Freedom. It is argued to be one of the most cherished values for those who have it, and one of the most envied values for those who don’t. Nations rise and fall as people pursue freedom from oppression, and each individual strives to maintain freedom in their own lives. Many thinkers have gone so far as to suggest that freedom is the fundamental achievement that characterizes a modern society.

But what is freedom, really? And have we actually achieved it?

Freedom as a Value

Freedom is often described as the source of our happiness, the most important of our values, the hallmark of our civilization, and a host of other superlative epithets. We pride ourselves on freedom and make it a rallying cry for our campaigns. We despise being subjugated and enslaved, and we commemorate the hardships endured by earlier generations to defend the freedoms we enjoy today. The quest for achieving full freedom continues onwards, removing any of the obstacles that prevent human beings from being truly liberated.

If we are going to discuss the question of how to achieve freedom, we need to be clear on what we are discussing. In this article, we will not be entering the philosophical discussion of “free will” – the question of whether our decisions are truly voluntary and contracausal or whether they are determined by antecedent events. That is the topic of discussion in another article. In the present article however, we intend to discuss freedom as a value which human beings seek to actualize in their lives. Every individual is generally believed to be born free, and people that have lost such fundamental freedoms through external oppression or subjugation are said to be “liberated” when such freedoms are restored. We talk about freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. Human beings want to live their lives as they please, without coercion.

Now, if we take a moment and reflect on the fundamental freedoms we hear about, we will quickly notice they are somehow dependent on a deeper, more fundamental freedom – the freedom of one’s mind. The mind controls our behaviour. If I can have whatever I want, but I am trained and conditioned to want certain things, do I have true freedom? A person may be free to behave according to their thoughts and desires, but if those thoughts are themselves dominated by obsessions, misconceptions, ignorance, and delusions, then such a person will forever be enslaved, regardless of the freedom attained by their bodily limbs. This is the concept of psychological slavery. As human beings, we tend to be quite cognizant of physical slavery and its dangers. However, we tend to be much less conscious of the ways in which our psychological freedom is eroded in subtle ways, many of which will be discussed below. It is this freedom of one’s soul which necessarily lies at the heart of all other freedoms.

Forms of Psychological Slavery

Living in an age of globalization, instant communication, mass information, people seem to be more free than ever before. The treasures and pleasures of the world appear incredibly accessible to a person, no matter where they are. Consumers can almost instantly identify products they want and obtain such products rapidly. With the explosion of social media tools, individuals can express themselves to a global audience instantaneously and in a dizzying spectrum of ways. It is hard to argue that as far as physical freedom goes, the modern age seems to represent the pinnacle of its expression. But what about psychological freedom? Let us consider a few areas.

Beautifying one’s appearance would seem to be a healthy expression of freedom, until of course, we witness the alarming devaluation of the self that has become rampant in the modern cosmetic culture. The Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported in October 2007 a fascinating survey from UCLA scientists. They had found that forty-eight percent of women said they would be interested in cosmetic surgery, liposuction or both, while another 23 percent said they would possibly be interested. This obsession with changing one’s physical appearance seems to be accompanied by a startling psychological devastation that afflicts even the youngest members of society. The National Eating Disorders Association reported that more than fifty person of ten-year old girls wish they were thinner. Is there really freedom of belief if one is indoctrinated with beliefs about one’s own inadequacy since the age of ten? The striking proportion of society willing to go under the knife to change themselves may represent physical freedom to some, but it may also suggest a worrying degree of psychological enslavement. The American Plastic Surgeons Association reported 12 million cosmetic procedures were done in the United States in 2007. In fact, in total the annual amount of money spent on cosmetics in the United States is $8 billion. That’s incredibly close to the amount of additional money needed to provide water and sanitation for all people in developing nations ($9 billion). In this respect, our sense of moral duty to alleviate the suffering of others may even be supplanted by the more alluring prospects of attaining that attractive nose job.

