Freedom to Choose

There was a group of people huddled in a dungeon, prisoners for reasons long forgotten. They were chained together, unable to move about. It was the only life they knew and there was a comfort in the routine of it. Every morning, the guard would pass by to unlock their cell and serve them slop. Then each night, the same guard, always wearing steel-toed boots, would come into the cell to kick and beat them, until they cried out for mercy, locking their cell closed again. A few malcontents begged him to stop, pleaded that this treatment was not fair, was not deserved.

One among them went so far as to speak inspiring words of fairness and justice. Such loose talk usually earned even more bootings to the skull and ribs. Today was different. The guard was in a kind mood. He said he would listen to their complaints but he warned them that all he heard was a bad attitude from a bunch of losers. He explained he had worked hard to gain his position. It took years of study and training to become a guard. The locking mechanisms of the cell alone required advanced knowledge. And that was only one among hundreds of other locks that needed to be maintained to keep the prison secure and operational.

It was no easy job and a thankless task, but he took seriously his duty as a guard and his responsibility to the prisoners he cared for. Order needed to be maintained for the good of all. The world needed guards and those with the ability to do so would fulfil that role. What right did they have to question what he had earned and accomplished? What right did they have to raise a voice against the very prison system that fed and sheltered them? They had only themselves to blame for their situation, he carefully explained as he fiddled with the keys at his belt.

Anyone with the talent and intelligence could follow his example. There is nothing stopping you, he told them, from also working your way up. In fact, he wanted to retire soon and so there would be a guard position opening up, but he couldn’t step down until there was a replacement. Otherwise, he would continue on in doing his job. He made a deal with them. They could nominate two of their own as candidates in electing a new guard or keeping the one they had. They would be free to choose. That way they would be represented and could no longer complain. It was a fair deal.

This was the best opportunity they had ever been given. They took it. The two nominations were a tough guy and the egalitarian idealist, along with the option of re-electing the old guard. The tough guy was allowed to speak to the other prisoners and had all the airtime he wanted on the prison loudspeaker. Meanwhile, the social justice advocate was placed in a separate cell where he couldn’t speak to anyone, but nonetheless he was given total free speech, even if no one could hear what he had to say. That is how free speech works, after all.

The other prisoners quickly forgot about the preacher of equality. In hearing only the tough guy, they became swayed by his rhetoric and parroted his words as if they were their own thoughts. They wanted someone who, as he assured them, could stand up to the prison system and fight on their behalf. Compared to the old guard, he was the lesser evil and stating otherwise, obviously, made you a spoiler. Besides, this tough guy told them that he used to work in this prison system — he knew how it worked and would get things done. He would bring prison reform! They resigned themselves to promises of hope and stopped rattling their chains. The tough guy was elected with little contest.

The newly elected guard was immediately unchained from the group and taken away. Later, when he returned, he had on a set of steel-toed boots, the exact same boots the old brutal guard used to wear. He immediately began kicking the shit out of the prisoners. The idealist, having already been brought back to the shared cell, shared in this round of abuse. When he spoke up against yet more injustice, demanding the abolishment of imprisonment and the tearing down of the prison, the other prisoners told him to shut up with his extremism, that he would only cause trouble. It’s better the evil we know, they said to him, because something worse might replace it. Progress happens slowly. We must be patient.

The original guard, now retired, came in. He explained that they got what they voted for and they must accept the results. They may only have had limited choices, but they did have a choice. That is what freedom means, having a choice; no matter what are those choices, how they are determined, or who controls the outcome. The other prisoners couldn’t argue against such solid logic. Moral of the story: Don’t be resentful of your betters. They know what is good for you. Freedom is submission. Submission is freedom.

6 thoughts on “Freedom to Choose

  1. Some might think I wrote this as commentary in response to the news cycle. Alas, that is not the case. I’ve intentionally kept myself news ignorant, as much as possible, and have been somewhat successful.

    As I thought about the ideas in this parable, I didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the country. I had even posted it before a coworker finally told me what had happend in DC. Even then, it didn’t occur to me that someone might see a connection.

    This parable is about our entire society, not limited to the strange political happenings of the moment. But it was actually more about inequality itself than specifically offering commentary on politics as such. The main thrust is the accusation of economic resentment.

    I figured a small explanation maybe was in order. I could imagine people trying to discern my views on Trump supporters or whatever. Hopefully, this comment will head off such speculations. But it is possible I was unconsciously responding to the sense of conflict in the air.

    • Or, perhaps, worrying that people will worryingly project their projections upon it.

      Not to worry. If all our illusions aren’t shattered by now, I’m sure I don’t know when (or if) they will be and/or what it will take to make it so.

      Not really worried about it, if you want to know the truth. All things in their own good time and all that.

      Write on….

      • I was fully aware that, in a sense, I was worrying about my projections of other’s possible projections. Though it wasn’t really a worry exactly, as it wasn’t partcularly bothering me. I just realized that the timing of my post was synchronistic and it sort of amused me.

        It also occurred to me how much could be read into it. The form of it as a parable leaves it open to much interpretation. That is the point of using narrative. If I wanted to convey a straightforward message, I would have written an logically-argued essay with quotes and references. I wasn’t in the mood for analytical thought.

        So, I’m not genuinely bothered by the possibility that some might read into it. In fact, I hope they read into it. Even my denying it has to do with Trump proves nothing. My stated intenton as an author is meaningless. I can’t make claims upon deeper motivations that inspired the writing. Besides, stories have a way of telling themselves.

        As for the larger events of the US, Trumpian and otherwise, I’m not particularly worried at all. I always assumed Trump would go down in flames because that is what his personality compels him to do. And I suspect, on some level, that is what many of his followers wanted — the melodrama and outrage and shame.

        Trump is the mad raving king. He was playing out an old narrative. And that narrative satisfies something deep in the human psyche. Trump chose to be sacrificed on the altar of his own follower’s projections. This was a ritual enactment that needed to happen. It forced an infected wound to the surface, a purging of the system.

      • Illusions are odd things. Rather than shattered, they seem to still be fully entrenched. But there is some erosion happening at their foundation.

        The most direct inspiration for the parable of freedom of choice came from a conversation, as so often is the case. I was talking to a mainstream conservative, fairly typical of an older conservative. It wasn’t really much of a conversaton but a brief interaction.

        What stood out to me was his use of the word ‘resentment’. We had a short dialogue about COVID and inequality, but he was really just reacting to the interpretation of inequality as it effects society. I was suggesting that there might be a connection to COVID outcomes and high inequality, as is seen with health outcomes in general.

        He would have none of that. He called resentment. That is really all I took away. That single word hung in my mind. I recogniized that it was part of a standard narrative framing. I’m sure that is what the ruling elite said about the lower classes in the American Revolution, maybe even in the English Civil War or Peasants’ Revolt.

        Resentment! What an intriguing word.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s