Monday, September 23, 2013

Frustration and Negative Freedom

I can be pissed off all I want to.

I know that gay marriage is going to be passed. The change represents another step in the process of downgrading commitments from critical cultural institutions into the emotional bouquet of flowers to be tossed after they wilt, but no matter. This has been a long time coming, going back to at least the advent of birth control and more likely to the 1940's, the start of the quiet sexual revolution that came into full view in the 60's. That's what people want. They want their connections to one another to be intense and infinitely blessed by others. Then they get tired of those particular organs and move on, sex made cheap despite our professed desire for commitment. It doesn't directly affect me.

I can go on about the value of organized religion to society, regardless of the existence of deities, but there's no point. This generation is deeply hostile to religion, regardless of its big-picture positives. They blame normal human conflicts of interest and normal human prejudices on religion, and think themselves above such things, no matter how obviously absurd that is. But as religious society sees its sense of identity vilified anew every time it turns on the television or reads a mainstream news article, the continued loathing for anything representing the old continues apace, masquerading as logical humanist concern for the species and attracting more attention from those seeking any reason to dismiss social arrangements and strictures, so they can live for their own desires.

I can say whatever I want about the inconsistencies, incompetence, or hypocrisies of democracy, feminism, egalitarianism, institutional media and education, and any other subject I want. I can blah blah blah forever, and it doesn't matter. This, evidently, is important, that I have this "right" to bitch.

Some of the reason for this perception of importance is the influence of a guy named Isaiah Berlin. I've read plenty of his ideas, and it seems as if I should like this man. His comprehension of language is rooted in Wittgenstein's ideas. He plays with the concept of supervenience. He traces ideas historically. Right up my alley. But Isaiah Berlin pushed the establishment of the concept of negative liberty, which screwed up too much shit. You know negative freedom:

Today, negative freedom IS freedom to most people.

Berlin knew that values clash but still thought that values pluralism was possible, which is the most hopelessly misguided opinion one can possibly have about the nature of values. Hope. Hope was his problem. He must have never really lost a fight. You can't believe in the potential of values pluralism if you've seen your own culture's future falling apart.

Of course, the idea is attractive. We can minimize conflict by creating a situation where people can value whatever they want to value, think how they want to think, where tolerance is itself the goal. But for a variety of reasons, such an existence is unsatisfying.

The most obvious is this: after you've said that people cannot tell one another what to think and believe, you start to understand how and why people come to think and believe as they think and believe. So what is a condition where ideas can float around without direct command or regulation from a higher authority? You know what this is called: a market. Ideas move on a market, attention is the currency, and like in a market, there are winners and losers. Ideas live and die, and in adopting some over others, we determine the market power of ideas and shape the future.

We don't like to think of ourselves as dictating the future from where we are. The value of freedom has roots in Judeo-Christian ethics; we aren't supposed to control people, only "let their better natures run free". But that idea only has power today because our forefathers believed in it, which goes to show, there's no substitute for success. If you realize this, and if you realize that your identity is bound to your values , and your values are losing ground, the frustration can be extreme. You're watching the legacy that makes you who you are die slowly.

This isn't Hegelian, there is no thesis-antithesis-synthesis bullshit going on here; there is only one worldview versus another, and time favoring one side. No compromise is ever equal; negotiation is biased in favor of power. What would they take from my worldview to incorporate into theirs, anyway? Anything relevant would contradict the opposing perspective. That's why it's opposing.

My view is one of the individual being small in comparison to the larger institutions of human society, of people throwing themselves into interdependencies without the modern capriciousness that makes everything short-term self-interest. Calling gay people's relationships "marriage" undermines this, as the purpose of marriage that actually gives sensible cause to two people being bound together forever - children - makes no sense in this context. It furthers the perception of marriage as some sort of step towards self-actualization and happiness, which changes expectations in a bad way for the future of the institution. With religion, it's more of the same. Despite the numbers, with about 80% of America claiming to be Christian, this country is not religious at all. We promote a perspective of people subscribing to a religion because they feel like it, not because it's a necessary social institution that allows for a unified view of moral expectations and accountability. Anyone who still sees religion in the latter context is hardly one of the majority; they are more likely considered fundamentalists and get a chuckle from normal people. Religion is not taken seriously here.

