Many of us in Western society take it for granted that we live in a free society and imagine that we have very few restrictions on our freedom. The US punk rock band “The Vandals” put it this way in one of their most popular songs from 1982, “but if you think you’re free / try walking into a deli / and urinating on the cheese.”
Groups vs. Individuals
One question that has occupied sociologists for years is the nature of the group in human society. When asked to define an individual and that individual’s limits, most people can easily provide both a definition and a clear explanation of where one individual stops and another individual begins. An individual can act on its own accord by moving, thinking, creating and experiencing emotion.
But what should we make of a group? Can a group act? Can a group think? Can a group feel? Sociologists begin their analysis by identifying two basic personal attributes that individuals possess that allow them to operate in groups. The first is the basic capacity to act as a self-directed agent in one’s own self-interest. The second is the capacity for symbolic communication (Bezdek, William “Groups,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2007, p. 2029). The sociologist John Searle argued that once groups are formed, collective group interests should be considered as a third and separate attribute that warrants as much weight as self-interest (The Construction of Social Reality, 1995).
The idea of collective group interests may sound initially like some sort of alien Borg thing from Star Trek. But one can conceptualize it, by picturing two entities. The first is a woman who is on a diet and wants to lose weight (and if she is honest, has been in this same position for the past 10 years). The second is a society that was formed to help fight breast cancer, with donors and a small board of trustees and a host of volunteers.
The self-professed self-interest of the woman is to lose weight. But we understand that as an individual this is one goal among many that she has. She may find that this new diet that she is trying does not give her enough energy for work. She may not have the time every evening to prepare the food recommended by her diet. So when she has a hamburger one harried evening, she may seem to be acting at odds with her stated self-interest. But on further examination we realize that this is not the case, but rather that one aspect of her self-interest, whether it be time or comfort or energy conservation, has won out over the aspect that was our focus.
Similarly the society that wants to fight breast cancer has multiple fronts that it can pursue toward that goal. In addition, it will soon discover that it needs to advertise itself and its mission in order to be sustainable. Certainly, advertising and sustainability were likely far from the minds of the founders of the organization who just had a heart to try to prevent a devastating disease from affecting more lives. In this light, money toward the advertizing campaigns or the salaries of the board members who run the organization and keep it sustainable may seem to run counter to the collective group interest of stopping breast cancer. But on further inspection, this action merely addresses a different aspect of the collective group interest.
Now consider further, that the woman who has been desperately trying to lose weight for the past ten years is made up of multiple parts as we all are with eyes and legs and bone and internal organs etc. Each of these parts of her in turn consists of cells that are continually regenerating themselves. So it can be said that the woman we are talking about now does not even have one cell in common with the woman who was concerned about losing weight ten years ago, but the same self-interest persists. This same principle applies to the society fighting breast cancer. Their volunteers may have come and gone many times as may their donors and even their board members, but the group collective interest has remained the same. Such a mental exercise may seem elementary at first, but it has some profound implications as will become evident.
Precedence of Groups over Individuals
As with the example above, we tend to think of individuals as entities first and groups as secondary to individuals. The sociologist Robert Park argued instead that collective action precedes individual action (Introduction to the Science of Sociology, 1924). He drew this conclusion from the following observations. All human beings are born into preexisting groups, such as a family, a tribe or city community with all of its cultural and socio-economic restrictions, a religious community, and a state or national community. Much of a parent’s role in the early years of one’s life is to explain to the child the appropriate way to interact with various elements of the groups and it takes some time before the individual can contribute to the wider group and make their own interests heard.
In thinking about groups, we can divide them into two separate types. There are those groups to which we belong involuntarily, our family (parents and siblings) and our ethnic culture. There is a second set of groups to which we belong voluntarily, like the society mentioned above, sports and activity clubs, a marriage, a business enterprise. Between these two types of groups is a third set that we belong to de facto when we are born but that we can choose to disassociate from when we are adults. Our national identity, our political affiliation and our religious affiliation all fall into this third category. The first is a matter of geography and moving to a different country can change this identity, though at a significant economic expense. In the case of the latter two groups, an individual’s political or religious affiliation most often coincides with that of the individual’s parents. But in both cases, adults are theoretically free to decide these affiliations for themselves.
