John Momis: A man of principle
Love's Left Unsaid

The myth of freedom

CamusPHILIP FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - My wife, Sue, and I own our home and we have a retirement income that is sufficient for our daily and longer term needs.

Without the need to work we are, in theory at least, able to enjoy the freedom to do pretty much as we please.

But are we really free?

If we fail to pay our council rates, we could potentially forfeit our home. If the government needs the land on which our house stands, it can resume it.

If we default on any of the payments for the utilities like electricity and water we use, our income could be in jeopardy.

If we lose our income, we can’t buy basics like food and we haven’t got a garden of sufficient size to grow our own produce.

So, in an economic sense, we are far from free. We are, in fact, bound into a system dictated by forces well beyond our control.

In the sense that a wild animal is free we are poor losers.

That lack of freedom is the price we pay to live in an ordered and relatively safe society. If everyone was as free as a wild animal we would be living in a state of anarchy.

We shouldn’t complain however. Even in subsistence economies, like those found in rural Papua New Guinea, people are still bound by societal norms that, if broken, can have severe consequences.

In that sense those of us living in modern Australia are not far removed from those living in a rural subsistence setting. Neither of us is truly free.

As a species, humans lost the bulk of their freedoms when they decided to settle down and grow crops instead of simply hunting and gathering.

But even those early hunters and gatherers discovered that group cooperation made life easier and sacrificed freedoms to live that way.

As did many wild animals who hunt in cooperative packs or congregate in herds for safety under the direction of an alpha leader.

So what are those people who revolt against the machine and demand their freedom on about?

Freedom is essentially a case of perception. If you don’t feel free you are probably not free.

If you see other people who seem freer than you, that is, they seem to have fewer constraints on their lives, no matter what those constraints might be, you will feel less free.

If you live under an autocratic regime you will feel less free because you know there are other more democratic systems in existence in other countries.

If you live in a democratic country but find yourself bogged down in poverty while watching rich people enjoying care free lives you will not feel free.

Even if it was possible to create a completely utopian society I’ve no doubt that you would still find individuals claiming to be less free than others.

Even if it was possible to create a completely equitable economic model there would be people who would claim to be less well-off and consequently less free than others.  

There is perhaps only one place where humans might claim to be free and that is in their minds.

But are people really free to think what they want?

Probably not, given all the external influences, ranging from socialisation to education to manipulative communication, that determine how we think. Or how we think we think.

Like every other organic entity on the planet we are programmed to act in certain ways. That programming explicitly excludes freedom.

If we were totally free we probably wouldn’t exist.

At best, all we can really aspire to is a kind of lesser freedom that makes life as comfortable and fear-free as possible.

Comments

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Philip Kai Morre

Victor Frankl, (the father of logotherapy) was forced into a Nazi concentration camp during the World War II because of his Jewish origin.

He watched the suffering and death of the Jewish people every day and there was nothing left in him to comprehend what is meant to be a free human being.

It appears that Frankl experienced extreme conditions including depression, deprivation, trauma, fear, hunger, malnutrition, grief and freedom of movement.

Logotherapy helps us discover our hidden strength. His sufferings and inhuman experience in the Nazi concentration camp motivated him to have tremendous access to inner power.

All of us have that inner strength or mystic process that we haven’t explored as yet.

Frankl published his book, 'The Meaning of Life', which became a best seller in Europe and elsewhere. His will to live and his self determination conquered the darkness of imprisonment and brought him a new meaning of life, freedom and happiness.

His sufferings were real yet he showed unconditional love and concern for fellow inmates by providing medical treatment and care until liberation by the Allied army.

Freedom is fully experience and gained after so much suffering and pain.

Chris Overland


I think that Bernard is right to suggest a link between the way we think about the world and the nature of freedom.

You cannot be free if you are a prisoner of what I call errors of thinking, nor from a mental illness due to some physiological or anatomical cause.

Psychiatry and psychology have contributed a lot towards helping people free themselves from errors of thinking.

For example, I think cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be enormously liberating for many people. It allows them to realise that their patterns of thinking and the related behaviours may be not only erroneous but actually self destructive.

In particular, CBT can help a person understand and more effectively manage their emotional responses to situations that have previously triggered very unhealthy responses, both for them and for others. In this way they may become free of ideas and behaviours than genuinely diminish their capacity to live a fulfilling life.

