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Do People Want Precious Freedom?

Do People Want Precious Freedom?


That most perspicacious of social theorists, Zymunt Bauman – on whose work I have drawn before (see for example here) – has raised a question that has become even more relevant today than when he first posed it in Liquid Modernity (2000, p. 16-22; see also here). In a nutshell, Bauman wondered about freedom – do people really want to be free? Can they bear the challenges and responsibilities of being free? Here he approaches this question from a specific angle, that of ‘liberation,’ which is sometimes the prerequisite of being free (p. 18-19): 

Is liberation a blessing, or a curse? A curse disguised as blessing, or a blessing feared as curse? Such questions were to haunt thinking people through most of the modern era which put ‘liberation’ on the top of the agenda of political reform, and ‘freedom’ at the top of its list of values – once it had become abundantly clear that freedom was slow to arrive while those meant to enjoy it were reluctant to welcome it. Two kinds of answer were given. The first cast doubt on the readiness of ‘ordinary folks’ for freedom. As the American writer Herbert Sebastian Agar put it (in A Time for Greatness, 1942), ‘The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.’ The second inclined to accept that men have a point when they cast doubt on the benefits which the freedoms on offer are likely to bring them. 

To drive his point home, Bauman (p. 18) alludes to an apocryphal (sardonic) version of the episode in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus’ men have been turned into swine by the sorceress, Circe. In this satirical account by Lion Feuchtwanger, who evidently wanted to make a point about the ‘unbearable lightness of liberty’ (with acknowledgement to Milan Kundera), the sailors-turned-hogs live a porcine life of blissful disregard for human worries and responsibilities, until Odysseus manages to discover herbs with properties that would reverse the spell, thus restoring their human form. When informed of this by their leader, the pigs – instead of eagerly awaiting the administering of the cure – take off in flight with an astonishing speed. When Odysseus finally manages to catch one of the fugitive hogs and restore its humanity, instead of the anticipated gratitude for being returned to his proper nature, in Feuchtwanger’s version of the tale the sailor turns on his supposed liberator with unrestrained fury (p. 18): 

So you are back, you rascal, you busybody? Again you want to nag us and pester, again you wish to expose our bodies to dangers and force our hearts to take ever new decisions? I was so happy, I could wallow in the mud and bask in the sunshine, I could gobble and guzzle, grunt and squeak, and be free from meditations and doubts: ‘What am I to do, this or that?’ Why did you come?! To fling me back into that hateful life I led before?

Today this parodic version of an episode from Homer’s epic rings particularly true, specifically regarding the reluctance of the majority of people in the world to face the truth (admittedly carefully hidden from them by the legacy media), that we find ourselves in the middle of the biggest attempt at a global power grab in history – the first one, in fact, that was capable of being applied to the world in its global entirety, given the present technological means to do so.

These did not exist previously – neither Alexander the Great, nor the Roman Empire, nor Napoleon had the technical means at their disposal to focus their admittedly prodigious attempts to conquer the world or the globe as a whole, and the military might behind Adolf Hitler’s quest for world power was matched, if not surpassed, by that of the Allied Forces. The sheer, almost incomprehensible, scale of the current, attempted coup is therefore probably a significant factor in people’s unwillingness to accept that it is occurring – that much one has to grant. 

So what does this have to do with freedom, or rather, reluctance to accept the responsibilities and risks that come with embracing one’s originary freedom (that is, freedom potentially given at the origin of our coming into being)? The crucial point is this: while I don’t want to open a can of worms constituted by the debate on ‘free will’ – except to say that I am on the side of those who insist that we do have free will (as amply demonstrated by the fact that, against all biological inclinations, individuals sometimes decide to go on a hunger strike to demonstrate their insistence on a firmly-held principle, and do sometimes die as a result) – as Bauman’s citation of Feuchtwanger parody of Homer, above, shows, such freedom to choose sometimes frightens us: ‘What am I to do, this or that?’

The saddening truth is that, like the twice-fictional Homeric swine, people would generally rather prefer to remain in their comfort zone, head in the proverbial sand, than to face the mere possibility that they should choose, even choose urgently, to act, because our very ability to exercise our freedom is at stake. 

This was brought home forcibly a few weeks ago in the town where we live, when a debate about ‘chemtrails,’ which regularly appear in the sky above the town, erupted on the town’s social media chat group, and at one point a participant candidly admitted that he preferred not to pay attention to these disturbing phenomena because they only ‘upset’ him. There you have it – like the swine in the retelling of Homer’s Circe story by Feuchtwanger, who would rather remain in their condition of porcine bliss than be restored to the burdensome human condition, people today would rather remain uninformed, even if it poses the risk of possibly losing the freedoms they still enjoy.

We are in Lisbon, Portugal, for a conference on ‘Diversity,’ and here, too, the manner in which difficulties and apparent threats emanating from the globalist cabal’s heinous plans involving a totalitarian world government are studiously ignored, is palpable. 

Case in point: my own presentation was a poststructuralist critique of the untenability of the concept of ‘diversity’ (conspicuously promoted everywhere today, for example in the notion of gender fluidity), for as long as it lacks a sustaining ontological underpinning, demonstrating that diverse entities are actually distinguishable in terms of universalistic concepts of identity. In plain language, to over-emphasise ‘diversity,’ as has been the case lately, and which this conference contributes to (ironically, given that the aegis under which it is organised is ‘Common Ground’!), is to preclude the ability to identify how diverse entities differ from one another. How so? 

