[Untimely Meditations] The ambiguity of freedom

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” – Soren Kierkegaard

Living in today’s world, we cannot aspire for the kind of freedom enjoyed by the Greeks, whose cultural ethos and intellectual outlook was averse to labour and vocation which distract from a life of contemplation. Unlike life in ancient Greece, necessity has become a norm in the modern life. For centuries the human race has attributed all the greatest inventions and achievements to necessity – not thought. This wisdom is encapsulated in the proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

This age is different even from the early modern period because of our immense capacity to create necessities. In the scientific world of today, we are inextricably wedded to the umpteen necessities spawned by technology. That is why Marshall McLuhan disagrees with the traditional wisdom of necessity and claims “invention is the mother of necessities”.

Surrounded by gadgets and glitz, we allow our lives to be determined by the alienating human condition – and are left with no time for contemplation. Therefore, despite freedom of thought, our society is incapable of producing any thought-provoking thought. This situation goes against the assumption that sees ideas blossom in connection with the freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought is a catchword among intellectuals, literati, human right activists and politicians in Pakistan today. The basic premise is that a society progresses when it allows people to freely express their ideas. However, freedom of thought alone cannot ensure intellectual development and progress of society, for it hinges upon cultural ethos and social milieu. In our context, this social milieu makes the space that can be used for free thinking into a dumping ground for the ambiguous ideas of those intellectuals who seem to want to escape from freedom.

The common lament within a section of our society – the lack of freedom of thought – is used as an excuse to hide our failure to question and engage with perennial issues. While it is true that we have produced some committed intellectuals in the colonial and post-colonial periods, our entry into the age of communication has severed our relations with that tradition. As a result, we have more freedom of speech and less thought.

Societies that have become bastions of free thought owe it to their intellectuals who remained engaged with the issues of the time despite the suppression they had to suffer. Though they had to face the authoritarian forces of the time, their ideas have paved the way for a free society. For example, Karl Marx, Voltaire, Soren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Gramsci did not work in a free environment. They, instead, had to face deprivation, privation, exile and prison. Their experience of existential angst exposed them to the real face of forces that control thinking of people.

A closed society uses raw and visible force to control its populace, but a developed society resorts to covert mechanisms of control. Unfortunately, despite not being able to develop our state and society intellectually on modern lines, we have succeeded to develop covert mechanisms of modern control. Such a society is more vulnerable to the mechanics of power.

At times power allows freedom of thought to thinking minds and lets people to reel in poverty and deprivation. By doing so it co-opts the intelligentsia in its diffused form of power. In Pakistan freedom of thought is selective and not every Pakistani is entitled to it. To make use of the right of freedom of thought one has to be an intellectual of stature or media celebrity. A common man is an easy prey for forces that dominate our state and society.

The absence of a visible manifestation of control mechanism and tactics and shirking of real issues by our intellectuals in the time of freedom – however limited – demands a rethinking of our idea of freedom. The trouble lies in the fact that we as a nation have won ‘freedom from’ but do not know ‘freedom to’ or ‘freedom for’.

Eric Fromm in his book Escape from Reason calls it “ambiguity of freedom”. Bereft of substance and answer ‘to’ and ‘for’, we feed our minds with nonsense – a birthday in the British royal family, conspiracy theories, fanaticism, pseudo-science, charlatans, celebrities and televangelists. This is not to say that we do not need the electronic media or the cultural industry. The purpose, rather, is to highlight the fact that our intellectual calibre is deteriorating in tandem with the increasing influence of gadgets and glitz. In short, our hard-won freedom has provided more space to the various escapisms of modernity and demagogues of religion.

The main task of our intellectuals today is to explain the term ‘freedom to’. Grappling with this question may help us steer the nation on to a more progressive path. Otherwise, we will, despite our freedoms, remain shallow, directionless, crave for others’ approval, go shopping and become, in the words of Fromm, “interchangeable cogs” in the social machinery that treats others and ourselves as somewhat depersonalised objects.

The writer is a social scientist based in Islamabad. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

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