On the other hand, psychiatry in particular, has generated some theories and ideas about physiological illnesses that seem to me to range from the pseudo-scientific to what amounts to voodoo.

The most obvious example of this was the widespread use of lobotomies during the 1950’s and 60’s to “cure” depression and other mental illnesses. This crude procedure basically involved damaging the tissue in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

This frequently had a devastating effect on the patient, who often was reduced to a mere shell of their former selves. The so-called cure was to effectively disable the patient.

Another example of this is the notion that mental illnesses are essentially caused by an imbalance in the chemicals within the brain.

At one level this seems rational and it may even be true. The problem is that no-one can say what the correct balance for the thousands of chemicals in the brain actually might be.

This seems to me to make treating a mental illness with particular chemicals such as lithium for depression or diazepam for anxiety as little more than a semi-educated punt. It certainly is not the precise application of well understood science.

Also, it is a reasonable contention that a person dependent upon drugs, be they licit or illicit, is certainly not free in any meaningful sense.

The counter argument is that drug therapies can and do allow people to function more normally, thus enabling them to better “cope” with life’s trials. Whether they are freer is debatable.

My suspicion is that the jury is still out on this matter.

While serving as a kiap in PNG it struck me that the incidence of mental illnesses amongst traditional people, especially the most common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, seemed remarkably low.

I am not suggesting that they were entirely free of care or worry. It was just that they did not appear to devote a lot of mental energy to obsessing about the world or their place in it or what might happen tomorrow.

I think that far too many of us living in the so-called developed world make ourselves ill by obsessing about our jobs, our looks, our clothes, our Facebook profile and the number of followers we have on Twitter.

This, combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, seems calculated to generate distress rather than happiness.

The folk in PNG who, by force of circumstance, live much simpler and much more self reliant lives, must endure certain discomforts but, so far as I know, do not seem to be much afflicted by the first world problems I have mentioned.

Thus a way of living that many Australians would regard as one of unrelenting hard work and deprivation is, ironically, freer and less distressing than slogging away 12 to 14 hours a day to pay off a ridiculous mortgage on a brick veneer house in outer western Sydney.

So, I would contend that there is a decent argument that people living a basically traditional subsistence lifestyle in PNG may be better off in some important respects than people who have a great deal more material goods but an otherwise quite impoverished life.

The freedom of Papua New Guineans living a traditional life is still constrained in many respects but their lives often are more emotionally fulfilling, especially in terms of their relationship with others, than is the case in our highly materialistic and often highly alienating society.

This is not an argument that material poverty is good (which it manifestly is not), simply that the mere acquisition of a great deal more stuff does not guarantee a happier or more fulfilling life, nor does it necessarily result in greater personal freedom.

Bernard Corden

The Buddhist worldview embraces the holistic concept of embodiment and personhood.

Most Western approaches are no better than phrenology and are underpinned by Watson/Skinner scientism using the black box psychology inputs-process-outputs model and operant conditioning.

Indeed, Skinner performed most of his experiments on rodents or pigeons yet wrote many of his books about people.

Behaviourism involves a systematic denial of meaning and is a renunciation that violates evidence and
the commonplace experience of humanity.

Behaviourists have inveigled many acolytes to believe
behaviour is a simple stimulus and response relationship.

This leads to aversion or reinforcement and
subjective experience and consciousness are considered irrelevant.

The theory, somewhat spectacularly, fails to explain how Beethoven’s late quartets (especially the ninth choral symphony), were a conditioned response to his prevailing circumstances during the final decade of an illustrious career in classical music.

Black box psychology is almost as bizarre a cultural product as phrenology or sorcery and it disregards
the existence and significance of human self-consciousness and the power of the collective unconscious.

Nonetheless, there has been extraordinary growth in the research of human behaviour, which includes psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, sociobiology, ecopsychology, neuropsychology, neurolinguistic programming and neuroscientific imaging plus several shards or crystals of neurochemistry.

Theodore Dalrymple claims psychology undermines morality and provides further interesting observations and extensive comments on this vast, arcane and dynamic discipline in his book entitled 'Life at the Bottom - The worldview that makes the underclass'.

