Freedom, Choice, and Culpability
As if the cutting-edge special effects and thespian excellence weren't enough, Devo ushered in the 1980's with rather high expectations of their listening audience. It wasn't enough for us to merely whip it - we were expected to whip it good. On the title track of the same album, they scolded us for demanding "freedom of choice," while in the same breath accusing us of not even wanting it - not really.
We were still getting over disco and they hit us with this philosophical barrage? No wonder they couldn't get no satisfaction.
But they had a point. Freedom is a terrifying thing. There’s great comfort in structure – even confinement. I’ve seen this dramatically demonstrated in recent weeks as I’ve watched students navigate my decision to give them greater leeway in what they research, how they demonstrate it, and how they wish to be assessed. Some have flourished with the sudden reduction in boundaries; many have been hindered by too much freedom with too little scaffolding, given too suddenly.
And that’s the academic version – the relatively easy one to fathom, and to fix. Trickier are historical, social-political happenings. You know – the “real world” stuff.
One of the things about growing up around Tulsa is that you become rather familiar with people of faith and the variety of ways in which they interpret and express that faith. There are some tricky things about being people of a book, not least among them the question of which values and practices captured in one’s holy text are eternal, or literal, and which are temporal, or illustrative – important, but shaped by the time and place in which they were written.
Some are fairly easy. The “don’t kill each other over stupid stuff” tends to transcend time and place, and specific cultures or faiths, as does “don’t steal,” “don’t lie (at least not for selfish reasons)” and “don’t boink your neighbor’s wife on any sort of regular basis.” At the opposite end of the scale we find the other kind of “easy” - things few contemporary believers feel compelled to apply in a literal, ongoing way: “don’t eat shrimp,” “don’t wear mixed fabrics,” “keep the women quiet” (seriously – did that EVER work?), or “have fun with snakes and poison – you’ll be fine.”
It’s not always so clear, however. Some stuff is tricky. Obeying your parents certainly has practical, cultural, and maybe spiritual value even today, but to what extent and in what circumstances? It’s easy to become dogmatic about something like hair length or tattoos (it wasn’t that long ago these were deal-breakers) while warnings against too much planning, or saving, are set aside quickly – often without even bothering to come up with good reasons. The modern Christian simply is NOT going to forsake ALL ELSE to follow Him – we’ll come up with the theology afterwards, if we must, but dude – seriously?
We deal with this all the time in history as well. Yes, slavery was evil, but to what extent was each and every slave owner twisted and maniacal? (Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup both seem to suggest that the institution of slavery created evil men as much as evil men created the institution.) Religious persecution was brutal by today’s standards – the same Puritans who so famously came to the New World to escape the yokes of others quickly imposed their own harsh punishments on those in their communities who failed to fall in line. (Poker through the tongue, anyone?) But surely community standards as a general concept are not inherently… awful?
How do we balance a modern appraisal of not only the accomplishments and failures of our progenitors, but of their motivations and culpability as well? Whatever we come up with will be imperfect at best, and probably nowhere near THAT good.
Added to the complications of time and place is the fact that most cultural norms and the laws enforcing them have trade-offs we don’t like to acknowledge. The roles of women, for example, even a century ago, were rather constrained by today’s standards. There were assumptions and attitudes in play which we find offensive today, perhaps rightly so. I’d never suggest we should roll back the progress made (note the yellow rose on my lapel), but neither should we run from the realities of other cultures (including our own in decades past) which gave context to some of the practices and mindsets we today condemn.
Reality can be a hell of a mitigating circumstance.
By way of example, it may not be inherently evil and oppressive in all times and places for women and men to have had more rigidly defined roles than we’d like to see in modern America. There’s a certain security and stability that comes from carefully defined social structures, and – depending on one’s surroundings – practical benefits as well.
Were those Victorian dances you see in the movies, with fancy moves and complex expectations, limiting? Absolutely. But consider in contrast the awkward terror of stepping out on the dance floor of any modern club and being expected to shake your sober booty with, um… “freedom,” and suddenly some good ol’ western line dancing – where everyone does the same basic thing in the same basic way - makes more sense than you’d have ever accepted watching from your seat.
A Pride & Prejudice society certainly comes with its own difficulties, but those cultural and legal structures evolved to protect participants as much as to crush their individual hopes and dreams. It may seem burdensome to seek an introduction by an appropriate mutual acquaintance or follow some basic formalities before openly wooing the opposite sex, but the process is far easier to understand than figuring out whether or not complimenting a co-worker’s shoes is more likely to lead to a first date or a sexual harassment complaint.
It’s a balance – freedom vs. security. Just like the war on terror, but with notes saying “Do you like me? Circle Y/N.” The structure that limits also supports. To support, it must limit. That’s the tricky thing.
As times change, or as understanding expands, freedom often becomes a greater priority. More choice means less structure - hopefully in service of reaching a bit closer to our own ideals. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.
I AM suggesting that not all historical or contemporary social or moral issues are entirely obvious, unalienable, or easily solved by a little indignation. I'm suggesting not every clash reduces to a morality tale of liberty triumphing over entrenched ethical fascism, or god-fearing decency once again restraining vice. Perhaps we should ride more moderately-sized moral horses as we exclaim over social issues – some of which center around clear violations of all we hold sacred, but others which speak to evolutionary changes more than good people conquering bad.
I’m suggesting that while it’s valuable to look back in history – whether in terms of decades or centuries – and evaluate the motivations and choices of those who came before, some degree of wrestling with their realities and assumptions can clarify rather than obscure. Some appreciation for the tension between security/stability and freedom/choice may prove... illuminating.
An appreciation for the gray can make us better historians and better teachers. It might even make us less annoying on Facebook.