It is very agreeable
to find yourself alone in a great city which is yet not quite strange to you
and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom.
W. Somerset Maugham – The Human Element (1931)
Some years ago Sackerson wrote a very interesting post on freedom - Three levels of freedom
. The following post is intended to add another aspect to the debate. Not an alternative view of freedom but a possible way to frame
questions of freedom - what it could be, why ideas differ so much and why freedom seems to fade away so easily.
In the above quote Somerset Maugham is clearly referring to
freedom as a feeling - a delectable sense
of freedom. Equally clearly people differ in how they react to restrictions
placed on their freedom. Some appear not to notice many restrictions and may even
welcome some of them. Others have a greater tendency to see restrictions as an oppressive
burden, an imposition to be resented at every opportunity.
To take a familiar example, some motorists see our vast
array of traffic laws as oppressive while others see them as necessary for road
safety and not particularly oppressive. These are different reactions to the
same situation and perhaps this is the important yet entirely familiar point -
it is extremely common for people have different reactions to the same
situation. Consequently they interpret the same situation differently – as we
all know too well.
In which case neither freedom nor oppression are clearly
identifiable situations in the outside world. There is an inescapable human
element, an emotional component to do with feelings about oppressive situations
and those feelings are far from universal. Maybe we should go further and
suggest that freedom is not only a state of affairs in the outside world but also
an emotion, a state of affairs in our brains. Hardly a surprising conclusion but worth exploring consequences.
How could freedom be an emotion? Not necessarily a strong
emotion such as anger, but something more subtle such as unease, contempt,
frustration or dissatisfaction. In her book How Emotions Are Made, Professor Lisa FeldmanBarrett
says emotion is our brain’s way of interpreting an amalgam of bodily
sensations linked to events in the outside world. An emotion is a concept, a
way of making sense of things which affect us or seem to affect us.
This is not to suggest that ideas about freedom are caused
by emotions. Ideas about freedom are themselves emotional concepts. They are rationales
we use to explain and link our bodily sensations with events and situations in the
outside world. Why am I fed up with all the traffic laws? Because sometimes they
feel oppressive, life-sapping, frustrating. Not always though - and that is
Driving on modern roads can be mildly depressing and in some
cases the feeling is explained quite well if linked to an objective reality of
vastly complex traffic laws. Hence the label ‘oppressive’ applied to modern
traffic laws. Yet without a feeling of oppression the laws are not oppressive.
Oppression has to feel oppressive or we don’t notice because it isn’t there
until we do notice it. We can’t work it out from the bare physical facts of the
situation because it isn’t there - it is in our brains.
In other words, people who do not see traffic laws as
oppressive are people who have little or no emotional need to interpret them as
oppressive. There is no point arguing about it, no point saying that some
people fail to see the oppressive nature of traffic laws. In themselves they are
not oppressive. We make them so via our emotional concepts or we don’t. These
emotional concepts are not our emotional reaction to the laws but our emotional
concept of the laws – the laws plus our feelings about them.
To take a much more extreme example, most of us see North
Korea as a grotesquely repressive regime, but from the outside this is an
emotional concept of a situation we do not actually experience. Stories about
North Korean oppression coupled with a sense of unease or outrage that these
things can happen are probably conceived by most people in democratic countries
as extreme violations of freedom.
However it is possible that many North Koreans have
different emotional concepts of freedom and oppression. They may be familiar
with heavily regimented lives and their sense of oppression may not be as generally
acute as we suppose. In our terms they may not perceive the oppression as
strongly as we think they should. Or they may perceive it more strongly than we
imagine – it is not something we can simply work out from what little we know of North
The oppression does not cause the emotion because there is
no oppression without the emotion. The oppression is an emotional concept we label
as ‘oppression’ and we interpret the oppression as happening beyond our own
minds, out there in the real world. Some of it is happening out there in the
real world, but the concepts, the use of words such as ‘freedom’ or
‘oppression’, these lie within our own minds. Not in every mind though – that’s
This is why familiarity may inhibit concepts of political freedom
and oppression. It seems likely that many people do not see their heavily
circumscribed modern lives as oppressive or as lacking certain important freedoms.
Not because they are obtuse, but because they do not make the same use of emotional
concepts others label as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’.
In her book Professor Barrett makes a fascinating claim.
She suggests that our emotional concepts are our own responsibility. We may
choose to react differently to the same situation for a whole range of reasons.
That’s something we see regularly too. We see it all the time in politically
correct outrage – emotional concepts with a political purpose. The outrage feels
artificial because it is – it has to be.
This may imply that people who do not interpret an oppressive
government in terms of restricted freedoms are not well informed about what the
government is actually doing or failing to do. Freedom may be an emotional concept
encompassing the outside world, but people with a limited
understanding of the outside world will have a limited ability to interpret their
world as oppressive. Possibly no ability at all.
Perhaps a democratic government may become as oppressive as
it wishes if it is also conspicuously benign – if it spins benign
emotional concepts. If it also manages to avoid generating too many emotional
concepts of oppression or lost freedom then there is no real barrier to
totalitarian government within a democratic shell. Bare reality won’t expose it.
Freedom simply disappears.
And is finally –