Notwithstanding these remarkable developments and despite the logorrhea, it would be a bold person who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now
greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare.

Roger Simpson

'To be is to do' - Socrates

'To do is to be' - Jean-Paul Sartre

'Do be do be do' - Frank Sinatra

Philip Fitzpatrick

I notice that Counterpunch is running an extract from John Pilger's book, 'A Secret Country' about the dismissal of Gough Whitlam and the CIA and M16 involvement.

I presume this is a response to the release of the letter between John Kerr and Old Lizzie.

What Pilger reveals is another aspect to our state of freedom, in this case our national freedom, which is heavily compromised by our subservient relationship with the USA.

Like him or hate him Pilger makes a good point.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/03/the-coup-against-the-most-loyal-ally/

Martyn Namorong

I subscribe to the Buddhist worldview. Freedom is a journey towards ending suffering

Ian Poole

Thanks once again for a very thought-provoking contribution, Phil, and to the respondents to date. You have managed to "come at" this topic from all sorts of interesting angles, a constant delight of PNG Attitude.

The founders, Keith and Phil are owed an immense gratitude to all who love PNG.

Now to a modicum of sourness. To Lindsay Bond, I must deplore the excruciating obliqueness, hence failure in communication, of most of your efforts, despite your occasional lucidity, when, it seems, you need to be taken seriously by persons unknown.

If you are, in fact, a "mystic poet", I'm sure there is a forum for you, but I humbly suggest that it is not PNG Attitude. Please mate, respect your audience!
________

Thanks Ian. On the 'Lindsay Question', I wrote to an a private correspondent this morning who commented along the same lines as you in this way....

The more abstruse of Lindsay’s remarks never see the light of day. These are the ones I do not understand myself at any level of comprehension.

Others that are merely enigmatic, I allow. Language in terms of meaning, appropriateness and complexity is often a matter of subjective appreciation (or frustration for some people) and I’m a fairly tolerant editor.

So I enable Lindsay’s foibles, knowing that readers who find them irritating can just pass them by - KJ

Bernard Corden

Following-Leading in Risk: A Humanising Dynamic is a free download from Dr Rob Long and Craig Ashhurst and well worth reading:

https://www.humandymensions.com/product/following-leading-risk/

In The Art of Followership Riggio states:...………..‘Too often, followers are expected to be agreeable and acquiescent and are rewarded for being so, when in fact followers who practice knee-jerk obedience are of little value and are often dangerous. If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak the truth to power. We know that toxic followers can put even good leaders on a disastrous path – Shakespeare’s Iago comes immediately to mind. But heroic followers can also save leaders from their worst follies, especially leaders so isolated that the only voice they hear is their own.’ (2008, p.xxv)

“A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” - Harold Laski

Chris Overland

I agree with Keith.

Quite why the democratic world has suddenly become enamoured with right wing populist demagogues I do not know but I would guess that it has to do with the apparent inability of those opposed to these people to successfully articulate a plausible alternative to the neo-liberal orthodoxy.

As I have written before, the left of politics has much to answer for because it simply refuses, firstly, to zero in on the fundamental unfairness and exploitation that is an essential part of neo-liberal capitalism and, secondly, simply cannot articulate an attractive and coherent alternative.

This situation is epitomised by the state of the Democratic Party in the USA, the British Labour Party in the UK and the Australian Labor Party. None of these organisations currently offers more than neo-liberal lite.

There is no indication that these parties have the will or capacity to seriously rein in the excesses of rampant global capitalism.

In the absence of viable alternatives, you get what we are seeing in the USA: inchoate rage from the oppressed and disenfranchised and violent reaction on the part of the ruling elite.

None of this bodes well for our collective future.

Eventually, as their simplistic nostrums prove worthless and ultra nationalism becomes the default position of the leaders Keith listed, someone, somewhere is going to overreact to a real or imagined provocation and a cascade of disaster will ensue that no-one foresaw or wanted.

This may seem mere catastrophist thinking on my part, but history suggests otherwise.

Lindsay F Bond

Struth, Keith. Quite a 'callover', truth be told, courting, but not in affection.

(For the purists, the word struth harkens from 'struth, with apostrophe.)

