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.