Monday, August 17, 2015

Freedom: The Right to be Left Alone

Freedom. Ah, that word! Sometimes overused. Often used as a slogan, especially by politicians. But the thing which it represents is essential and simple. It is also controversial, because it goes against values which some people hold dearer than freedom.

We still pay lip service to freedom. We still recite the patriotic clichés about the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” because that is what America represents. But let’s face it, freedom is no longer a politically correct value. The word is mostly used on the right of the political spectrum. 

Today, the correct thing is to praise the “social” - social responsibility, social consciousness, “community.” Some years ago, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni launched a new political movement, “communitarianism.” Indeed, the problems of your neighborhood, your city, your country and ultimately the planet can only be solved if we all band together, or as Hillary Clinton said, “it takes a village.”

Nor is this an earth-shattering revelation. Since time immemorial, man has bettered his lot through solidarity, mutual help, cooperation, love. The early Christians knew it, the pioneers on the frontier knew it, groups like the Mormons knew it. All religion is based upon these values.

So then, how can I argue against this? How do I dare to suggest that there is “another side” to this? What am I, the anti-Christ? Am I going to argue against community, against love, and for selfishness, anomie, individuation, alienation? Well, no. I am no more going to argue against love than I would argue that the earth is flat. BUT...There is always a “but.”

For one thing, it is a fact that human nature is selfish. True, it is also altruistic, as Kropotkin and others have shown. But an awfully large part of human nature is made up of selfishness, especially the urge to power, particularly in men. Maybe men are poorly constructed. Who knows. Biologists will have to sort this out.

Therefore, more often than not, when one person approaches another, it is probably to get something out of the relationship. This can be crude, as in the case of robbery and rape, or subtle, as in the case of many marriages and friendships. These truisms are the basic principles underlying sociological exchange theory, one of the discipline’s major approaches today.

So then, one type of human relationship which can benefit the participants is the exchange relationship - in commerce and in all other social interaction. But exchange is only one possible outcome. Other possible outcomes are conflict and exploitation.
Therefore, we must also always be ready to say, “leave me alone.” (As I do ten times a day on the telephone to telemarketers). When the lion approaches the antelope, the antelope knows that nothing good can come from that relationship, and its only appropriate response is to get away and to say, “leave me alone.” So the impulse to be left alone is a good one.

This was the impulse which drove millions of Europeans to leave their homes and to emigrate to the wilderness of America. It was the impulse which made me hop on a boat in Rotterdam as a teenager and come to America by myself, without a soul waiting for me on this side of the ocean. It is the impulse of the Old West pioneer, to whom seeing his neighbor’s smokestack on the horizon, meant that they lived too close to each other. What awful individualism and selfishness, you say. How anti-social!

Perhaps, but another word for this is freedom. If there is one value which America has embodied throughout history, it is the value of freedom. And don’t underestimate our uniqueness in this regard. Take for example Canada and Australia. Those two countries resemble us in many ways. Like America, they are almost entirely immigrant societies. Even more striking, they are both far more sparsely populated than we are. So you might expect them to be more imbued with the hyper-individualism of the 19th century American frontier. But they are more socialistic than we are.

And here is something else that’s revealing: Proxemics - the science of personal space. You know how we all carry an invisible bubble around us when we go about public places, a space which others should not violate. The amount of personal space people require to feel comfortable varies from culture to culture. Well, guess where people carry around the largest such invisible bubble? It’s us, the United States. Even though our population density is getting up there, and is already considerably higher than that of Australia, Canada, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This is another indication that freedom and individualism are remain quintessentially American.

So does this make us the most selfish people? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. Perhaps I should distinguish between individual freedom and “liberty” in the social sense. It is nice to be left alone in the personal sense, but it often goes at the expense of social justice. How do you strike a balance? That’s what a good society is all about. Two major characteristics that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom are (1) the way we cooperate with each other to improve our future and (2) the capacity to transfer what we learn to others. So if being part of a group is in our genes, then wanting to be left alone is not good for our survival.

What I do know, nevertheless, is that we are a very free people. In very few parts of  the world do people respect your right to be left alone as much as here. When I go to my club to work out on the tread mill, I like to be left alone. In Holland, someone might step on the exercise machine next to me and make remarks about my running style or my weird running shoes. This rarely happens in Sacramento. Here, I don’t even have to engage in a conversation about the latest NBA or NFL game if I don’t want to. And that’s just fine, because when I exercise I want a strenuous aerobic experience, not a chit-chat. I am not interested in hearing about the other guy’s latest cruise to Alaska, or why he prefers a straight 6 to a V6 engine.

And I certainly don’t want to answer inquisitive questions from anybody. The good news is that by and large, Americans do not approach each other with inquisitive questions. Europeans haven’t learned yet that it is rude to grill people with questions; that this makes for poor conversation.

The Ancient Greeks knew these things. Their word for the busy-body was “meddler.” The meddler was the man who didn’t know how to mind his own business.

When Alexander the Great came upon Diogenes in one of the streets of Athens, he approached the old philosopher, who was meditating in the afternoon sun. The emperor asked the wise man, “Oh great wizard, is there is anything I can do for you? You only have to ask for it, and it is yours.” 

Diogenes answered, “Great King, I only request that you move out of my sunlight.” (In other words - buzz off).

Recently radical Muslims were demonstrating in London. Some of their picket signs said, “To Hell with your Freedom!”

Let us cherish our right to be left alone. Let us realize what the world would be like if it were run by meddlers - and worse. Obviously we have to strike a balance between freedom and community. Personally, though, I rather err on the side of freedom. Call me a misanthrope. I just don’t like to suffocate.
© Tom Kando 2015
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