What Groups can Teach Individuals: Boundaries
One of the things that groups are often better than individuals at is setting and drawing boundaries. Let us return to the example of the society for fighting breast cancer. Imagine that they have hosted a charity dinner at $1000 per plate for its high-end donors. Now Pete and Sandra are both active members in this organization with close family members that have been affected by the disease. Bob has just returned from a trip to Africa, where he was struck by devastation caused by the AIDS virus that has run rampant in that part of the world. At the dinner he sits with Sandra and the two have a lovely conversation about Bob’s trip to Africa and his new-found vision for supporting those afflicted by the AIDS virus. Sandra, herself, had just read a moving fictional book on the subject and would like to partner with Bob in this new venture. Now although both Sandra and Bob are members of this same society and their conversation took place at a function sponsored by this society, they will in no way be able to convince the society, its membership or its board, that it should also take on this new AIDS cause. It is outside of the scope of the mission of the organization.
As individuals it is important for us to draw our own personal boundaries. We need to know deeply who we are as individuals and have a purpose or vision for our lives. Once these elements are in place, we can then begin to take stock of our lives and engage with those groups that help to support that larger purpose and vision and when necessary distance ourselves from those groups that would hinder that larger purpose or vision. Harry Browne wrote an incredible book entitled, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Many of the traps of which he warns and the points that he makes come back to this main principle: Know who you are and do not let others impinge on that.
Values vs. Restrictions of Groups
As a direct result of this prioritization of groups over the individual that parents and other caregivers try desperately to impose from birth, it can be difficult for individuals to realistically consider the restrictions that groups place upon the individual. Parents emphasize to their children the many benefits provided by the family structure, their religious community and the local and national governments.
But each of these groups to which we belong, voluntarily or involuntarily, serve to limit our individual freedom. In Western democratic societies we cherish that individual freedom as a right that holds the key to our own personal happiness. But every group to which we belong, whichever category it falls into, limits our personal freedom in one way or another.
In order to attain true personal freedom in our adult lives, requires that we examine each of the groups that we belong to and determine for ourselves whether the value that we gain from belonging to those groups offsets the restrictions on our personal freedom imposed by that group enough to warrant our continued membership and participation in that group. Consider some of the main groups to which we belong and specifically how they limit our freedom.
Family of Origin
As a child, no one can decide who their parents or their siblings will be. For many people the idea of questioning your family of origin as a group to which you belong would be ludicrous. But as an adult, you are no longer obligated to participate with your family—it is your decision. Consider for a moment that your family always gets together for Christmas dinner. You have always attended because you felt obligated to attend this family function.
Your mom always cooks her famous lamb, even though you don’t like her lamb and much prefer the turkey that your friend’s family made last year. When you come you always have to buy a gift for everyone that will be there in attendance, even though this puts a strain on your finances that you would rather not endure. Moreover the gifts that you receive from your family are tacky and nothing worthwhile that you would buy for yourself. You can’t talk about your uncle’s drinking problem, because nobody will say a word about it. You will also be grilled with questions about your work and your love life (or lack thereof) that you would rather not answer.
So what would you miss if you didn’t attend this Christmas dinner and accepted an invitation to your friend’s turkey Christmas dinner instead? Does your membership in your family of origin really require you to attend the Christmas dinner? What about helping your brother move out of his apartment when he asks? A more touchy topic may appear with elderly parents. When your own parents can no longer care for themselves, do you invite them into your home to care for them? Do you put them in a group home or nursing facility and if so, who pays for that if your parents are no longer earning an income? Does the fact that they raised you as a child obligate you to care for them in their old age? Or is it instead the responsibility of the state or government to take care of them?
For some people, giving up their personal freedom is tantamount to suicide. They want to eat the items that they find appetizing and discuss with individuals whom they find engaging. Others are able to see a certain transcendent value in the restrictions on their personal freedom that allow for other payoffs. Some find the nostalgia of their family home intoxicating, the hugs of their parents comforting, the security of a family meal comforting. It is possible to accept wholeheartedly all of the personal restrictions that your family of origin imposes upon you, it is also possible to modify these restrictions and to decide for yourself which of the personal restrictions are in line with your self-interest while at the same time not abiding by those restrictions that are not in line with your own self-interest. It is also entirely possible to separate entirely from your family of origin and to severe those ties completely.
