Efforts to contain the pandemic have revealed deep conflicts dormant in American culture. Topping the list: how we think of freedom. No idea is so fundamental, yet so fraught, as the notion of freedom. Our nation was built on it. Freedom remains one of the most common reasons people come to the United States.
Yet two warring concepts of freedom entangle this bedrock of our values. One, which we might call the “contract idea,” holds that, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, humans are endowed with a basic autonomy and a set of rights that no one, including government, can impinge. However, with this idea comes an understanding, thanks to Rousseau, Locke and other philosophers, that the individual is inextricably a member of a society — and to this society he or she has certain duties and responsibilities.
As part of society, the individual enjoys the benefits and products that the larger group makes possible and that the individual alone could not easily produce. A few pedestrian examples from modern life include the protection that the state military provides and the duty of the individual to pay taxes to the state to fund that defense. Countless other examples could be offered, including voting, obeying basic laws against property and personal damage, and not being flagrantly disloyal through sedition, treason and espionage.
The basic logic is an exchange relationship between society and the individual wherein mutual benefits and responsibilities are acknowledged.
The other, increasingly visible notion of freedom might be called the “pure concept.” In this, the individual is seen as fundamentally free but does not have to and does not enter into any exchange arrangement with surrounding society. Indeed, the very idea of “society” is controversial, as famously noted by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she declared in 1987 that “society does not exist.” If society is recognized, it is almost always seen as an enemy, obstacle or interloper.
Consequently, this individual has only rights, freedoms and near total autonomy. In fact, it appears the only obligation this individual may have is the duty to protect at all costs these absolute freedoms from any threat, local or remote. Thus, taxes, voting, even compliance with the law are seen as violations of freedom, ranging from annoying to perhaps even existential threats, depending on the individual.
Obviously, these concepts of freedom are diametrically opposed and likely mutually exclusive. It’s difficult to imagine any civilization lasting long when the notion of how much freedom a human has cannot be resolved by its inhabitants. It’s also clear in the pure freedom model that society is not possible because it’s not desired; it’s merely a regrettable side effect of population growth and human contact. And historically, when pure freedom proponents have gained power in various institutions (which ironically should not exist either), they have attempted with frequent success to reduce or eliminate society altogether, starting first with the rejection of social responsibility as a concept.
In our pandemic predicament, the contrast between contract and pure freedom concepts is seen in stark relief with profound consequences. Examples include struggles over mask mandates, lockdowns, curfews, vaccine requirements, city-versus-state lawsuits over autonomy and jurisdiction, even religious exemptions from just about everything.
This isn’t merely a U.S phenomenon; many nations have seen versions of this battle over freedom. And we have merely begun to scratch the surface. At first glance, this would appear to precipitate a stalemate, a situation in which we just throw up our hands and exclaim the unofficial slogan of social media: “We will just have to agree to disagree.”
Not this time. This is not an impasse. It is a misunderstanding. And seeing this clearly dissolves the war instantly. Why? Because we are not completely free. No single human on this planet has ever been truly 100% autonomous. Not only this, but we are not created to be entirely free and cannot live in such freedom. Allow me to specify:
1. We are not ontologically free: This is just a fancy way of saying that at the ground level of objective reality, an individual is born into layers of dependency, beginning first with reliance of the infant on the mother for food and later on a family or kin structure to keep that individual safe and open to the ways of other humans in society. We depend on similar frameworks for shelter and sustenance for the rest of our lives.
2. We are not psychologically free: Must I unpack this one? It should be painfully obvious to anyone who has done more than five minutes of introspection that our minds have minds of their own. Each of us is a freight train of emotional baggage, most of which we cannot even see due to the power of the unconscious mind, not to mention the simple wiring of the brain. Go check your screen time, then tell me how mentally free you are.
3. We are not spiritually free: The premise of almost every spiritual path is that we would like to be good, tranquil, loving and pure but cannot be. I don’t mean that we haven’t gotten there yet, it’s that we are intrinsically incapable of being good, saved or holy on our own. This idea goes by names such as the original sin, the inner jihad (struggle), tanha (craving) and others, but the meaning is the same: We are bound, shackled to a shadow we cannot alone be free of.
4. We are not culturally free: Because we lack the true instincts of other animals, we rely on culture to guide us in what is safe, good, worthwhile, and what is not. Even the value of freedom is culturally determined; many cultures now and in the past put higher value on ideas such as duty, honor or survival. The power of culture is so strong that, barring a few truly exceptional innovators, we may safely conclude that the only freedom most of us have is the freedom to follow. We get to decide who to listen to. That’s it.
In short, we do not have to choose between dueling concepts of freedom because one is a myth — always has been. Without a basis in lived or observed fact, the idea of pure freedom has had to rely on stirring legends and tales of personal bravery that may get our blood pumping and our tribal pride stoked up but are inevitably quieted by sobering waves of daily reality. No one is wholly free. We belong to one another. There’s no alternative. And if we insist on thinking of ourselves as free anyway, then let us at least cling to a true idea of freedom: We have the freedom to follow.
May we follow wisely.
Christopher Pieper teaches sociology at Baylor University. His books include “Sociology as a Spiritual Practice: How Studying People Can Make You a Better Person.”