Freethinking – Now What?

Posted: September 13, 2014 in Warning Book Length
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I have always supported the concept of free thought and freethinking. Recently, however, after considerable research on the subject, I’ve been introduced to some ideas that really resonate with me.

From grade school on up, were taught to believe that America is a free country, and our freedoms are the reason why. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of this, and freedom of that.

It makes sense, then, to believe that freedom of thought and freedom of expression are among them. These freedoms certainly have their place for me, and for many of us. But to what extent are we really free?
Take freedom of speech, for example. Such a freedom cannot truly exist without the freedom to disagree with another’s speech, too. But it’s only natural that, no matter the subject in question, more people will agree with one view over another.

Eventually, a majority will develop, creating a society that subsequently creates an overall, self-serving environment. And by society, I’m referring to all the people, everybody, as a whole.

But, given that society can’t – and shouldn’t – be all things to all people, how could our freedoms be equal to every person in every way? Or could it be that a freedom is only worthy of being a freedom if it is in agreement – or not too far in disagreement – from the beliefs of the majority?

Take the implied Freedom of Thought. Some thoughts are important, even essential to the safe operation of our society. We stop at red lights, get to school or work on time, and obey the rituals reinforced by airport security agents.

But those thoughts are objectively measured, black-or-white, yes-or-no by definition. But what about abstract thinking? What dynamic can govern that? Well, it seems that the degree of abstraction to which we refer is the answer.

Those who think “outside of the box” are generally applauded for their ingenuity and even their willingness to take a risk in resolving some puzzling dilemma. “What a great person he/she is; I wish I could think “outside of the box” like that.” Yay for that person!

But what that special person, the one who “thought outside the box,” did was risky, indeed. The real risk that person took was in potentially offending society – the majority of society, that is – by thinking “too far outside of the box.”

All of us have comfort zones that vary in size and even in scope. Whether we’re kids or adults, parents and/or working professionals, black or white, male or female, etc., it doesn’t matter. We’re first and foremost human beings, and going outside of our comfort zones create exactly the opposite – discomfort.

This is never more true when it comes to thinking. Comfort zones which contain our thoughts and actions must be safe, comfortable, places.

It’s likely, then, that the things with which we are most comfortable are things that we have always done, things that we always do, and perhaps things we always plan to do.

Recently, I have referred to myself as a “dissenter.” It best describes how I thought and acted as a kid, and it’s also how I behave today.

But whether you knew me then, or whether you know me now – to even those closest to me, I’m called a “person who loves conflict,” and I “love being the bad guy.”

These statements have never been made in a good or a positive way, and rightly so. People have said it as if the way I act – which is governed by my thoughts – is somehow bad, or wrong. For most of my life, I embraced the idea that I truly was bad, or wrong, and that I’m the one who must change.
Though I always knew my place in the world would be different, I have not always been able to put my finger on why. All I’ve known is that I have stood largely alone amongst – but not against – the rest of the world.

So, I quickly learned to stifle my behaviors and remarks, because the way I spoke and acted drew negative attention – punishment – to me.

Thinking is one thing – behaving is another, and I have always had to conform to someone else’s idea as to what “good behavior” really is. Over the last few weeks, I have become joyfully aware of the presence of others who may also think “too far outside of the box” sometimes.

Interestingly, I find it ironic that many of the contributions most appreciated and celebrated by society today exist the form of creative arts such as art and literature.

These creators, however, have been – and continue to be – others who think in ways that are inconsistent with societal norms. In other words, these people are dissenters as well.

Dissenting thinkers have had to deal with the challenges of existing in a society that does not think – or behave – the way they do. Dissenters who openly share their thoughts require society at large to step outside of their comfort zones in order to understand them.

Is it fair to ask if I’m the one who is misunderstood? Yes, I think so. Most people live a familiar, routine, and predictable lifestyle. I am largely the opposite and, given my behavioral inconsistency, am far more difficult to understand. Familiarity and predictability certainly have their merits for me, but they do not define who I am.

Since the majority of people seem to operate most comfortably within such a structured world, it stands to reason that the possibility of operating in any other way is, at the least, discomforting to the same people.

My world does not involve structure as such and, though I understand the accepted view of the world outside my front door, operating positively and productively within that world takes me far beyond my comfort zone.

Unfortunately, that’s the very world I was made to believe I’d have to join, sooner or later. All along, though, I’ve tried to function in a world in which I’ve been uncomfortable. But that’s changing now, and changing fast.
In a society that calls itself “free,” I’ve not always found much freedom. And, as long as the world exists as I know it today, that’s unlikely to change.

Interestingly, the topic of religion repeatedly pops up when it comes to my having to defend the idea that I am a freethinking individual. Perhaps this is because, in one way or another, religion pervades every aspect of society.

But what about those of us who don’t believe in religion? To ask such a question, I’m quickly learning, is to go against much of society.

How is it possible, though, that all of those aforementioned things that are so highly celebrated can be found within the hallowed walls of libraries, museums, and the like? Don’t the masterpieces there originate in the minds of people whose thoughts and behaviors are unconventional and even oppositional?

In an American culture that holds religion in such high regard, how can such sacrilegious deviance and nonconformity be tolerated without creating widespread social panic, lest it unleash the wrath of the gods?

Well, in a society that requires conformity, double standards and hypocrisy are not difficult to find. It’s simply not possible for everyone to conform equally, and creative places such as art and literature, become excellent examples of nonconformist, “deviant” expression.