Our moral senses also seem dulled by the transformation of society into one dominated by corporations which relentlessly accumulate the wealth of consumers. The message society nurtures us on is: “You can have whatever you want.” But at the same time, what we are supposed to want and desire is programmed and conditioned into our thoughts by a cultural and marketing tsunami that engulfs our minds right from childhood. Digital Home Canada reported in 2008 that the average Canadian watched 25000 television commercials in a year, or about 240 hours of pure advertising. And what is the impact of bombarding the mind with 240 hours of commercials? The development of a “Spend! Spend! Spend!” mentality. If that sounds like a psychological complex, indeed many have labelled this as a ‘pathological’ drive to buy. Dave Ramsey captured the essence of this mentality with his famous quote, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” Indeed, when the value of all things in life is perceived in terms of money, then money occupies a pivotal role in the life of a human being, and defines all of his or her goals and relationships. Such a person quite literally becomes a slave to the dollar. Spiritual traditions often call for the emancipation of the human being from such slavery. The Prophet Muhammad (S) is known to have said, “Perish the slave of the coin and the slave of fashion – he is pleased when he gets what he wants, but otherwise remains ever dissatisfied.” [Related in Sahih Bukhari].

Psychological slavery also manifests in an obsession with entertainment, illusion and fantasy. Two decades ago, one author noted that the average American child will have watched more television by the age of six, than the amount of time one speaks to one’s father in an entire lifetime (Devore, Cynthia, Kids and Media Influence, p. 16). The situation now is incomparably worse. Newspapers in Britain in 2012 reported a study that the average Briton spends nine years of their life watching television. And the internet now provides a striking competitor to TV for holding minds captive. “Canadians who access the Internet now spend more than 18 hours a week online, compared to just under 17 hours watching television,” The Globe and Mail reported in 2010. Our minds seem to be unplugged from any meaningful interaction or activity and instead plugged into an all-powerful master of distraction. As the obsession with the latest movie buzz and television dramas soars, the result is an insidious decline in the amount of time spent studying and solving the real world problems around us. The latest celebrity crushes tend to occupy the headlines in our media, while the real-world suffering and deaths of innocents tend to occupy the fine-print. John Avalon of The Daily Beast wrote that, “Charlie Sheen’s [2011] meltdown got more mentions on television news, magazines and newspapers in March than the War in Iraq over the course of March and April combined.” Television and internet have made the entertainment industry the most fundamental aspect of society. In many ways, entertainment has become a psychological slave-master so powerful that it has stripped us of our very capacity to function as moral agents in the world.

Or worse – it turns us into immoral agents. The ubiquitous nature of the entertainment industry also seems to be accompanied by a rising trend in violent and pornographic content. Aletha Huston and colleagues noted in their research that by the time an average child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of violence. By the age of eighteen years, that child will witness 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders. And research has shown that the graphic nature of the violence depicted has also continued to escalate as well. David Grossman, the author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, writes, “Violence is like the nicotine in cigarettes. The reason why the media has to pump ever more violence into us is because we’ve built up a tolerance. In order to get the same high, we need ever-higher levels…the television industry has gained its market share through an addictive and toxic ingredient.”

The rise of pornographic content has lead to further shocking effects. First of all, it is worth noting that the pornography industry has larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined. In 2006, worldwide pornography revenues soared to $97 billion dollars. 28,258 internet users view pornography every second. Mark Kastleman in The Drug of the New Millenium notes that according to a survey published in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, 86% of men are likely to click on Internet sex sites if given the opportunity. Is there freedom of thought for men today who find their thoughts dictated by such an overwhelming addiction? Lawyers involved in divorce cases in America found that 56% involved one party having “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” In 2003, a Focus on the Family poll showed 47% percent of families said pornography is a problem in their home, as noted in When Dad Falls: A Family’s Ordeal with Pornography.

Has our sense of physical, material and sexual freedom raised us as human beings to greater heights? Or have we indulged in a illusion of freedom while living psychological enslaved and morally debased? Can there be any hope for guidance and renewal from such a depressing state?

“Have you considered the person who takes his own vain desires as his god? Could you be responsible for guiding such a person?” [Qur’an 25:43]

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