I’m sick of hearing about Freedom

[JOURNAL] Let’s talk about authenticity and consent.

Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

^ Cue John Oliver saying, “Cool.”

A/N: I tag some articles as [JOURNAL] pieces, meaning they’re more like brain-dumps where I work through questions I’m pondering in real-time, rather than polished and organized essays.

Any movement, be it personal or political, that is founded on freedom will invariably miss the mark. It will fall short of its goals because it fixates on the wrong ideal. Freedom is a means to an end, but not the end itself. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for creating actions that are consensual. The other necessary condition is authenticity.

To begin: Every action we take is a choice. This is not to say that everything that happens to us is a choice; it isn’t. The actions we take, however, are choices, whether or not they feel like choices. When we act, we choose a particular option from a possible set of multiple options. Our choices are never infinite, in the absolute sense, but are infinite in the sense that there is an infinity of different numbers between 0 and 1.

For example, if your boss calls you into her office to fire you, this is not your choice. But where are you going to sit while you’re fired? You can move your chair one inch to the left. Or are you going to stand on one foot? You probably chose not to interrupt your boss by reciting Shakespeare monologues or belting out a Disney love ballad. Are you thinking about your work performance, or the pimple on your boss’s nose? You’re breathing. Are you noticing your breath? You can breathe more slowly or quickly. Your inhale could take 5 seconds, or 2, or 10.

Yes, technically, even within this extremely narrow event, you have an infinity of options, each and all of which alter and shape the experience for all involved. But that probably didn’t make you feel anymore empowered to make choices, did it?

Because choice is not the same as consent. Consent is the act of making a choice that feels like a choice, that is experienced as a choice. Consent is experienced as a free choice. But freedom is never infinite — try as you might, you cannot teleport yourself to Rome right now. You cannot grow gills and breathe underwater this Thursday. You cannot just decide that your crush loves you back and make it true. You never have an absolute infinity of options, no matter how much “freedom” you have.

But at some point — freedom feels like freedom, and choices feel consensual. That point is determined by two things: 1) your ability to take possible options, and 2) your awareness of what options exist. When your ability is too constrained, always by some material or imagined power hierarchy, choices do not feel consensual. For examples of power hierarchy corrupting and negating the experience of consent, see the #MeToo movement. Likewise, when your awareness of possible options is too limited, your choices do not feel consensual either.

Political movements focus on creating consent through expanding the ability to take options (for example, by dissolving power hierarchies between profiteering landlords and tenants). Capitalism is intended to be consensual (vote with your dollars, kids!) but its consensual Utopian goal is brutally broken by the fact that it tries to do so by creating power hierarchies, which is antithetical to consent. Dissolving those power hierarchies, and expanding ability, leads to less suffering. On the flip side, spiritual and self-help movements focus on creating consent through expanding the awareness of possible options (free your mind!), from observing one’s emotions to dealing with unconscious resistance to finding simple acts of enjoyment to dissolving attachment. Expanded awareness, in this case, leads to less suffering.

Both of these kinds of movements have a tendency to talk about Freedom.

But a fixation on freedom invariably butts up against the reality that you can only ever make choices for yourself. Your freedom will never be absolute, nor should it be — absolute freedom for oneself necessitates a lack of freedom for others. Even “free association” is a myth; while it respects everyone’s unique freedom, it misses the point that humans (like all of nature) are interdependent and completely reliant on one another for the meeting of our needs. Rather than buy into some fantasy of independence and “freedom” to act towards others however we choose, we could instead focus on getting our needs met in ways that are… authentic and consensual.

So why is fixating on freedom a problem? Because it either slips into a desire for absolute freedom, and therefore, tyranny, and because it completely misses the point of what freedom is for: Freedom is for consent. If freedom is not aiding the act of choosing to feel consensual, it has no function. Freedom is a noble goal insofar as it dissolves power hierarchies and creates the opportunity for consensual action, and only that far.

Consent is a choice that feels like a choice, that is experienced as a choice. We feel our choices are free when we have enough freedom to choose an option that we authentically want. In this way, consent, too, is a means to an end: the end is authentic action: taking actions that we actually want to take. Doing things we actually want to do. Being what we actually want to be, saying what we actually want to say, acting and interacting in the ways that feel true.

Consent is still a means to an end, albeit a closer one than freedom and one that takes into consideration external realities, such as power hierarchies, that inhibit the practice of acting authentically. The end is actually authenticity.

Imagine a world where every conversation you have is authentic, every relationship you have is authentic, every thing you do is something you authentically want to do, even if it isn’t your absolute first choice. Imagine interacting only with those you authentically want to interact with, because you authentically enjoy those people, not because you “have to” to survive. Imagine knowing yourself, so intimately, because you are completely open and authentic with yourself. Imagine knowing others, connecting so deeply, because you are open and authentic with them, and engaging from a place where all interactions are consensual. It would feel so free, so freeing, so liberated. Why? Because freedom is a means to authentically consensual action.

So rather than build a free society, let’s build a consensual society. Rather than free our minds, let’s be completely honest with ourselves and behave authentically with others. Let’s engage without hierarchy, but with respect for one another’s freedom, allow our own to be limited by it, allow theirs to be limited by ours, but only so far as we need to in order to find interactions and solutions that are consensual, and authentically meet the needs of all involved.

I don’t care for a free world, because what does that even mean? I care for an authentically consensual world. A world without hierarchy, and without lies and bullshit.

Authenticity is the goal. Consent is the manifestation of the goal in the world. Freedom is a complicated experience with blurry lines, and at this point, it’s just a buzzword.



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