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Are We Afraid of Freedom?

How misguided humility may deprive life of meaning.

We are ambivalent about freedom. On the one hand, we desire it. We feel suffocated when arbitrary rules are imposed on us. Few want to work with a boss who micromanages, and some people risk their lives to overthrow an authoritarian ruler.

On the other hand, however, when there are few constraints or external impediments and we can make a freer choice, we often fail to take advantage of this and opt, instead, to curtail our own freedom. It is this phenomenon—the anxiety we seem to experience when faced with the opportunity to choose for ourselves—that interests me here. What motivates it? What forms does it take?

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Woman sitting on a window sill, looking out
Source: Dima Valkov/Pexels

How We Borrow Other People's Opinions

Let us consider first freedom of thought. It is rather unclear how much of it we really want. While most of us reject the heavy-handed imposition of views and ways of thinking, we often willingly adopt other people’s opinions. No one makes us do this, we just do it. And we cede our own freedom of thought in the process. Oscar Wilde makes an observation along these lines in De Profundis, where he says: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

The pattern Wilde alludes to is insidious. When we borrow another person’s view on a matter, we often don't notice. It seems to us that the view is really our own. If we pay any attention at all to the fact that it originated in someone else’s mind, we see no cause for alarm. We believe the borrowed opinion is just what we would have thought if left to our own devices. (Incidentally, while it may seem to “borrowers” that they think for themselves, purveyors of opinions, pundits, influencers, and trend-setters are likely keenly aware of their power over the minds of others. Is such knowledge compatible with deep respect for the audience? One has to wonder.)

In other cases, what we borrow is not so much an opinion as a way to make sense of our own experience. We may, for instance, attempt to fit our own grief into a narrative about “stages of grief” or try to subsume someone’s personality—whether our own or that of another—under some category, some “personality type.”

Perhaps, we believe that in so doing, we preserve our own choice, because we don’t agree with everyone and borrow only opinions that resonate with us. However, while it is true that there is more freedom in deciding whose perspective to adopt than there would be in being pressured to go along with a narrative we do not find believable, we could be much freer. We can make sense of life and other people for ourselves and abstain from taking on anyone else’s view. Since no human temperament is a duplicate of that of another person, chances are that if we consider an issue independently, we would find that our conclusions differ from those of others regarding any but the most trivial matters.

Being a Person "Without Character"

In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil describes a man—a mathematician named Ulrich—who has no character, no inner core or set of values that define him. He is a man "without qualities." Ulrich is a literary exaggeration of what is a widespread phenomenon: lack of character. We often do not try to decide for ourselves whom to be and what to value. We let ourselves be shaped by our time, place, and external circumstances.

Perhaps, we think that we are free in comparison to those living in a different time and place, because we sense that given our beliefs and desires now, if someone imposed on us their views, we would find that stifling and even abhorrent. But though some communities in some times and places are freer than others, the collective narcissism of an era may blind us to individual unfreedom.

Bad Faith

The ultimate escape from freedom involves denying that we can and do choose, that we are at liberty to decide, that it is up to us. We may persuade ourselves that we have no choice or that we are not the ones making the decisions we make. Sartre called this belief “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). Bad faith is the false belief we maintain in our own unfreedom. Thus, soldiers who think that they have no choice but to carry out an order because that is what soldiers do are, in Sartre’s view, acting in bad faith.

Why Do We Reject Freedom?

Let’s begin with thinking for oneself. Why borrow other people’s opinions? One reason, no doubt, has to do with a desire to belong. Musil says similarly that we all must either accept the outlook and even “baseness” of our own age or become neurotic. There is something to that. The problem is that we are not even aware of accepting anything. We rarely offer resistance and might make ourselves empty vessels so that any content might be poured in.

There is no need to do this. It is true that societies impose limits on individual self-expression, but it is a mistake to see conformism as the only route to social acceptance. We all know people who march to their own drum. They are quite likable yet we suppose that we would be rejected if we were more like them.

What of bad faith? Perhaps, what drives bad faith is the hope of avoiding responsibility. Responsibility can be burdensome. Sartre’s insight, however, was in that this cannot, in fact, be done. Chosen unfreedom is not the kind of unfreedom that exonerates us. We remain accountable for our actions, including the ones taken in bad faith, and not only in the eyes of others but in our own. Inauthentic choices, much like authentic ones, carry all the costs of responsibility. It is just that, unlike the latter, they bring none of the benefits of freedom.

Maybe, we all know this, but we have a kind of inner inhibition, a certain lack of confidence, perhaps even a misguided humility, that leads us to think that it would be too bold, or too risky and arrogant to proceed differently; to decide what to think and whom to be for ourselves.

But misguided humility is not a virtue, and we cannot protect ourselves from errors in that way either. What is likely to happen if we refuse to choose for ourselves is that we will make someone else’s mistakes instead of our own. Kazuo Ishiguro, in The Remains of the Day, has the butler Stevens, who'd let his identity become completely dependent on the views and choices of his master, Lord Darlington, say the following at one point:

"Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?"

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