Today’s post is a guest post by Josh Hanagarne from World’s Strongest Librarian. Enjoy! ~ David
My high school government teacher Mr. Weeks remains the best instructor I’ve ever had, and that includes my undergraduate and graduate studies. I still quote him about once a week – more often during crises.
One day he asked us all a question that I’ve never forgotten.
“What is Freedom?”
He didn’t seem surprised when someone raised their hand and avowed, “Freedom is being able to do what you want.” It was what we were all thinking. Before we could begin nodding, Mr. Weeks laughed and shouted “Wrong!” He was tickled that he’d led us into another trap. He straightened his tie, cleared his throat and said:
“That’s exactly what’s wrong with the world. People think they want freedom, but what they want is anarchy. Doing whatever you want isn’t freedom: it’s anarchy. When anarchy is the norm, that’s when society starts sliding into the ocean, and at that point… good riddance. Anarchy is for losers and punk bands.”
Then he tried to jump back into quiz bowl prep as if he didn’t know he’d just kicked the wasp’s nest.
We weren’t having it. So we screamed out our objections and confusion while he smiled and laughed. He turned to the chalkboard and started writing a lame question about the Industrial Revolution. “Now what were we talking about before all this nonsense started?”
Freedom according to the OED
He loved to agitate us. It certainly got us thinking; I’ll give him that. I struggled to come up with an answer, my own definition of freedom, but didn’t get much. Here is what my dictionary told me:
1. a. Exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty. Letter of freedom (now hist.): a document emancipating a slave.
b. fig. Liberation from the bondage or dominating influence of sin, spiritual servitude, worldly ties, etc.
3. The state or fact of not being subject to despotic or autocratic control, or to a foreign power; civil liberty; independence.
The Oxford English Dictionary is the only dictionary worth quoting — I knew that even back then — and it certainly seemed at odds with Mr. Week’s statement that we wanted anarchy, not freedom.
The definitions in the OED framed freedom as a state of being free from despots, of having your civil liberties, not being a slave, et cetera. When I looked up anarchy, it honestly didn’t sound that bad either. There was a lot of overlap in the definition of anarchy and the definition of freedom. There was only one clear truth: Weeks was wrong. I couldn’t wait.
He finally gave us an answer
When the answer finally came, I was a bit disappointed by how simple he made it sound:
“Freedom is the choice to do what is right. It is not doing whatever you want, because there is no guarantee that what we want is healthy or positive. Freedom is the choice to do what is right. And you are free to find out what that means on your own time…now back to work.”
Our howling commenced anew, but this actually was the last time he brought it up. No amount of pleading ever got him to revisit the subject.
Was he correct?
I’ve pondered his answer for over ten years now. The question (and the answer) are more complicated than they seem. Mr. Weeks was great at asking questions that were like viruses — you could not get rid of them without dealing with them. Thought and ponderance were our medicine. And even when you couldn’t figure out an answer — even when there was no answer — our confusion was a sort of crucible that led to productive, focused thinking… and I suspect Mr. Weeks would tell you that’s exactly why he was so cryptic about everything.
As to whether Mr. Weeks was “right” about the answer: I don’t know. But here is where the train of thought has taken me from that day.
Guided by codes
We all live by codes. Your personal guiding star could be as lofty as the Ten Commandments or as simple as a slogan you might read on a Gatorade bottle. Here are a few examples of personal and moral codes from people I’ve known:
* I live by the Ten Commandments
* There is no God so what I do doesn’t matter
* If it feels good, do it
* Just do it (Nike)
* I only kill bad people (I don’t really know Dexter, but I know this is his code)
* Don’t make anyone’s day worse
* I live as if God exists, just to cover my bases
* I try to do more positive than negative…not always sure which is which
A quick story about Satanism
When I was a junior in High School, someone brought a copy of The Satanic Bible to school. I’m talking about the book by Anton Lavey. It’s not actually a book of scripture. It’s essentially a manual on how to be selfish. It is neither as profound as its disciples say it is, nor as shocking and profane as its critics suggest.
After it showed up at school, lots of kids read it and started coming to class with their faces painted white. They did a lot of scowling and eye rolling. The also wore black clothes, which was meant to be very frightening and twisted. I also wore black clothing, but it was because I had discovered Slayer and Pantera.
Of course all of the parents were in an uproar and didn’t want their kids going to school with Satanists. And that’s how they looked at it: they called these kids who were essentially wannabe Goths “devil worshippers.” “My son cannot go to school and sit next to devil worshippers!”
Someone had a brilliant idea. It was November at the time. These newly minted Sons of Satan were told that if they didn’t renounce The Dark Lord they wouldn’t get any Christmas presents. Predictably, they washed their faces and turned their back on Beelzebub. Things were holly jolly as hell in time for December.
The point: if you live by a code, that code doesn’t change at the drop of a hat or it isn’t a code.
The final verdict on Mr. Week’s definition… for now
I don’t want anarchy. I like order. The concept of “right” means very different things. It can even mean nothing.
We can’t all have the same morals, and why would we want that? Nabokov, author of Lolita and my personal patron saint, flat out said: “I don’t give a damn for morals.” There are too many competing ideologies to have much hope for getting everyone on the same page.
I don’t mean for that to sound jaded or omniscient. I’m neither, although I’m probably closer to omniscience than I am to pessimism or nihilism. This is actually a positive thing, our differences. Why are people so interesting? Because you can never predict what they’re going to do or say! There are always new lows that will make you cry, but humanity constantly hits new highs that will make you gasp in disbelief.
Is freedom the choice to do what is right? Perhaps, if you “know” what right is, or even care. I believe that we are free because we are able to determine what is right for us, and then act accordingly, for better or worse. You get to be yourself if you have the courage to be who you want.
Even if it means you decide to break out the Unholy Face Paint of The Father Of Lies.
When he isn’t painting his face and juggling kettlebells, Josh Hanagarne masquerades as the World’s Strongest Librarian. Head over and say hi!