(With respect to that apostrophe, issue arises if of nebulous attribution.)
________

As for attribution, it is a corruption of 'God's truth' as may be employed by the non-blaspheming - KJ

Bernard Corden

"The measure of a man is what he does with power" - Plato

Keith Jackson

My friend Michael Dom writes that the “Western world is in turmoil because of false narratives”.

I would argue that the “Whole world is in turmoil because of appalling leadership”. False narratives are just amongst the many oppressive tools applied to maintain some truly abominable men in power.

Here are a few: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Israel’s, Benjamin Netanyahu, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar Al-Asaad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and, oh yeah, Donald Trump.

And I haven’t even started on Africa.

Michael Dom

We can't attain total freedom but we can be free, by speaking the truth.

Truth is the highest ideal, not freedom.

The Western world is in turmoil because of false narratives.

The rulers and the ruled are slaves to their own lies, co-conspirators in their own demise and jubilant participants in their righteous or leftious path to self destruction.

We really can't handle the truth these days.

Lindsay F Bond

Stated in frankness, boldness and by capacity for acting thereupon.

In favour of this scope is that governments have yet to find how to tax it.

Yet what starts as a topic of ‘freedom’ slips into supposition of ‘free’. Bound to be ‘mythed’ in translation is the 'fundament' of physical being, for which a neat formulation has been posited by Einstein, relatively.

Of the famous quote “I think therefore I am”, freedom of expression has some humour, as where existence logically evaporates.

See: https://quotes.yourdictionary.com/articles/who-said-i-think-therefore-i-am.html

By use of written words, is one ‘free’ where dominated by societal convention?

So in what sense freedom? Seems worded as if ‘poemed’ by Dom, Michael.

Bernard Corden

"In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from." - Peter Ustinov

Philip Fitzpatrick

Philip Kai Morre has alluded to another aspect that curtails our freedom in a comment on Chris's article about whether we can remain free.

That is the biological imperatives that are innate and drive our actions and over which we have little control.

In particular he refers to our biological imperative that drives us to reproduce.

These sorts of imperatives can override common sense at times and suggests that we are in thrall to an instinctive power that is just as much a master of our actions and life as an authoritarian dictator.

Paul Oates

There's at least two issues in what you have raised Phil. The first is that wild animals are never free because they have to worry about how to survive and secondly, if they are pack or herd animals, where they fit into the herd or pack.

Both those aspects can be and often are life threatening.

Humans evolved to be tribal animals by necessity in order to survive. That very factor then leads to having to accommodate other people's views, likes and dislikes. That then leads to frustrations and potential conflicts over all sorts of reasons.

Freedom of thought is therefore problematic since in order to be totally free to think what you like, you would have to become a totally isolated hermit that is lucky enough to live in a place where food and shelter is freely available.

That therefore narrows the opportunities for total freedom quite considerably. If fact, isolation and lack of most of the necessities of life leads to madness. You only have to look at what happened to those who were put into that environment at the penal colony at Port Arthur, Tasmania.

Were PNG villagers free in comparison with metropolitan people? When you look below the surface there were many threats and fears that were part of everyday life.

Life is what you make it. Having genuine friends and relations who care helps make life better but there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Michael Dom

Ultimate freedom is an absurd notion by the daddy of same.

Quotes like that make me think Camus was a fool.

It just sounds cool.

People who think this way have no real understanding of life, or have never lived fully.

Chris Overland

Just what constitutes freedom has been debated for a very long time now, with no definitive resolution.

I think Phil is right to suggest that "pure" freedom does not exist.

I think that we, in Australia at least, generally are more free as individuals now than at any time in history, yet many of us live highly constrained lives, whether by force of circumstances or the choices we make.

Like Phil, I am a relatively well off retiree. I have no debts, no obligation to work and answer to no-one but myself for what I choose to do with my time.

But the rule of law requires that I live within many constraints too.

Mostly, these are not onerous nor, generally speaking, do the Australian authorities apply them maliciously or capriciously.

I am as free as I think it is possible to be for an ordinary citizen, in this world at least.

More wealth would give me more options, but probably not make me more free.

To be in this situation is probably the best most of us can hope for in the world as it currently exists.

I have, by happy chance, been born to the right parents, in the right country at the right time.

Dumb luck really but, as Ned Kelly rightly opined, such is life.

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