Friday, December 31, 2004

Why People Reject Freedom

Recently, I had a very disturbing argument. I was making the case for a State-less society, and a friend of mine said that leaders do what the people want anyway. If that is the case, I said, then there is no reason for compulsion. Well, he replied, the leaders do what is best for the people, but most people cannot judge that, and so have to be compelled. Ah, I replied, then surely that means voting is a terrible idea. If people don’t know what is good for them, then they cannot judge leaders who know better. Well, he shrugged, that just means that dictatorship may well be the ideal political model.

I got very angry at this point. I feel a kind of visceral revulsion towards people who shrug and sigh and are willing to give up all their liberty to defend… what? What was the principle that he was so eager to immolate himself for? That shrug was very provocative. Not because he was willing to give up his own freedom, which is of course his own business, but because he was advocating a system which would also destroy my freedom as well. He was willing to destroy not just his own liberty, but liberty as a principle. To enslave not just himself, but all mankind.

And it cannot be that he is unaware of the murderous misery of dictatorships. This is not the eighteenth century. No man can claim ignorance of the effects of totalitarianism. One hundred and seventy million murdered by various States in the twentieth century alone.

What corruption, I wondered, is at the root of this kind of hateful self-erasure? What malevolent impulse could overturn and destroy our natural love for all the freedoms that make life worth living?

Fortunately, I am married to a therapist, and she was able to point me in the right direction. Most moral corruption in the world is the result of people believing that evil is good – and moral corrupters bend their wills to fill the world with this anti-ethical teaching. Loyalty to evil – the defense of corruption – is a vicious principle that undermines the integrity of all who follow it.

And, as my wife insists, it all starts in the family.

I thought of the man who had angered me so much. I knew little about his life. He was a devout Christian. His mother was stubborn and difficult. His father had been unemployed for ten years. Clearly not the most functional family structure – but not the worst either.

As my wife and I talked, a picture began to emerge. The genesis of moral corruption.

It is my strong belief, based on considerable experience with children, that we are born strong, secure, confident and empathetic. It takes a fierce effort to destroy the natural strength of children. In China, a hundred years ago, girls were born with normal, healthy feet. It took an enormous and painful effort to bind them into agonizing balls of distorted flesh. The same occurs with the intellectual and psychological development of children the world over.

Children are also very logical. And, as a result, moral. If you doubt this, just look at the amount of effort that is expended stuffing the most arrant nonsense down innocent children’s throats. Religion, patriotism, cultural pride, the benevolence of the State, Santa Claus, the value of State education, the superiority of various groups, the danger of the free market, terror of environmental degradation, the deep value of inconsequential physical competitions, the virtue of being ‘nice’ and polite and deferential to authority, the need to smooth over each and every social discomfort, to avoid confronting or rejecting bad people… The list goes on and on.

So parents teach their children all this nonsense – and so found their churches, as it were, on sand. The moment you lie to someone, you become both their slave and their master. You are their slave, because you are terrified of being discovered – and you are their master, because you must control their perceptions. You must destroy their curiosity. You must respond to any approach to your falsehoods with irritation, condemnation and withdrawal. The energizing question ‘why’ becomes your implacable enemy. You must undermine their capacity to reason, to think for themselves. You must overcomplicate the world. You must do to simple truths what a squid does to water – muck it up, make it impassable and blinding. You must forever confuse and distract your prey. And most of all – most of all – you must become the sworn enemy of all principles, even the most innocuous. The only ‘rules’ you can allow are base commandments, such as ‘respect your elders’, ‘love your country’ and so on.

My wife had a conversation with her mother once which exposed this tangled web of guilt, deceit and irritation. Her mother was talking about a Greek woman who had divorced her first husband because he was abusive. She had remarried, and was now very happy. My wife – a therapist, remember – asked her mother if the woman in question had sought any counseling or therapy. Apparently not. So naturally my wife said that it was almost impossible for this woman to have a happy second marriage, if she’d been already married to an abusive man and had never sought any professional help.

I love my wife’s certainty in these areas. She is a very experienced and competent therapist. I find her opinions fascinating, because they’re so informed. But her mother got very irritated. She held up her hand, tightened her lips and averted her eyes, in the classic “This subject is now closed!” gesture. My wife tried to go further, but got nothing.

On the drive home, Christina and I talked about this at length. What was her mother defending? Well, for her, everyone has to be ‘nice’. A person can make a mistake, like marrying an abusive spouse, but that can be easily erased by marrying someone new. Within the Greek community, intractable problems must be glossed over, because Greeks are superior. Even the abusive husband – also Greek – is tolerated, and his behaviour is not judged. And, God wouldn’t allow devout Greeks to have real problems if they pray and go to church.

Thus, when my wife brought up the natural tendency for people who’ve made bad emotional decisions to continue to make them until they examine their lives and figure out their problems, this challenged a number of parental falsehoods. So of course her mother reacted with frustration, irritation and withdrawal. The conversation simply could not continue.

Now my wife is wise and perceptive enough to understand all this. “Everything goes back to the family,” she says. So I thought about the Christian I had argued with, who was so willing to give up all of mankind’s freedoms to defend… something.

