If we are being honest, most of us would probably define freedom as: “the ability of myself and the people I like to do whatever the hell we please.” The antithesis of freedom is a bit trickier; is it captivity? Oppression? Constraint? Regulation? Convention? Again, for most of us, freedom’s opposite likely has its roots in base self-interest: “an attempt by someone else to prevent me from doing whatever the hell I please.” When we act in opposition to freedom, we call it something else: “safety, civilization, or national defense.”
I would submit that however one defines freedom, the driving opposing force is fear. Pure freedom is a terrifying thing, both in others and in oneself. Complete self-determination, an absence of external constraints – who wants that? Without law, rules, or societal convention – these structured manifestations of fear – we are at the mercy of impulse, the impulses of others, and more terrifyingly of ourselves.
The constraint of freedom through the fear of the other is ubiquitous in all societies. On a small level, it is seen in households: Bedtime=8:00 – why? We say that bedtime is for the child, the child who “needs his sleep.” Bedtime is for the parent, for the parent who needs the child to sleep, the parent who fears the morning battle and who fears her own temper should she hear that shrill voice for one more second at the end of the day. Fear is seen in schools. Dress codes, again, are ostensibly beneficial, promoting a focus on learning over appearance. Dress codes protect adults from the wilds of adolescent libido and self-expression. On a grand level, freedom’s antithesis is practiced to varying degrees of severity, and with varying degrees of hypocrisy, by all governments. We all know the overt examples: the totalitarian crushing of political demonstrations, internet and press censorship, imprisonment of dissidents. Do we also see the smaller examples: vehicle codes, selective service, passports, internal revenue collection? Arguably, some of these restrictions on freedom are inherent in a functioning society, but which ones? Who decides? At the basest level, each of these results from fear of others – I can’t trust you to drive safely, to contribute your fair share of income to the services we all use, to leap to my defense, to be who you say you are without extrinsic constraints.
I can’t trust myself either. And that is the wilderness, the abyss of freedom – to see into the shadows of desire and self-justification. Who am I – what am I – when the rules go away, when there are no externally imposed boundaries? How far will self-interest take me; without convention, law, or accountability, what carves the border between humanity and monstrosity?
Freedom’s antithesis is fear. The scale balances precariously; tilt too far to the left and you get the anarchy of a howling wilderness, too far to the right – the deadly, grey monotony of safety.