Think of it this way. The ancient Greek philosophers, Heraclitus and Parmenides, set up this ontological game that we are still playing today – the one involving difference and sameness. Heraclitus claimed that ‘All is flux,’ while Parmenides argued that nothing changes. Put differently, for Heraclitus incessant becoming (change, difference) reigned supreme, while for Parmenides only being or permanence was real – change was illusory. (I won’t go into the way that Plato and Aristotle, after them, incorporated being and becoming into their respective thought systems in distinctive fashion.)

Fast forward to the present, where the modern and the postmodern vie with each other as explanatory principles for how society works: the modern, by and large, emphasises being as the essential moment within all becoming (for example in Virginia Woolf’s novels, where she uncovers and literarily articulates the sustaining element within all the change surrounding us). By contrast the postmodern cuts being adrift and declares that there is only becoming. Which is right? 

The modern is closer to the paradoxical truth (than the postmodern), which is best captured by poststructuralist thought (for example that of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, among others), which can be summed up by stating that we grasp the nature of things, including human subjects, best by showing how being and becoming are intertwined, or work together. Lacan, for instance, shows that we can understand a human being as an amalgam of three ‘registers:’ the ‘real,’ the ‘imaginary,’ and the ‘symbolic.’

The ‘real’ is that in us which we cannot symbolise in language (for example the unpredictable ways in which we may act under circumstances that we have not experienced: you may turn out to be a monster, or perhaps a saint). The imaginary is the register of images, in which you are inscribed as a particular (identifiably distinct, different) self or ego, while the symbolic is the universalistic register of language, which enables different selves to communicate. 

In a nutshell, Lacan gives us a theory that explains being as well as becoming (unlike the postmodern, which only recognises becoming): as a self or ego at the imaginary level, we are distinct (that is different) from other selves, while language (the symbolic) allows us to articulate that difference in universally comprehensible concepts, which are translatable from one language to the next. Becoming is therefore inscribed in the differential relationship among distinct selves in the imaginary, and being as well as becoming are registered in the symbolic: we can talk about our differences (becoming) in a comprehensible manner (the universal). 

The point of this explanatory detour (forgive me for that) is to lay the groundwork for saying that ‘diversity’ – the theme of the conference we are attending – belongs squarely in the category of (postmodern) becoming; it can only account for unmitigated difference, but cannot account for identity, which is necessarily articulated in language at the level where the particularistic imaginary overlaps with the universalistic symbolic (which can therefore articulate difference as well as sameness).

Example: I am a man (universal); my name is Bert Olivier (particular, as well as universal); I live in South Africa at such and such a place, and at such and such a time (particular as well as universal). Hence, one needs a theory of human subjectivity like Lacan’s to do justice to our differences as well as our ‘sameness’ as human beings. If you only stress ‘diversity,’ you have the difference, without the sameness (the universalistic linguistic means to grasp either). 

What does this digression on a conference dedicated to the topic of ‘diversity’ from a Lacanian perspective have to do with the topic of this article; to wit, the question of whether people want to be free? It may seem like a long shot, but it is in fact related through the conspicuous manner in which the mere choice of ‘diversity’ as the overarching theme for the conference neatly ignores the undeniably pressing – in truth, urgent – need to provide multinational platforms (such as the conference) for an open, critical discussion of the factors that are endangering the very possibility of such conferences in the future. These factors – the various ways in which the New World Order is planning to control all of humanity in the not-too-distant future, including 15-minute cities and CBDCs, as well as vaccine passports and the like – are patently ignored. 

The reason why I decided to talk about the theoretical shortcomings of ‘diversity’ at the conference was to open up a debate about ‘identity,’ which a one-sided affirmation of ‘diversity’ cannot account for (as shown above), and which permeates all the attempts to undermine people’s sense of identity through, among other things, the ‘woke’ movement and all its ramifications – something which falls within the scope of the globalist neo-fascists’ programme of totalitarian control. It is so much easier to control people who have lost their sense of identity than those who still experience who they are on a daily basis. 

Not that identity is cast in stone – as shown earlier through a discussion of Lacan’s theory, it accommodates both sameness (being) and change (becoming). The paradoxical truth about a human being is that (except in pathological cases such as schizophrenics) we remain the person we are while also changing throughout life, so that we can greet an old friend after years of not seeing them, with the remark: ‘Good heavens, Jill, I hardly recognise you; you have changed so much!’ But the fact that you recognise her manifests the paradox: she is still Jill, despite the changes on her part – in looks as well as life experience. 

Circling back to the question of human freedom, then, it seems to me that, judging by the theme of the conference on ‘diversity,’ the fact is that, by and large, topics that may ‘rock the boat’ of (perhaps tacit) conformity and compliance were conspicuously avoided, and this, I believe, is a clear sign that Bauman’s point, when discussing Feuchtwanger’s satirical employment of Homer’s narrative about Odysseus and Circe, who transmogrified his men into swine, is still as applicable today as it was then (at the end of the 20th century). By and large, people do not seem to want to be free, given the burden of choice and (possibly inescapable) action it would impose on them. 

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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