I know that gods do not exist. This man – let’s call him Stan – was raised as a devout Christian, which means all the religious nonsense was stuffed into his brain from day one. I know this to be the case, because no one comes up with Christian theology on their own. It is always taught. If a culture raised in complete isolation from Christianity came up with all the tenets of Christianity, it would of course point to the existence of God. But such a society has never been found. Thus children never become Christians because a god talks to them. They become Christians because it is rammed into them.

So, the question sits in Stan’s unconscious: “why was I taught all this?” And it is a fascinating, terrifying question. Why indeed? And remember, he wasn’t taught this as a theory, but an absolute. If his father had taught him a scientific theory, Stan would understand that it was subject to rational and empirical tests, and so always subject to improvement or disproof. Christianity, however, was not taught to Stan as a theory, but as an absolute fact. His parents and community did not appeal to Stan’s rationality and intelligence, but rather to his fear, conformity and guilt. “There is a God,” they said. They did not offer any proof. They just forced it on him. He was dragged to church. To Sunday school. Baptized. Confirmed perhaps. He was never allowed to ask any real questions. If he doubted, he was told that doubt was a moral challenge to be arbitrarily willed away. Or that doubt was the shadow of the devil. He was given an answer to every question, but the answer always assumed the existence of God. Why does God kill people? Because He knows what they will do. How can God judge people’s actions if they are foreordained? Oh, because God exists outside of time. How can we have free will if our choices are fated? Because we exist in time, and don’t know what is fated. Murk, obstruction, confusion and the evisceration of the rational faculty. The hobbling of a young mind.

So of course Stan is going to have great difficulty with authority. Gods do not exist, so what was his community up to? The priests, of course, have merely material motives. Without God, it’s hard to get paid for showing up in a funny hat. But his parents? Why did they lie to him so fervently? What was their motive?

Well, fear and conformity seem to be the inevitable answer. They sacrificed their child’s identity on the altar of social approval – just as their own individuality was destroyed for fear of ostracism. We are social animals, after all, and disapproval is hard to take.

But the fact that Stan’s parents were afraid of disapproval is not the core problem. If they had sat Stan down and said “Son, you have to go to church because people won’t talk to us if you don’t. And we like being part of a group. So, we have to do whatever that group demands, no matter how silly it might seem.” That would be honest at least. But I can guarantee you that they did no such thing. They said god is good, we are the best, only bad people avoid church and so on. They cloaked their own craven submission to the frowns of petty people in the fake light of universal goodness. They didn’t say: submit to people for fear of disapproval, but: submit to god for love of goodness. They took cowardice and made it a moral commandment. They took evil and made it good.

And why did Stan believe this? Why is Stan so willing to give up his – and everyone’s – freedom? Because facing the moral corruption of one’s own family is about the hardest task a person can undertake. If Stan’s parents lied to him, and pretended to be good when they were in fact corrupt, then they do not love him. They, in fact, worked as hard as they could to destroy him. They were not just liars, but hypocrites and abusers, perfectly willing to sacrifice their children’s capacities and identities to protect their own fearful and vain illusions. If a parent force-feeds a child junk food and denies him anything remotely healthy, we have no problem judging that parent as abusive. How much worse is it for a parent to force-feed a child lies and hypocrisy and corruption?

So what is Stan faced with when I say that authorities such as the State must be subject to rational analysis and moral judgment? That the ‘State’ in fact, does not exist, and that there is only one moral rule for all mankind, derived from objective reality and our biological natures? Why, he is faced with having to judge his parents by objective, rational standards. And not just his parents, but his whole community. And his own capacity for enthusiastic participation in the moral and intellectual corruption of both himself and others. Perhaps he has spread these lies, taught Sunday school, and corrupted others. Perhaps he has shifted from abused to abuser. How will he regard himself if there is no God? How will he regard himself if both God and his parents must be subject to rational analysis and universal and consistent moral laws?

If Stan takes even a step in this direction – and both my wife and I know this from intense personal experience – then what seems like a set of stairs almost immediately turns into an icy chute. What is approached as a manageable experience turns into a precipitous free fall. Everything unravels. Family, friends, community, are all revealed as false, corrupt, hostile. Anyone who rationally questions authority is almost immediately ejected into the void of mere individuality. Very few people can approach and survive the disintegration of the corrupt house of cards called family, culture and community. (So far, my wife and I are the only ones!)

This is my answer to the question: why did Stan so angrily reject freedom? Because as a child, he was enslaved by vanity, base compliance and cowardly ignorance. Because if he judges authority rationally, he will understand that his parents do not love him, and he does not love them. Quite the contrary – that they used him to justify and reinforce their own cowardice and corruption. And Stan is so terrified of discovering that terrible, simple truth that he would rather lay waste to the whole world than face the horrifying reality of his own family.


Anonymous said...

You rightfully state that "If a culture raised in compete isolation from Christianity came up with all the tenets of Christianity, it would of course point to the existence of God".
However, there are a very small # of tenets that are vitually universal although almost always applied inconsistantly.
These are Life, Property, Liberty, and to be free from force or fraud. Or as Richard Maybury puts it: The Two Laws as taught by all major religions are; Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property.
I am not a Christian, but I do believe a good case can be made for Natural Law, a system made by God

Ellis Wyatt said...

Why is God necessary to the equation?

I suggest you read Universally Preferable Behavior, Stef's book, where he deduces rational, secular ethics without the necessity of gods or governments. And he does a damn fine job of it, if I may say so.