If you subscribe to negative freedom as valuable in its own right, then this shouldn't matter. I can believe what I want, so what does it matter if other people do the same and we don't agree?

It matters. When the law is a product of democratic popularity contests, and image is manipulated by the media, you will realize eventually that negative freedom empowers the ideas that sell the best to the least rigorous and respectable minds and that the entire system tends to fall to the level of the lowest common denominator. Just because I can do what I want as an individual, that this principle is protected for me by society, doesn't mean that I have a society. It's extremely alienating to live among people who don't share your values.

I know why Judeo-Christian morality is popular in the marketplace of ideas, because I know what it's like to hate those with power. Being powerless is fucking enraging, and it's enraging because your mortality is bound to your identity, not simply your corporeal self. You will die as an individual, and you can accept that reality on some level. But it's different to know that you and what you stood for will be forgotten.

For those playing the home game, I hope you're enjoying your frustration as much as I'm enjoying mine. There's nothing to really DO about it: you can yell and scream, throw punches at a punching bag, get drunk, get high, or if you're really into it, protest the best way we know how: Facebook posts. Why not? Even if you decided it was important enough to start a fucking revolution, you always have that knowledge in your rational mind that you're being stupid and, at the end of the day, your voice is just a single blip on the public relations radar. Eventually, your rational mind will re-acquaint you with what matters. It will remind you that you have very, very little control over your world, and that you are subject to others, many others, who don't agree, making decisions on the basis of what can be sold to the lowest common denominator.

You, in other words, are irrelevant.

If you really care about something, if you feel that you should be able to identify with your society and shit has gone horribly wrong and you have the drive to try and change it, this irrelevancy is the worst possible experience you can have. It eats you from the inside, kicks you in the balls on occasion, strips the meaning from your life like the skin flayed from Saint Bartholomew. It is hell. But you have to deal with it.

So what you do is, you internalize it. All the physical exertions to "get it out of your system" end up only fatiguing you until you no longer care, a temporary condition. Fatigue is merely a drug, creating temporary respite, like a dose of Zoloft; in a sense, every human being dies from an overdose.

Isaiah Berlin recognized lots of the problems with freedom and merely wanted a conversation along honest terms. Were it not for his damned hope, he might have figured out that this was impossible; someone, somewhere, is always on the losing end of cultural change and in a sense, there is always some type of violence done in the victories. For people who recognize how identity works, success is not a matter of internal perceptions; it's a matter of real, tangible gains. Not making them constitutes real failure, no matter the personal element of the experience.

Has every minority in history dealt with this? Probably; one side or the other has to learn to bite their tongue, and I've never said it was easy or that minorities have had an easy road. But the recasting of the problem along the line of people just making their choices in a world made right by negative freedom pisses me off more than anything. I've dealt with the consequences of conflict before, both on the winning and losing side, and the worst times are when you are lied to. I'd love an honest fight, where the conflict could be exposed instead of manipulated, where the soldiers can salute each other on the battlefield at the end of the day. But I won't get it.

Update, 16 Aug 2015: I come back to this post regularly, and the underlying feels always remain valid. That lowest common denominator keeps running the show. The pretty lies pour into the general consciousness without hesitation. The hell of having a strong identity continues to burn hotter. I keep looking for "drugs" that dull such pains and find nothing; trust me, don't start a business, thinking that such small enhancements in control and authority will help you find satisfaction. There is no escaping it. I've come to despise the perspective of negative freedom, even more than this article shows. It's practically a guarantee of intellectual shallowness and the worst kind of individualistic selfishness. 
It's not like I was wrong about the trends. Gay marriage has been approved by the Supreme Court. A recent poll has the number of self-professed Christians in America declining hard from 80% to just over 70%. And the arguments supporting it are sophomoric trash. I can't find a way to despise it any less, no matter how normal it gets.
I would love to wake up to all this being a bad dream, this deep hostility I have to the cultural status quo. But I wrote this almost two years ago, and it's stunning how little things have changed. I think I'm going to hold this perspective for the rest of my life. If I ever have children, I'll be sorely tempted to tell them to avoid unvarnished truth and pursue ideas that make them feel good, especially if the child is a girl. No one will call them on it. 

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