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July 13, 2004

Freedom Within Limits « Social Issues »

Okay, you caught me. The last post wasn't just about writing, it was also a way to introduce the main theme of this entry.

It's not a strong post, because while I feel strongly about my point, I'm having a hard time expressing it adequately and succinctly. I'll probably have to revise it, and may well end up re-attacking it in another post entirely. But in any case, what the heck, here goes:

(Chris: I'm thinking about boobies as I type. Just so you know.)

I once majored in music, and one of the lessons I learned was that true creativity can only come within certain structures. The more structured your form or medium, the greater creativity you must exercise to come up with something worth keeping. B. B. King, for instance, often uses just 6 notes (two strings with two frettings each, plus a string bend on two frettings) for many of his solos. That's an incredible restriction for a guitarist, yet no one would say his soloes are boring. Contrast that with the so-called "free-form jazz", consisting of individuals soloing for extended periods over very open, minimalistic chords. The soloists enjoy it, but few listeners do...unless well-versed in jazz enough to understand why the Ab, for instance, was a more brilliant choice than the B. The free-form soloist has so much freedom that it ends up boring for anyone not sophisticated.

The difference between a great storyteller and a terminal bore is the storyteller has a point, and paces the story, and brings you to the right emotions at the right time. There's a structure. There are limits. But within those limits, he's free to use all sorts of word choices, or tones of voice, or facial expressions. Without the structure, though, it's useless and worthless drivel. It's empty words.

Another thing I learned from music is that the most discordant, harsh, horribly ugly tonal cluster in the world becomes beautiful if approached correctly and resolved properly. I can go throw a cat on a piano keyboard and it will sound horrible. But hook up a computer to record the actual notes played, and a gifted composure could take the exact same sequence and in the proper context, make it the point of tension right before a musical climax that would bring you to tears.

Liberals and libertarians, despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have something in common: they are both pushing for greater freedom for everyone. Obviously, the two groups define "freedom" differently, and they want freedom from different things. Libertarians want freedom from government interference, even if it means hardship, and liberals want freedom from pain/hardship by way of government interference.

Me? I favor restrictions on freedom. Not despotic restrictions, no. But I think the negative reaction towards the Patriot Act is/was silly. It wasn't the first step of a slippery slope, and the restrictions were far more benign than anything done with gun control.

However, I think that as a society we have gone too far in seeking freedom. It is human nature to want freedom, of course. But it is also human nature to seek limits.

Take teenagers, for instance. No matter what rule you impose on them, a teenager will argue and complain that it is too restrictive. They will yell and cry and hate you for restricting them from what they want to do. But if you talk to a teenager without restrictions or rules at all at home, they will usually say they wish they had more restrictions, that they feel unloved because no one cares enough to set limits. Naturally, if a parent would respond by trying to impose a curfew, the teen would react badly...but that's because the yoke is always uncomfortable when you first put it on.

Most really young children love to take off their clothes and streak around the house. Most young children love to take off their shoes to play outside. Why? Freedom. They have not become accustomed to binding, restrictive clothing. But few people insist that nudity is preferable in all, or even most, situations. Shoes and clothes protect us. Within the limitations of clothing we find the opportunity for all sorts of creativity with fashion. Without clothes, what could we do to express and reveal our personality? Piercings, tattoos, and even hairstyles are all far more permanent and restrictive (from an expressive point of view) than clothing that can be changed in less than a minute....

Sure, clothing that is too tight hurts and binds and rubs, and that can cause injury. But so can clothing that is too loose. Go running or hiking in shoes 2 sizes too big and tell me what happens. Go work heavy machinery with loose, billowing clothes and I'll make sure your beneficiaries get your insurance money.

All this combines into an overall point: Society is the same way. We may want more freedom, we may demand more freedom...but no amount of freedom is ever enough to make us feel happy. While too much restriction prevents us from growing, we need limits in order to truly find peace, happiness, and beauty in life.

There are some people who feel that standards are bad, because it makes people who fail to reach those standards feel bad. They feel that social norms are too restrictive, making people fit uncomfortably into roles and situations that don't fit them. They point to an uncomfortable situation encountered by individuals in the past as reasons to expand freedoms in the present and future. The anguish a girl felt in the 50s upon finding herself pregnant justifies the entire culture of death and emptiness we have now built upon free sex, free contraception, free abortion, and freedom from marriage. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn't. How many young men are incarcerated today because we told their mothers it was okay to not marry the father since the government would take care of them financially? How many young women have been raped or killed by those young men? How many babies have been aborted? If, for just a moment, you accept that 40 million babies have been killed, is that worth letting 100,000 girls feel free of the fear of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy? See, by removing the stigma of pregnancy by encouraging free love and allowing abortions, girls have less reason to say "no" to guys who just want to use them for sex. The penalty for not meeting cultural standards has degraded the cultural standards themselves. The bliss and beauty of intimacy in marital fidelity used to be the subject of movies and books and plays, but you don't see it anymore, do you? Because we have a free-form jazz culture for sexual standards now...

One of the reasons for the decline of marriage is that we have lost both social and legal restrictions on divorce. Yes, someone trapped in an abusive marriage has more freedom to escape now...but many of them don't, because the restriction in a violent relationship has always come from within, not from without. But in the name of these poor, self-trapped souls, we have created no-fault divorces, and most people now give up before true, soul-satisfying love can even develop. How can you have true love if at the point of marriage you are both thinking you can easily bail out if it doesn't turn out? What is the social cost of these divorces? Is it larger than the social cost imposed by making it harder to legally dissolve an abusive marriage?

I'm not saying I want to make everyone stick in arranged marriages or that extra-marital sex should be criminalized. I am saying that freedom has a cost. I am saying that some people who feel unhappy with current society, chafing under perceived restrictions, might actually be happier with less freedom, not more. I'm saying that a healthy society needs healthy restrictions, limitations that channel individuals toward healthy, productive behavior...but with norms and standards, not laws. I'm saying that, like music, the most important and extreme freedoms need to be approached cautiously and resolved carefully, that abortion and sexuality and religion and speech and ownership of destructive substances/devices cannot enjoy unfettered freedom without exacting a heavy toll on our populace. Controls on weapons have gone too far. Controls on sexuality and abortion have become too lax. Controls on religion and speech seemed to be about right 15-20 years ago...

When should we leave well enough alone? When can we pretty much tell Congress: "Okay, nice job guys. Stay home, and we'll call you when we need in about 20 years!" Me, I'm a conservative. I think we were in the right spot right after the Civil Rights Act was passed and right before Johnson stuck us with his "Great Society".

Posted by Nathan at 03:00 PM | Comments (2)

I think it's more of the where are we going with the restrictions thing that gets people upset. Sure some restrictions are necessary, but who is to say when enough is enough?

Posted by: Todd Johnson at July 13, 2004 11:27 PM

So you think that 10 years ago, we had "X" amount of freedoms, and now we have X-Y amount? You think that, as a nation/people, we actually are less free than 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago? I'd have to disagree. Freedoms have been expanding throughout the history of our country.
On the other hand, yes: when is it enough, one way or the other? For that, I trust the majority.

Posted by: Nathan at July 14, 2004 06:41 AM
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