My belief is that there are many, not-yet identified “deviants and nonconformists” lurking in the shadows among us. These are the ones who can both “fit in,” and accept the conventions of society while also having an appreciation for its subjective elements. While these renegades remain unseen, their influence can be felt, so the seemingly hypocritical presence of such creative expression is allowed to slide.

It’s not uncommon, however, for artists and writers to find themselves, and even their very lives, endangered when they make themselves known through their work. “Social suicide” is a term I’ve recently heard for it, and it’s an apt one. Becoming a pariah is a very real consequence of sharing our thoughts with others whom we believe are trustworthy, let alone the world at large.

This, in fact, is exactly what I am experiencing. But because I’ve limited this sharing of my thoughts with someone I believe I can trust, I’m still facing negative repercussions nonetheless.

For example, I feel that having dared to disclose my unconventional thoughts on society marks me as someone who goes against everything for which society stands. I’m treated as a stranger, a threat even, because of it.

It’s little more than a continuation of the consequences that thinking “too far outside of the box” can bring.
Sadly, I also believe it’s a reflection of society at large. Asking anyone to think outside of their comfort zone is to understandably put that person in an uncomfortable position.

This has always been a one-way street, however. While I can understand the conventions governing most societal thoughts and actions, the reverse has never been true. Therefore, I have to be the one to adapt to society, not the other way around. The fault is my own, it seems, because I’m “so hard” to understand.

It’s a form of social bullying, though. Viewed simply, I am always outnumbered by a majority that always believes it’s right if, for no other reason, than because it’s the majority.

Does this kind of thinking anger me? Frustrate me? Yes, it always has, but it doesn’t always have to. While I’m not certain why it has to be this way, I understand that I have a long, difficult road ahead.

Similarly, while the work of great painters, sculptors, and writers, etc. are celebrated, their thinking is historically unwelcome. Beheadings, hangings, stonings, and more have all been very real risks – and consequences – of those who have tried to get their message out after proving their greatness in clay, in ink, in oils, or in print, etc.

So why, as I asked before, is it that religion seems to have such a hold on the way people think? Why is it that people will fight to the death because they think that their creed, benevolent and all-loving as they’re convinced it is, inspires them to do so?

It’s quite obvious that religions cannot exist peaceably among each other. Therefore, it seems only natural that anyone who proclaims to not be a believer in any religion at all will also be drawn into the conflict as well. In fact, I may even find myself an easy mark, as I will likely stand alone in the crowd.

Hence, “social suicide” is the perfect term for making one’s dissenting opinions known. Not only do I risk becoming a pariah, and being shamed and dismissed as “crazy,” but I may also be knowingly diving headfirst into my own grave.

So, why risk joining the fray at all, especially if such dire consequences may be waiting? It’s a good question. My immediate, gut-level response is two-fold: First, I don’t think of actively participating in society in a freethinking way as “entering a fray.”

Society may well not agree, and my ability to absorb considerable conflict will be sorely tested. Yet, I don’t believe that anyone’s self-expression, particularly in a world where “free expression” is claimed to be so highly prized, should be a fight.

In this regard, I know I’m being naïve. But I can always hope, and Hope is something in which I dearly believe.

My second response is simple: A life in which I cannot be true to myself is not living at all.

Could this be what the so-called founding fathers were thinking when they wrote into the Constitution that we are all equal men, “granted certain, unalienable rights?”

Well, you tell me. Many of these men – our founding fathers – were slaveholders, so the thinking behind their words is in direct conflict with their actions.

The slaves, I’m sure, saw it as well, and the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on them. In other words, they knew it was bullshit.

Statements like this are fighting words, I’m sure, for anyone who bleeds red, white, and blue. But just because I can see oppression that is rooted in government and religion – that I also know in my heart is wrong – does not mean I should be written off as crazy, or as a powder keg just waiting to explode.

I am not a young, idealistic student activist, holding a burning draft card in one hand and a tie-dyed, peace sign flag in the other. I am not a revolutionary, planning to take my cause out onto the lawn outside a student union building somewhere, chanting and singing songs in perfect harmony with other dissenters who are likely “just going through a phase.”

That might’ve been me as an undergraduate 25 years ago, had I been more aware of my true, dissenting nature. However, that isn’t who I am now.

Rather, I am gearing up for the long haul, and I’m not looking to take up arms in defense of my ideals. Still, I don’t plan to make any concessions concerning my beliefs on right and wrong. I have had to do just that most of my life, and my figurative well has run dry. I have simply given all I can, and my ability (and willingness) to give any further is nonexistent.

Further, it wouldn’t be right for society to ask any further such sacrifice on my part, particularly because there are so many other, peaceful and productive means of conveying my thoughts.

We all have a preferred medium of social expression, and I am no exception. Some are painters, others are writers, still others are farmers, home builders, and photographers. The people whom I most respect, however, are able to state their message in an articulate, yet non-threatening way to those whose thinking most comfortably occurs “inside the box.”

In this way, those who might be willing to step outside their box to experience something new and different, even if only for an instant, might safely do so. And maybe, just maybe, the peaceful word of loving humanism will spread.

Life has taught me that it’s okay to be and to think differently, and to be willing to champion a good cause that others cannot or will not embrace. Everyone should be able to do so without fear of reprisal.

This, for me, is how I interpret the concept of life within a “free society” and, though I may be naïve, I nonetheless still cling to Hope, and I believe in Love.
No government or religion could ever change that.

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