or won't say the things he says, or perhaps they simply can't form the right words to articulate the jumbled thoughts in their muddled minds.

But Mr. Trump says what he wants with impunity and his supporters love him for it. Trump is just one example. We all have our thought champions or those who express better what is going on in our chaotic stream-of-consciousness. They tweet; we follow. They talk and talk and talk, and talk some more.

We listen. We nod. We blink.


The Costs of Fake Freedom

Can one find any intellectual sustenance from the curated content offered up by these pop culture demigods? Some, maybe, but only in the way that a chocolate donut provides nutritional value. The old adage of garbage in, garbage out applies to our information consumption as well.

What sounds good, what feels good, what seems to make sense, becomes real. Lies are not lies if they become our lies; then they become truths to build an identity around, as if just passionately asserting something, no matter how patently absurd, somehow makes it true!

By doing so, these beliefs congeal into a sort of reality of their own. A crowd of like-minded self-delusion only amplifies this effect. The power of the herd to warp perceptions is real. Virtual reality is still a kind of reality, after all, and the starkest raving nonsense can become gospel truth for many if it's expressed in just the right way that subtly pushes just the right emotional buttons. At a certain point, a critical mass is reached. And so it goes: people believe in some bit of nonsense because they saw it on television or read it online and that in turn begins to drive some of them to act in the real world.

Take, for example, that guy who believed Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. Believing this to be as real as the moon in the sky, he grabbed his rifle and went to rescue those poor, exploited children. Only when he arrived and found nothing more than a plain, old pizza parlor, did he realize that it was all a sham, that everything he so sincerely believed to be true was utter fiction. That must have been quite a moment of revelation!

Credit - Sathi Soma, via Associated Press

That's one extreme. For most of us, we go along and get along, shopping for more or less harmless and appealing alternate realities by which to escape the boredom of our daily grind. Such gentle slavery is not even noticed by people used to keeping their mouths shut.

Practice creates habit and habit eventually defines and confines free thought. Then, game over, my friends. Such a life skewed to conformity is easy when one no longer has any differing views in the first place. No one suffers. No one feels any angst. It just feels natural. Everybody does it.

We listen. We nod. We blink.


Maybe it's better this way?

After all, is it really suffering if the sufferers do not even know they are suffering? What can be oppressive if it is not even seen as such? A pig that's spent its whole life in a tiny pen doesn't even know that green pastures exist. And so it wallows, blissfully unaware of what could be.

Domesticated souls likewise accept the status quo with similar porcine docility, working their hours, earning their pay, and then going home to reset for the evening with nary a moment not mediated by a glowing screen pouring a never-ending stream of "content" into their heads. Any free-thinking mind, if it were ever there to begin with, is slowly buried under layer upon layer of pop culture sludge.

Maybe, though, this fate is not so bad. Maybe there's no other option. If you judge success by the amount of stuff you can acquire and the status that comes along with it, many of us are doing just fine. Who needs to think about it all that much? And, anyway, who's really happier, the person who sees the flaws in the system but can't do anything about them, or the person who unthinkingly accepts it all at face value and doesn't feel one iota of existential angst?

Okay, point taken.

By these measures, we've created a kind of dystopia masquerading as a utopia, one where happiness and satisfaction get calibrated only through the constant accumulation of more crap. Freedom to consume is what we get for trading our freedom to think. Consumer consumption is a form of expression, true, and one we are free to go about as we please. And so we do.

That's the crux of the matter: freedom of speech is worthless if you haven't first learned how to think for yourself. It's a hollow right, fit only for parrots and vulgar philistines. Those who play by the rules get this reinforced and rewarded throughout their lives. For many, this is a good enough deal for a good enough life. I can't fault them for this.

Some people, however, choose to soar quietly. You won't see them influencing anyone on social media or polishing personal brands. They come across as both detached and hyper-connected, out of step with the times, but with wonderfully rich inner lives. Their playground is imagination. Boredom? What's that? Getting stuck in their heads is not something to be avoided, but indulged in. They are the real daydream believers who love this beautiful world, or at least the real world they can touch and feel and embrace, and not the little glowing god in their hands. They understand this is all there really is, but it's still a lot.

These are the ones who know that freedom of speech is not the most essential thing in the world.

Freedom to think and the will to do so are what matter in the end.

So choose again.


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