No One Is Free While Others . . . Oh, Get a Grip

You've probably seen it, the bumper sticker that says, "No one is free while others are oppressed." Well, it is a nice thought, but it also happens to sum up what I think is wrong with so much political (and literary) discourse (and yes, I think one can refer to bumper stickers as political or literary discourse).

If one takes the saying literally, it begs the question, "Why bother to free anyone then?" Since no one is free so long as some are oppressed, then if you subtract 7 (the number of oppressed people) from 10 (the number of people), you will get zero every single time, which means that so long as a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of oppressed people exists, no one is free, and we're just kidding ourselves that anything we do matters.

To be fair, however, I don't think that's what the bumper sticker means. I think it means, "No one should feel free while others are oppressed."

In other words, it isn't the actual freedom to, you know, put a bumper sticker on a car and grouse about it on a blog that matters, it is whether or not I'm happy about my freedom. Which I am. By the way.

However, once again, I should probably narrow the meaning of the bumper sticker to the intent of the bumper sticker. I think the intent isn't so much emotional blackmail as a kind of passive activism. The bumper sticker is supposed to stop people feeling happy about their freedom and encourage them to feel unhappy and uneasy instead on the supposed grounds that unhappy and uneasy people are more likely to help oppressed people than people who are light-hearted and relaxed.

I don't buy that. My experience is that unhappy and uneasy people don't help anyone very much at all. But it makes you wonder--do the people sporting the bumper sticker feel unhappy and uneasy? All the time? Or do they, like so many of us, go home to books about self-enlightenment and finding one's inner guide and coming to peace with one's self?

I don't know. Perhaps, they are continually unhappy about the state of the world. Maybe they never let up. Maybe they badger people in banks and at cocktail parties. Maybe whenever someone tries to tell a joke at work, they growl, "There are people in this world who aren't allowed to joke," or maybe they get together with like-minded miserable people and receive mild jolts of happiness as they bash everyone in the world who doesn't think exactly like them.

On the other hand, perhaps they don't think they need to feel unhappy and uneasy since they have gotten other people to feel unhappy and uneasy. Which doesn't work on me (despite the fact that I am quite suspectible to reports about my own failings). Whenever I'm driving behind one of those cars, I grumbled, "Well, I am free, and so are you."

Whatever their motivations, people who instruct everyone on how miserable everyone should feel seem to buy into an erroneous idea that is fairly wide-spread. It goes something like this:
People who change things are rule-breakers who step outside the cultural box; therefore, the only way to change things is to break rules and step outside the culture box; that means pointing out to people how unhappy they should be with the ways things are.
Yes, (point one), there are people who cause shifts in thinking, re-evaluations of cultural norms, changes in government. The mistake is in confusing the outcome--Shakespeare's plays, the Protestant Reformation, Jane Austen's novels--with the actual process. There is no guarantee that the actual process involves rule breaking or disgust with the establishment or dislike of one's culture, and it may involve misery only incidentally. In any case, adopting an attitude of change doesn't make one bit of difference to the outcome. One doesn't become a great painter by hosting art parties at the Met. One becomes a painter by painting. And there's no guarantee that any greatness will occur--just that one will produce a lot of art.

Likewise, one doesn't become a great political figure by labeling oneself edgy or revolutionary or miserable. One becomes a political figure by actually doing something, which usually involves a great deal of hard work. (No, sticking a bumper sticker on your car doesn't count as "doing something.")

The most amazing thing about Galileo, for example, wasn't that he was FIGHTING THE ESTABLISHMENT in some hey-where's-my-change-inducing-bumper-sticker sense but that he didn't realize he was. He was seriously surprised when his book evoked criticism from the Catholic heirarchy. After all, he'd dedicated his book to the pope. Perhaps he should have seen it coming, but the point is, he was too busy doing his thing, working hard on his ideas, to realize it was coming.

Granted, change-invoking people have been known to call attention to themselves and their supposedly outside the box thinking. But not always. Dante had serious, hard-core political opinions, but he wasn't sitting around going, "Hey, guys, why don't we rehaul the whole system--you know, get rid of kings and emperors and popes entirely. Huh, what about it?"

