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Personal Freedom and the Dictates of Society

April 15, 2013

Society enables us to order our perceptions, and it allows us to make sense of the world at large. Our most basic processes of rationalization, communication, and interaction are molded by society and behavioral fine tuning. Aristotle contended that, as a political animal, man could not exist without society, that without it he would cease to be human.[i] However, even with society so deeply tied to who we are as people we recognize freedom as a departure from these ties and celebrate its principle.

Freedom, for most of us, means an independence from the operations of mass society and the pressures it instills. Freedom is the state of being aware of one’s own place in the world, taking responsibility for it, and deciding for one’s self how best to act: striving for authenticity. This ability to act authentically may be accessible to different people in different degrees. However, it is widely accepted that, as humans, we all have some ability to act authentically. If this is true, it stands to reason that freedom exists on more than one level and can be experienced in different degrees. In any event, we accept that freedom is real. Society, then, has only provided us with a set of tools; society is not the essence of human existence in and of itself. We can, and we often do, wish to live without its influence.

When we accept that human beings are more than dependent parts of a giant sociological body, necessary and important questions arise. If so much of our consciousness is ordered by society at large, where and how does freedom exist? Where does personal freedom begin? How is freedom related to free will? We must recognize and answer these questions in our own lives before we can claim to be free; if we cannot explain to ourselves our personal freedom lies, then we cannot be sure that it exists at all.

Before going any further, we must make a distinction between “freedom” and “free will.” Freedom, for the purposes of this article, is defined, described and examined as a state of consciousness, a state of mind.

The term “free will” is a broader and more denotative concept dealing with the connections that occur in relating consciousness to action. Ultimately, “freedom” plays a role in influencing action through exercising “free will.” However, this article will not include an extensive analysis of “free will.”

Free will is the conscious undertaking of a decision, but freedom is the state of mind that drives the actions of free will. For the time being, our references to freedom are references to a state of conscious awareness only.

The dictates of human society reach only so far into human consciousness. With this, a necessary question arises: where do these dictates end? Or, in other words, just how far do they actually reach? The process of socialization begins at birth. We begin to learn the structures of family, we learn to recognize cues and patterns. Eventually we learn to predict specific occurrences. If our expectations are not affirmed, we begin to ask why, and if we are resourceful we try to find answers as to why this is the case. When we reach this stage, we have begun to acquire what is known as common sense. At some point, we begin also to develop a vocabulary, which becomes an integral part of our capacities for complex reasoning. By this time in early childhood, we have already been exposed to an incalculable number of external influences and lessons both from society and the world at large. These lessons and influences have begun shaping who we are and who we are to become.

While we are developing as individuals, we are also unconsciously developing personal locations with the framework of society. In his book, Invitation to Sociology, Peter L. Berger describes the dynamic of a person’s “location” as one that sees him or her completely surrounded by the influences of society, which are present on levels ranging from families to local communities to mass society.

            If we return once more to the picture of an individual located at the center of a set of             concentric circles, each one representing a system of social control, we can understand a             little better that location in society means to locate oneself with regard to many forces             that constrain and coerce one.[ii]

Ironically, the same system that is responsible for the great many forces working to “constrain and coerce” us has also given us the tools we need to reject these forces or mitigate their effects on us. When we turn to self-reflection and begin to realize where society has influenced and continues to influence our lives, we begin to know where its jurisdiction ends. The dictates of society in human consciousness end where we are able to reflect on our inner selves, and recognize the dictates for what they are: external influences.

This consciousness of self that we may develop as individuals in freeing ourselves is a virtual no-man’s land. It is the space existing between blind irrational adherence to invisible forces and true freedom. To recognize the influences that society has over oneself is to also recognize a part of oneself that is beyond his immediate reach. When an individual does this, he has become aware of the location of his self, but this is not the same as having actually acquired freedom.

In fact, freedom is not a permanent state of consciousness. It is not acquired at all but rather accessed by the individual who knows its location. Its location is what concerns us at this point; since we have determined where the dictates of society end, we can move on to the next of our necessary questions: where does personal freedom begin?

Personal freedom begins with a recognition followed by a conscious act of withdrawal. An individual first recognizes the controls society has over him. He then proceeds to withdraw from these controls through a process of detachments – the individual going through this process may still go through the motions of everyday life appearing to any onlooker as though no revelation or recognition had ever come to him, but he withdraws as a matter of necessity and choice; he is aware of what he is doing and why he is doing it. On the subject of detachment Peter Berger wrote:

            The person who retires from the social stage into religious, intellectual of artistic domains             of his own making still, of course, carries into this self-imposed exile the language,             identity and store of knowledge that he initially achieved at the hands of society.[iii]

It is true that we cannot suddenly, through some act of will, forget the things we have learned throughout our lives, but freedom does not require us to do so. The level of detachment Berger describes is harsh, but it is a necessary step on the path to freedom.

Freedom results when one no longer agrees to blindly participate in the consciousness that society has prescribed for him. In its most unadulterated form, freedom is the ability of a conscious psyche to decide for itself how to process the information it receives from society and life experience. To acquire access to self-awareness and freedom of like this is a great achievement for any human being. Most of us have neither the time nor the wherewithal to come anywhere actively cultivate a sense of freedom within us. This is why it is important to recognize that freedom is accessible and achievable in varying degrees.

For most of us, freedom involves a more uncomfortable resignation than we are likely willing to admit. We see that society has been able to construct extremely useful systems and protective shields. We may decide that some stones are better left unturned, and any degree of freedom we have acquired consequently becomes a tool for dealing with relatively mundane affairs; not everyone who has accessed a bit of freedom spends his time probing the dark and distant corners of a world that exists in a place beyond ordinary definition, rather some their sense of freedom just to occasionally relax.

It seems paradoxical that something that has exerted so much control over our lives and defined aspects of our lives in so many ways can be cast aside (at least to some extent) with such relative ease. What is even more amazing than the fact that freedom is a somewhat easily accessed state of consciousness is mankind’s general disregard for its value. The fact so many people seem more willing to trudge down a mindless path to a wholly inevitable end without experiencing freedom in its truest forms is disappointing.

What we have determined is that the dictates of society in human consciousness extend only so far as they cannot be recognized; when we are able to understand the hidden forces that influence us, we have discovered a new type of self-awareness. After having this discovery, if conditions are adequate, an individual begins the process of accessing freedom. Freedom does not negate social interaction, social consciousness or social dependency. It only supposes a type of keen awareness, a knowledge of the fact that we are the products of our membership in society in an almost total sense, knowledge that we can actively strive towards freedom, and that we accept responsibility for the ourselves and how we choose to live.

[i] Politics, Book 1, Chapter 2, p. 1988 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1984.

[ii] Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (New York: Random House, 1963), 78

[iii] Ibid, 132