Friday, October 18, 2013

Freedom from and freedom to

Tuesday morning had magic about it.  Looking out my kitchen window as I made my breakfast, I could see that the bird feeder had fallen from its chain in the crab apple tree.  So I jerry-rigged it with some twist ties and filled it again with sunflower seeds.  The nuthatches were unalarmed by my presence and ran up and down the tree trunk making their tiny-squeeky-animal-toy sound.  I drove to work through Wascana Park; fog was rising off the lake and the world was a rather cheerfully golden.  These past days, I've been drawn to be aware of the fact that the colour changes with the light.  On grey days, the sky's colour emphasizes the tangled grey-brown branches of the trees that have lost their leaves and mutes all the other colours, so that the world looks like a taupe Japanese quilt.  In the dusk of sunnier days, the gold of the elms and aspens is heightened by the slanting light, and the colours of the world look like those you would find in a Rembrandt painting.  Sometimes the gold leaves clustered around the trees look as if light itself had fallen and pooled.  Katherine Arbuthnott says that my peculiar tendency to keep track of where one can find colour on any given day, where one can see rabbits at dusk (sometimes 5 at a time), of how I can drive home past landscapes that are resonant and evocative comes from my "gatherer brain," that part which, in the past, helped people keep track of where they could find food, except that I'm looking for a different kind of nourishment. 

This week I've been teaching Blithedale Romance in my Reading Fiction class and Alan Sillitoe's working class (and very urban) short stories in my British Sixties class.  Though the nineteenth-century rural delights of New England and the urban chaos of twentieth-century Manchester would seem to have little to do with one another, both books, for a variety of reasons, explore the idea of freedom.  Yet one can see that this freedom is limited.  Miles Coverdale and the other inhabitants of the Blithedale Fourierist community seek freedom from the capitalist "getting and spending" that they see everywhere in Boston.  They have retired to rural Blithedale to do their own honest labour, hoping that this work will leave them time and energy for the writing, thinking and reflecting that they found it difficult to do  Sillitoe's characters long to be free from the working class background and the constraints that this imposes on their lives in a society that continues to be class conscious.  Smith, the character in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," believes that in rebelling against the way the borstal institution seeks to transform him into a useful member of society he is gaining freedom.  He will continue to steal until he is caught again, at which time a friend of his will publish the story.  Since we have the story in our hands, we must assume that he's been caught again.

Both of these works address an old philosophical conundrum going back at least to Kant.  What is the difference between freedom from and freedom to?  In Isaiah Berlin's work during the 1950s and 1960s, he coined the terms "negative freedom" and "positive freedom."  Negative freedom, or freedom from, is freedom from external constraints that create obstacles.  We could put freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from racism, sexism, fat-ism, or homophobia in this category, and once we collect enough examples we can see that public laws, institutions, and attitudes are largely responsible for these freedoms. But just because we have freedom of speech or are free from sexism, does that mean we can come the person we want to be or act on our most profound desires? Both Coverdale and Smith (what a duo!) have succeeded in getting freedom from some of the institutions that govern the shapes of their lives, but neither has fully succeeded, I suspect, in blooming.

This is where Berlin's concept of "positive freedom," or "freedom to," comes into play.  If we have positive freedom we are in control of  our own lives.  We are agents who can consciously and wisely make the choices that are best for us.  This type of freedom is intensely personal, coming out of the encouragement and permission we give ourselves, probably modeled by the people around us, and combined with our ability to critically reflect on our desires and our actions; we have gained self-mastery when we have achieved positive freedom.

Philosophers continue to argue about the difference between positive and negative freedom.  In general they concede that individuals must have negative freedom in order to make the fullest use of their positive freedom, and that it is the job of our society to guarantee as much negative freedom as possible.  Simply put, if you live in a sexist or homophobic society you are going to find it difficult to even imagine that you have the freedom to dream of becoming a CEO or of achieving an open, long lasting relationship.  But a Buddhist monk or an ascetic might well tell you that once you have adjusted your desires to fit your conditions, you are always free; in fact, you always have the freedom to make such a choice. 

It seems to me that some cultures are more preoccupied with both of these kinds of freedom than other cultures, and that they sometimes have contradictory or paradoxical ideas about negative and positive freedom.  For example, if everyone in your culture has the negative freedom to own a gun, does that limit other citizens' negative freedom to simply be safe? Michael Bloomberg's attempt to make supersized unhealthy drinks unavailable in New York City met with enormous resistance.  People should have the freedom from paternalistic constraints, so that they can make their own choices about what to eat or drink.  But does this negative freedom really further their positive freedom?  Is the self-reflection that is integral to positive freedom really kicking in every time they buy a big gulp?  How does that negative freedom further their agency in their own lives--particularly in the face of food industries who do research on the amount of sugar, fat, and salt makes food most addictive?

I've been thinking about negative and positive freedom in the context of the stories a culture chooses to tell, prompted by Charles Baxter, who suggests that victims--people who have so little freedom from that they have no freedom to--do not make the most interesting characters.  I need to think about this much more, but I can observe that insofar as literature critiques our social institutions, it explores the constraints that get in the way of our negative freedom.  Action movies may be very much about negative freedom--though I could be wrong.  Tell me if I am.  But that quiet book that explores how someone learns about themselves, learns how to trick themselves into taking risks, reflects on choices they have made, decides to make different choices or to revisit the ethics of past actions is about positive freedom.  We don't make many movies about this.

And what does this have to do with my gathering brain and my attention to the sound of nuthatches and to the times of day when rabbits are likely to be out for "silflay" in Wascana Park?  It is making me aware that our mortality leeches negative freedom out of our lives day by day.  Each day the constraints become stronger, higher, more painful.  Yet oddly enough--and this might provide something new for the philosophers to argue about--the absence of negative freedom compels one to explore more positive freedom.  To make this point almost banal, I would say I'm retiring because I need more time to simply "be," to reflect, to explore the beauty of the world I live in during long walks, to think and make. 


  1. Kathleen, I think you're correct about action movies focusing on negative freedom. Many blockbusters films tend to stir up our fears of being oppressed on a grand scale, only to champion individuality by suggesting that one person can triumph over whatever threat happens to be looming. It often seems to be "one man," which frustrates me to no end. I mentioned this to my third-year class last week, and we chatted a bit about the lack of female action heroes in cinema ("Alien" featured a powerful female character, while the recent prequel, "Prometheus," featured a woman running for her life through a space ship). At any rate, I also agree that our perception of negative and positive freedom tends to become clearer with each passing year, even as we feel the weight of further un-freedom. I'm far more likely to stand up for my own beliefs and personal intensities now, but I also feel how various external politics and difficult variables can make this incredibly complicated. Anne Carson observes in an interview that one of the difficulties of creative writing is that "you can't get simple again." The context makes you a better writer, but it also prevents you from accessing a certain viewpoint that came from not quite seeing the forces working against you.

  2. Jes, you've given me so much to think about here. The Carson quotation is a gem. And thank you for reading.