A paper for The Politics of Freedom, December 2015
All my life I have been searching for the definition of my bona fide self in independence from the environmental situation that I am in. Before I came to college, I constantly struggled to mediate between my true self and my compromised self, my action and my thought, my aspiration and reality, in a disciplined family nurture, under a competitive and hectic educational system, and around a bigoted cultural and political society. The more desire to voice myself and indignation I built towards these systems, the more I engaged in leadership. Ironically, I found myself suffocating when I took on more leadership roles. I realized that instead of being liberated and vocalized, I became a tool of the system because I was always “representing” a body of some sort.
Gradually, my hidden transcript, a critique of power spoken behind the back of the powerful which responds to the public transcript—the open interaction between the subordinate and the dominant—and only shows itself when diverging from it (Scott, 11), through which I expressed my grievances towards the social coercion of conformity and obedience, and systematic suppression of individuality, became so heavy that it transformed my perspectives into extremist, and gave rise to not only a desire to revolt but also a dangerous violent rage, a distorted version of the assertion of personal dignity as the cruelest result of human bondage (Scott, 37). As much as I tried to put out this mortal risk, I pushed myself to get out by any chance. I wanted out, to a different society where I can “speak truth to power” and no longer daydream about freedom, and where, as I wrote in my personal essay to college, “individual voices are not taken for granted and people have equal opportunities to control their own destiny.”
I rated my level of freedom 8 out of 10 at the beginning of the class, because I felt like my previously declared objective was met at Bennington College, in the United States. But such Scott, Arendt, Socrates, Aristotle, and you, Crina, always find a way to make me revise my philosophy of freedom. The more important question I want to answer now is not how free I am, but what kind of freedom means the most for me to pursue. It has to be a kind of freedom that keeps me evolving, enlightened, functional, and helpful—one that stems firstly from the quest for knowledge and secondly from the quest for action.
Quest for knowledge. An examined life.
Socrates vowed before being executed that he shall continue his search into true and false knowledge, and shall find out who is wise, pretends to be wise, and who is not (Plato, 25), by maintaining a mode of constant inquiry instead of leading an unexamined life. I believe that without questioning, one cannot develop a sense of judgment, nor can he understand the power relationships between himself and others. He will fall into false consciousness, the thinking that the power relations are either just or natural. Thus, he cannot desire to be free, and will forever in the supervision of some kind of system. In a society where whoever can make their voices heard are more free, if I do not question and challenge authority, as well as denaturalize domination to develop a personal voice, I am less free, and more powerless. What Barrington Moore calls “the conquest of inevitability” (Scott, 34) resonates with Socrates’ idea of being a gadfly to create tension within one’s mind and catechize the power system. This tension helps form a person’s perception and a sense of resistance which will liberate him from those who want to manipulate him, while one who lives with a borrowed mentality will later be dependent both mentally and physically on others.
It was indeed the tension within the mind that helps the powerless construct their infrapolitics, and disguise their ideological resistance for safety’s sake through a system of rumor, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity (Scott, 137). Aggy the black cook, who although did not react to the beating of her daughter, was able to express her rage by elaborating a highly visual and finely drawn apocalypse to her friend Mary, because she did examine the justifiability of her master’s behavior (Scott, 5). I also had a tension within my mind, a mode of inquiry and analysis that led me to studying hard so as to attend college in the United States and continue my journey to maturity and freedom.
Knowledge is a treasure, a weapon that helps man conquer obscurity, slavery, and injustice. Knowing could be a burden but not knowing is a misfortune. Acknowledgment could be painful and distressing yet ignorance (mindlessness) is unconscious. Comprehension helps the havenots earn things and the haves preserve things. My parents always told me not to know too much, to choose security and happiness over freedom, to limit myself to protect myself, because the wiser is always attacked first, but that is not the way I want to live and definitely will not teach my children to live. To me, happy fool is not happiness—there is no victory in a cheap shot. I’d rather struggle. I’d rather question, the means by which I liberate myself from the tragedy of the commons, from the total obedience of the masses to a manipulative and despotic system, from the veil of the unknown. People are scared of what they do not know, and thus I want to have the strength of knowledge. Knowledge gives me freedom from the moment I search for it. I shall not live in the Grand Inquisitor’s state where a false idea of happiness and security swallows the true idea of freedom. I do not want free bread; I want to earn it myself. There is a price for freedom, yet for it I shall fight, for living in a dark cave will take away my vitality, and eventually my existence.
Quest for action. Resistance and initiation in practice.
To me, an idea of freedom, or freedom of thought, is very important but not enough; it needs to be transformed into a conduct of freedom, freedom in practice; when political consciousness turns into political participation/action, it is complete and most meaningful.
Although subordinate classes are oftentimes less constrained at the level of thought and ideology than of political action and struggle, since the daily exercise of power sharply limits the options available to them (Scott, 91), “falsely conscious” subjects are quite capable of taking revolutionary action (Scott, 78). Unlike Aggy, Mrs. Poyser was able to change political inaction into political action by mobilizing her hidden transcript into the public realm—she made a speech on behalf of other slaves, to the face of the squire, that they would not be treated as animals (Scott, 6). Her action declared freedom in the teeth of power, not behind its back. Thus, the highest form of freedom that I want to pursue comes from the quest for action; I am more free in the most meaningful sense when I am able to act on my freedom, to bring it into the world.
Hannah Arendt said that an action was free when the freedom element in it was able to transcend the motives and goals that attached to it and not controlled by neither the guidance of the intellect nor the dictate of the will, for when these two faculties exhausted from the constant battle with the self, “will or kneel,” the performance itself would carry on the execution of freedom (445). This kind of revolutionary action contradicts established historical processes and highlights “the faculty of beginning”—the virtue of being born without chains, and the capacity to start something new and fresh. Freedom that originates from natality which animates and inspires all human activities is the most meaningful form of freedom because we are not only born to be free but also to bring freedom into the world, multiply it, make it real and demonstratable.
Man is by nature a political animal (Aristotle, 3), and thus he needs to take part in political activity if he wishes to make the most sense out of his existence. Martin Luther King was free at the moment he wrote “The Letter to Birmingham Jail;” Mrs.Poyser was free as soon as she spoke truth to the face of power; Marjane was free no sooner than she spoke up to defend Muslim women in front of her teachers. The conducts of such Bolshevik Revolution, the great Peasants’ War in Germany, or the French Revolution, are all emancipations. I’m free right at that moment of action, when I become a part of the fabric of reality. In a place where I am able to articulate myself with my own speech, to create something new with my own ideas, to take initiative and overcome the cycle of repetitive conformity, I am free. My freedom needs to be demonstrated, with the actuality of freedom in action, not the invisibility of freedom in the mind.
What kind of freedom means the most for me to pursue? The kind of freedom that takes roots in curiosity and creativity. In other words, it is the element of freedom practiced by a philosopher and an activist.
I want to be the victor of myself not the vanquished. I do not want to hide in my own bubble daydreaming about freedom; I want to denounce myself in the light. I want to transform my hidden transcript into public transcript, my grievances into action. I want to thrive upon the spirits of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marjane, since I see them here and there, within me. I shall not live in a community where I have to bear the pressure of performing well; I want to be Nam, an independent body of politics within a body of politics, out and clear, voiced not silent, questioning not obeying.
The bona fide definition of my self, after all, is freedom: one that initiates, resonates, and develops, will truly mean something.