Unfortunately, the actual history of individuals often gets lost and replaced by a summary of their achievements. In the case of literature, sometimes even the commentary on the achievement replaces the actual achievement! (But that's a subject for another post.)

"But," the why-won't-you-feel-bad-for-being-well-educated-and-self-sufficient? folks might argue, "if it wasn't for us look-at-how-bad-things-are types, the changes wouldn't continue," which is rather like administrators arguing that if it wasn't for the billing, the doctors wouldn't be able to perform surgeries. Well, okay, maybe there's some truth there although I have my doubts. I think most long-term change is effected by people who get up, go to work, and enable their culture/nation/neighborhood/family to survive. Because the changes have to go somewhere and if the culture doesn't survive, that's a whole lot of nothing for them to go.

My final thoughts on "No One is Free While Others Are Oppressed" is: Have the guts and the maturity to admit when your culture benefits you! I suppose a bumper sticker that read, "I'm free even though others are oppressed" would be tactless but "I'm free, and I'm not going to whine about it because that won't help anybody who is truly oppressed in the long run because in order to help them, I have to be able to recognize real freedom when it bites me in the tuss" might overrun the bumper.

I could settle for, "Isn't freedom great! Let's share it!!"


A Calvinist preacher said...

Quite right. I remember visiting with another pastor shortly after I arrived at my first church (just after I graduated seminary). His wife was getting some water from the tap in her kitchen and commented that she felt guilty. I was a bit taken aback by this, as I did not expect a social call to turn into a Presbyterian confessional. It turns out she felt guilty because she could simply go into her kitchen and get a glass of water from her tap while "millions" have to walk for miles to get water.

I should think that would be a cause for gratitude rather than guilt, but the habit of respect for one's elders is embedded deeply in me, so I bit my tongue.

The bumper sticker you mention is no different than this pastor's wife in essence. The gifts, blessings, and joys that you enjoy should instead make you feel guilty and miserable because some people are denied these blessings. Should I feel guilty because my parents did not divorce and my father provided for his family? Perhaps to spare my own children this guilt, I should abandon my wife and force my children to search for food in the dumpsters?

No. The intent of this pastor's wife, and the bumper sticker, is to claim a moral superiority on the cheap. One can claim to "care" and look down one's lengthy probiscus at those lacking one's own obvious sensibility, who are instead looking to be responsible in the tasks they are given.

You cannot save the world - that's God's job. Leave him to it. You can only, in the words of the old children's song, "brighten the corner where you are." Do so. And don't feel guilty about it, either.

Kate Woodbury said...

The attitude you describe reminds me of a passage in, I think, Screwtape Letters (it could be Mere Christianity) where C.S. Lewis talks about what is real. He talks about how I'm-trying-to-be-profound-by-being-miserable types will discuss the emotions of negative events (death, war, tragedy) as being what the event is "really" about (hate, fear, unhappiness).

On the other hand, when talking about positive things (birth, weddings, birthdays, spiritual revelations), these same people will downplay the emotions (joy, happiness, love, peace) as being "contrived" or "socially induced" rather than "real."

As Lindsey says in Abyss, "We all see what we want to see. Coffey . . . sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that."

A calvinist preacher said...

I vaguely recall the passage, and recall wondering why "socially induced" would be considered not real. In any event, a lot of the so-called "real" emotions/events - war, tragedy, hate, fear, unhappiness - are in fact socially induced, even contrived, so that really doesn't speak to their reality (or lack).

But it brings me to another question. Why are we, temperamentally, more comfortable with the negative? It is much easier, for instance, to tell a child what he is doing wrong than what he is doing right and, to the extent I've spoken about it with my sons, they have found it much easier to take criticism than praise - and not just from me. I've noticed it in other contexts, too. People get very uncomfortable, even embarrassed, when I compliment them on anything more substantial than appearance and sometimes even then. Why is pessimism easy, perhaps even more natural than optimism?

I'm not sure what it is, but there is a connection between this phenomenon and the sense that negative events/emotions are more "real".

Eugene said...

Great minds think alike.

Anonymous said...

Really, its much simpler than that. As we go about freely expressing our different opinions, there are many who can't. And until their voices can be heard, you really don't know what is going on in the world. Your freedom is an illusion born from ignorance. No guilt intended.