Businesses form a very integral part of most individual’s lives. Are you currently under contract with an employer? How does that relationship impinge upon your personal freedom? What are you required to for that weekly paycheck or for the health insurance associated with your job? Does your job allow you to dress the way you would like? Do you have the opportunity to work the hours that fit best with your schedule? Are you involved in work that is personally fulfilling and satisfying?
If not, what type of work would you find fulfilling and satisfying? What would you prefer to wear to work? Are there ways to mitigate these restrictions with your current employer? Is there an official dress code, or do you just dress the way you think your boss wants you to? Are the other tasks that the business needs done that you could do that would prove more rewarding personally?
As you evaluate your own situation, you may find yourself prioritizing your own goals and freedoms. Perhaps when you were a teenager freedom in the way you dressed was one of the most important things in the world, whereas now it may seem very trivial indeed. Coming to terms with these priorities and values helps to provide its own sense of freedom. Whereas you may have previously harbored a subconscious bitterness about certain restrictions at work, after doing a personal inventory you may find this bitterness lifted once you recognize how low that particular personal freedom was in the overall scheme of things. Alternatively, you may find that you are so restricted in your current work environment that walking away from it is the only way that you will be at peace with yourself.
Unlike our family of origin, marriage is a group (or relationship) that we chose voluntarily. But as with all relationships and groups, marriage places limits on our personal freedom. The key is to have our eyes open to what personal freedoms we are giving up and to choose those willingly. It comes as no surprise that men and women can reconsider their marriage vows and commitments and walk away from them at any time. There were periods in the past in Western society where such a notion would be considered ludicrous or at least exceedingly rare. But now both men and women are exerting their independence in far greater numbers by both deciding to get a divorce or by deciding to simply live together without getting married in the first place.
As with any other relationship, the question becomes how is your personal freedom limited. Can you have dinner with whomever you want? Can you have a pint with the boys? Can you go to the club with the ladies? Can you buy a futon instead of a sofa? Can you leave your socks in the middle of the floor or your toothpaste on the counter?
There is no question that relationships and groups, especially one as intimate as marriage places restrictions on your personal freedoms. The question is whether these restrictions are ones that you would gladly impose on yourself for the benefits and value of the relationship or whether such freedoms are too important to give up.
The question of the individual’s relationship to government is a tricky one, but one that overlaps with each of the topics addressed so far. Local city governments help to run our trash (rubbish) services, our local public schools, our streetlights, our police, and our firefighters. For these services we pay city taxes. You may find yourself objecting as you read this, that one cannot exclude themselves from the city government as they can from a marriage or from a business. But as adults, when we move out of our parents’ home, we decide where it is we want to live. We choose the apartment we want to rent or the home we want to purchase. In making that decision, we should evaluate the limits to our personal freedom living in that particular city or town. Consider how you pay your city taxes. Is there a city sales tax? Are city taxes generated from property taxes? Are there legal ways around paying such taxes, such as buying products in other cities or not owning property?
There is also the question of one’s participation in the broader forms of government such as state and national government. State services often provide the roads and public transportation and universities. Federal governments provide military and import and export capabilities. Moreover, it is the federal and state governments that enact and enforce the laws that restrict your personal freedom. Are you as a citizen willing to abide by these laws? If not, are you willing to endure the punishment that these agencies would impose if you were found not abiding by these laws?
Live Free or Die!
There is a slogan championed by the State of New Hampshire in the United States that says “Live Fee or Die!” It was coined during the Revolutionary War as the thirteen American colonies fought Great Britain for their independence. They had clearly defined their identity and were willing to defend their personal boundaries in accordance with that identity. Own your values, your beliefs, your convictions and don’t let other’s guilt you out of these because they are not the latest fad or because they seem selfish or immoral.
Iam indebted to Brad for helping put my thoughts into words.