Thursday, May 10, 2018

Varieties of Freedom

Are you watching THE HANDMAID'S TALE? It's interesting to hear "Aunt Lydia"—who seems to sincerely believe that the theocratic regime of Gilead is doing what's best for the people, including women—talk about freedom. She chides the Handmaids under her supervision for desiring the now-obsolete "freedom to." "Freedom to" would include most of what we think of as civil rights and liberties, e.g., freedom of speech, the press, and religion, the right to vote, choice of career, privacy rights, control over one's own body, etc. Instead, Aunt Lydia thinks women should be thankful for "freedom from"—the freedom from fear and insecurity they enjoy by living under the protection of men. They're fed, sheltered, and clothed, and they walk the streets without danger of being attacked (as long as they adhere to the rules prescribed for them).

"Freedom" means different things in different societies. To a slave trying to escape, freedom means no longer being treated as property. To a prisoner, freedom means release from confinement. In the title of a pair of folk song albums I own, "Sing Irish Freedom," the word refers little if at all to individual civil rights. The freedom being sought by the rebels celebrated in the songs is the liberation of their country from foreign (English) rule. In the section of the TV series ROOTS that occurs during the American Revolution, slaves laugh among themselves about the white folks fighting for freedom. To the slaves, freedom would mean control over their own bodies and lives. The white revolutionaries were striving for a broader, less personal goal, the breaking of British rule over the colonies.

To a hive-mind species, the concept of individual freedom would have no meaning. If we met an alien, sapient, ant-like or bee-like species and urged them to claim their liberties by overthrowing their queen, they would probably meet the suggestion with blank incomprehension. Defending their hive from domination by an outside culture, on the other hand, would come naturally to them. If we encountered the Borg from the Star Trek universe, whose aim is to create an ever bigger and better collective mind by assimilating useful species, they would most likely be baffled by our insistence on clinging to our individual identities and "freedoms." Like Aunt Lydia in THE HANDMAID'S TALE, the Borg would urge us to accept assimilation and embrace the resulting freedom from fear, insecurity, and the existential ordeal of making our own decisions. Many of the house elves in the Harry Potter series do not want to be liberated. Of course, they don't belong to a hive mind, so in that case the essence of freedom would be allowing each elf the free choice of his or her own preferred way of life.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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