Comparative Freedom

I have often wondered where I got my inability to understand the unspoken expectations of authority. For a while I figured there was some kind of cognitive gap right in the part of the brain that might do that; it feels almost like a mechanical failure. Of course it’s almost certainly the fault of radical Protestantism, which taught me, as a tiny child, that I had no earthly mother or father (in the sense that most people mean), no government, no police, no principal. As violent and strict as my parents could be, I saw it as their own free expressions of anger, rather than anything that could compel me to be different or want different things. After a particularly scary day at home, I remember thinking, “Mom is so angry!” I was capable of feeling bad for her, but I never came away thinking that I had much to do with it. Even my dad, who was much more successful at changing our behavior, never commanded us to do anything. He would just explain the emotional consequences of various actions. If you do (a), our relationship will be this. If you do (b), our relationship will be that.

When I was small, this meant that I was constantly asking teachers and authority figures to clarify whether something was something I actually had to do, or whether I could maybe trust my own judgment instead. And if I chose to go with my own judgment, the consequences would be whatever they naturally happen to be, or are you implying there is some kind of enforced punishment? And what will the punishment be, in case I still want to pursue my own course of action? I mean, it’s not going to be death, right? Unless you’re threatening me with death, I might decide still to go my own way on this one.

That’s pretty much how all my interactions with authority figures have gone from the nursery up through, uh, now. I always want to know what is the price of my freedom. What will it cost me to do whatever I want at all times? I want none of your “It isn’t done!” or “You will not!” because, technically, I very much will, and if I do it, then I suppose it is done because it is done by me and I exist.

Freedom, as we all know, is hell. Conceiving of yourself as moving freely through life without anything more than a sense of easily violated cultural norms to guide you is a real pain in the ass, and can lead to depressive thoughts, or, as it was for me when I was young, suicidal ideation. Free people are responsible for themselves. Free people have no master to appeal to.

I remember my students in New York would often express their understanding of various situations in literature or in the world as manifestations of their lack of freedom, especially compared to mine. They wanted to believe that I must be from a rich family (very not true!), that I choose things on my own or make up my own ideas. Somehow they seemed caught in a loop of thinking that freedom is something that Americans are constantly aspiring to achieve, even though only a privileged few can touch. Just like they want to protect wealth and excess when they have nothing, they feel it’s their duty as un-free people to celebrate freedom when they see it in others. They’re glad someone has the right to do what they will, even if they never can. They’re glad queer people can be out now, but they’d never consider whether they might be a little bent. They’re happy we have freedom of speech, but they really don’t want anyone to hear them saying the wrong thing.

I know that part of this attitude toward authority is worse now than it was when I was 19 because of financial upheaval, the militarization of the state, increased police presence and brutality, and the insistence of the state that we love it all. At Penn Station today, there was an Amtrak-produced film playing in which various Amtrak customers talked about how calm and safe it makes them feel to be surrounded by armed police at all times. Nod along! It feels so good, right? Police sure are there to protect free speech downtown at the protests, too, right? We all feel so good knowing they’re there.

I feel like Kids These Days grew up never feeling like punishment might just be worth getting to do what you want, because the punishment was always unbearable. The reach of authority was too great. If you do what you will, you won’t just pay for it now, today, for the next week or year; you’ll be set on a totally different path of life that will lead down into death and you will always remember that this was the time that you chose to disobey. You’ll be One of Those People.

I know some of you grew up with some sense of human authority, right? So what is it that makes the idea of authority so different now?

5 responses to “Comparative Freedom”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I’ll never know how they did it, but my parents weilded authority in such a way that I internalized it. It is almost not an exaggeration to say that, until the age of 18, I did nothing wrong. The very most radical thing I can think of that I did in high school was sneak extremely small amounts of liquor from the liquor cabinet. Not enough to get drunk. I just liked the taste of bourbon. So of course I have spent the rest of my life resisting authority in ways that are: useless, unsatisfying, driven, often petty, often unnoticeable or incomprehensible to the real or imagined authority.

    (Actually, you know what? There was one issue into which I packed all the authority struggles I should have been having. I was a complete asshole about mowing the lawn. I wouldn’t do it, and if made to do it, I was sullen and unbearable, acted like it was the most unreasonable request anyone ever made. One time I “accidentally” ran over some flower my mother had planted. I still think of this as the one thing for which I could most fairly be damned, if there turns out to be a hell. I’ve barely ever spoken of it. I’M SORRY, FLOWERS!)

  2. LP says:

    Like Smearcase, I also paid heed to authority for my entire childhood and adolescence. I believed that all those authoritarian figures – parents, government, god, whoever – had our best interests at heart. That changed somewhat after a particularly ugly, and very personal, confrontation with authority when I was 21, and I finally branched out into some semblance of skepticism about the whole thing.

    But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I still have those feelings – of not wanting to upset authority, of wanting to believe that those “in power” want to help me, of believing that people – even those in positions of authority in government, media, religious factions, whatever – essentially mean to do well. I also suspect that my first 21 years of trusting authority and being loath to rock the proverbial boat are what lie behind my choice of a “safe” career (compared to what I might REALLY like to be doing, which would be more fulfilling but far scarier.) It’s also why I’ll probably buy a Prius rather than a Ford Falcon.

  3. A White Bear says:

    It’s funny to me that now that I am an adult, my mother will periodically attempt to wield authority in some real sense, like just saying, “You will not!” and I will sigh and say, “I am absolutely going to.” She has tried accusing me of being a little baby or a rebellious teen or whatever terrible insult she can come up with and I sigh again and say, “I know you’re angry. But I’m still going to.” Sometimes she hangs up on me. When I was little, her big line was, “I am FURIOUS with you!” and I would say, as compassionately as I could, “I know you are.”

  4. Dave says:

    I wonder, AWB, if your extreme obtuseness about the logic of authority might have developed as a defense mechanism. It sounds like it allowed you to maintain some mental/emotional space of your own as a child, and maybe even now (although now you have other methods at your disposal).

  5. PB says:

    I actually have a little authority issue that gets my license taken away now and then. Somehow my emotions discern between real and petty authority and react accordingly. A certain encounter with Canadian Customs has cured me of this and I am now nearly compliant. Nearly.