Sometimes your memory, though falible, acts as a filter, sorting out the bad ideas from the good ideas and preserving the really good ideas. For this reason I occasionally ignore my deep desire to write something down because I know that, if the idea is truly worth remembering, I will indeed remember it.
Back in July I was at the Columbia University School of Arts undertaking a theatre and film course as part of my job. One of our professors, Brent Blair, said something that haunts my thoughts every time I stop to use the bathroom or dwell on my cup of coffee’s ability to absorb cream. He said, “freedom is expanding one’s ability to accept complexity.”
Before you say it, let me imagine what you’re thinking: what the hell does that even mean? After all, Freedom is one of those wonderful words that everyone understands but no-one ever has to define, right? Even more, once you start talking about “Freedom from” things, you can apply the word ‘freedom’ to mean the exact opposite of freedom. “Freedom from offense” can mean censorship; freedom from worry can mean locking people up without trials. You can say “Freedom from” anything in order to justify oppression. Up until I gave Professor Blair enough of my attention to truly breath in his words, I would have said, much like Gordon Lightfoot, that ‘freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.’
If I am thus to extrapolate on what Professor Blair meant, what I would suggest is that freedom in this case means freedom from the need to understand everything in terms of simple narratives. When we are truly free we no longer need simple narratives to explain everything: we can understand that certain things are beyond our understanding; that certain problems require not one but multiple solutions; and that it is perfectly acceptable to wonder at the complexity of something while resisting the urge to draw fast conclusions.
Allow me to explain through an analogy: we students of literature are taught to be very suspicious of the generes of biography and autobiography. Our skepticism of these genres is rooted in the idea that we humans have a tendency to interpret the past from the perspective of the present, thus obscuring our understanding of the past (if you don’t believe me read any sports analysis: whether or not a player or team had a good game or a bad game is entirely dependent on how many times the losing team hits the post). Therefore, if you’re an entrepreneur, it may be that you celebrate those early moments in your life when you showed signs of entrepreneurship as detrimental. If you’re a writer, maybe you remember fondly a series of events that stick out in your memory in which your early skill as a story-teller was on display. Ignoring contradictory anecdotes, you pick and choose which ones to dwell on in order to explain the present.
The point here is that your life is too complex to be explained as a result of these simple narratives. Too many things happened to you, too much of who you are is nature to be passed off as nurture and vice-versa. Your memory is selective: we remember the things from the past that make the present make sense. We conveniently forget the things that contradict our linear and logical narratives. In other words, order is imposed on the chaos of your life in order to make you make sense, but that order cannot sustain a close examination.
The truth of the matter is, as a good friend recently pointed out to me, scientists have yet to map out the eco-system of a single cell in order to understand how it works: to suggest that the complex nature of your present can be easily explained away as a result of a series of unconnected incidences in the past is disingenuous and self-deceiving. Though we may find comfort in regarding ourselves as products of our choices-and no doubt to a certain extent we are,no-one can claim to be entirely the product of his choices, since we cannot control for the influencing factors that produced the conditions within which our decisions were made.
Freedom, in this context, is the freedom to accept that your being is far too complex to be summarized and explained in a 30 second introduction. What then, when we turn to the world with our new-found glasses that instead of making things clearer tend to make things more blurry?
All throughout Latin America, for example, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, “what we need is a strongman to turn this country around.” Even though the 1980s represented a catwalk of dictatorships throughout the region, many still believe that the uncompromising hand of justice can only be imposed by the benevolent dictatorship that never was. In countries over-run with social ills solace is found in the idea that we simply need to find that one person capable of imposing upon us that which we are incapable of bringing about ourselves.
Freedom, according to Brent Blair, is freedom from exactly this type of thinking. Freedom is understanding that some social ills are so complex that they cannot be solved by one solution. Instead, eradicating certain social ills requires battles on multiple fronts with numerous groups and individuals picking away from all angles in the hopes that their combined efforts will produce the crack that exposes the system’s vulnerability.
By embracing complexity we protect ourselves from falling into the comforting embrace of simplistic narratives advanced by, for example, racists and anti-immigrant groups that state that all of our problems can be embodied in the form of the other. When we allow ourselves to accept complexity we no longer feel the need to impose definitions on people such that they lose all individuality and are instead defined by their belonging to a larger collective. At the moment we accept our inability to understand we can only then appreciate the timelessness of the world’s religions: for rather than mixing a meta-narrative from texts past with the logic of today to explain everything, we allow for the myriad of possibilities concerning our accidental and tenuous existence, an existence that is so improbable that we have yet to find anyone within millions of light-years who shares the burden of ‘intelligent life.’
My hope for humanity is that by democratizing access to information we are making the world smarter. When we make the world smarter by supplying multiple pipelines of information to the consumer of said information (as well as democratizing who gets to publish information) we can allow that individual to embrace complexity(as well as the freedom to become a producer of information as well). When the world embraces complexity we generally stop killing each other, since most intentional killing, especially on large scales, requires one to put aside his common humanity and give priority to the simplistic appeal of tribalism. Once we stop killing each other we can then move on to taking care of one another and riddng the world of disproportional suffering.
To conclude, by freeing access to information we can take a step towards freeing ourselves to accept complexity, and only in accepting complexity and bypassing the simple answers can we really get on with the task of enjoying the wealth of diversity we have inherited. Freedom isn’t then just another word for nothin’ left to lose: it’s also a word for everything we have to gain.