Sunday, 15 August 2010

Entrapped by the freedom

This is one of few postings that really fits the title of the blog. Prompted by Adthelad I finally found three hours to watch “The Trap” – a documentary by Adam Curtis, broadcast by BBC in March 2007. Instead of reviewing the film, I’ll have a try on commenting on most of the concepts outlined in it. Sorry for a bit chaotic post, high temperature combined with high air humidity is not conducive to writing, believe me…

1. Is the freedom we experience true or is it just an illusion?

2. Human nature – the authors of the documentary quote many theories, according to which humans are self-serving, dishonest, pursue their own advantages at the expense of others. It seems that a goal of an average man is to outwit his fellow man. No matter how true that notion is, the question which is still hard to answer is whether those bad traits are inborn or are they shaped over the course of upbringing? Some research carried out both in developed societies and in pristine communes prove the heart of human selfishness and cruelty lies in our genes. If those behavioural patterns are instinctive and all attempts to root them out are doomed to fail, the rational conclusion is to learn to get on with them and to harness them to make our lives easier. The answer according to some thinkers is to design a society based on natural leanings – if humans pursue their own interests, the most efficient system is such giving room for unleashing our obscure instincts and behaving rationally, on the basis of cool calculations. In such an environment, clever creatures surely are aware that their fellow men will try to outwit them, what results in social interaction based on mistrust and suspicions. Other people are your rivals, life becomes a race, the goal is to hit your enemy before he hits you…

3. Game theory – maybe this concept does not answer one of basic questions – whether people are good or bad by nature, but rather puts emphasis on readiness to cooperate. As some scientists point out, all our moves have to be in line with strategising – anticipating what other people will do or think. Game theory was put into practice on a large scale during the cold war and actually it founded the moves of both enemies on fear – but is fear bad? In finance – yes, in life – just take a look… Social and legal sanctions prevent us from committing crimes, not our conscience – the authors argue. So is it true that we don’t kill one another, don’t steal goods from one another mostly because punishments hold us back from doing it?

4. Politics – post-WW2 notions of the state stressed the importance of strong administration which would protect people from blows dealt by the invisible hand of free market (which, as said in the third episode of the film, doesn’t exist). A lean state can’t cope with all problems and control everything so an overgrown bureaucratic apparatus has to be created. With time, bureaucracy becomes an independent structure which pursues its own advantages and no longer focuses on helping people. Instead, a maze of procedures, regulations, laws, documents begins to hinder actions taken by the humans. In economics, some individuals get discouraged and have no more patience for striving for anything, what translates into lower economic growth rates. The way to overcome that tendency was introducing mechanisms which would make use of the dark side of human nature – so if state officials are indeed self-serving, their stance ought to pay off!

5. Performance targets – was a crucial tool harnessed to achieve the goal described above. Unfortunately, the creators of that solution probably failed to predict wicked humans would always find was to circumvent the rules of the system. Bank salespeople were walking around cemeteries and taking down names of the deceased to sell them credit cards. Hospital managers removed the wheels from wheelchairs to cut down on the number of patients on wheelchairs. In communism there were plans, przodownicy pracy and some other absurdities, figures in the plans were deliberately lowered to exceed it, now the race towards efficiency makes workers focus on the targets. The pressure to reach inflated goals creates temptation to tamper with figures. Thank God my job is assessed on the basis of quality, not quantity. A system of targets was meant to encourage individuals and teams to compete (like on constructions sites of socialism), in turn the outcome was often opposite as in the case of school rankings – rich children go to better schools, clever, but poor go to worse one and so the gap is growing!

6. Having touched upon the schooling, the film raises also the issue of social mobility, limited in the culture of freedom. Here what comes to mind is a question about the role of government in fighting inequality. In my view, governments should target inequality and keep it on optimum level, that is not so big that it hampers development (the poor stand no chance of social advancement, so there is no incentive to even try) and not so low that there is no incentive for striving any goals. On optimum level, the state offers opportunities for those who are too poor to receive proper education but have potential to grow and then leaves them alone as grown-ups. A sustainable development is in long-term impossible with high inequalities – those disadvantaged will sooner or later vote for populists who will point at the guilty of their misery and the effects of toppling the old system will be piteous.

7. Maths and numbers generally have become a new deity for the advocates of the new system. But think if everything can be measured and calculated – quality, satisfaction, happiness, freedom? Can we use complex mathematical models to describe economy? Would they prove useful on stock markets where prices are driven by decisions of millions of investors, which in turn are driven by thousands of more or less rational premises? My take on the issue is that psychological phenomena generally are very hard to measure and sometimes bringing in numbers might bring more harm than good.

8. Who the hell has the right to adjudicate what is normal and what not? Human character and psyche are too complex to be described with numbers and even if someone does so, it would mean unification – the same model for all people, when people are so different. Who wants to kill humanity by killing diversity, when beauty of mankind consists in diversity. Who created a culture of happiness, ideal traits, perfect people, etc? The pursuit of the ideal pushes millions of people into mental disorders every year. Young, ambitious, creative, flexible, clever, slim, brave, dynamic, enthusiastic, open-minded, sun-tanned, well-travelled, well-dressed, go on for hours… There is an image of ideal woman / man, but when the pursuit of ideals contributes to our development and when it leads up to obsessions? If you don’t fit in, should you feel worse off? Are those who want to break away from the rigid codes of happiness labelled mad?

9. And finally, let’s ask what the freedom actually is. There is a distinction between positive and negative liberties. The former is identified with leftist concept of freedom, the latter with the rightist. This has not been mentioned in the film, but notice that right-wing and left-wing politicians define freedom in different ways. Lefts will say you’re free to have an abortion, rights will tell you should be free from tax burdens… The most absurd thing is that freedom can be imposed – as no one can be forced to be happy, no one can be forced to be free. Freedom is not built in to many cultures and people have been getting on with it for centuries, as in Muslim societies, now somebody wants to step in and say he knows better. Attempts of imposition of freedom ended up with violence and cruelty. I also think military interventions were not launched to liberate suppressed nations but for other ends. And end justifies the means…

WARNING - The passage above is quite obnoxious.

Imagine dear reader you and I sit in a bar, sip beer, but you’re despondent, have some problems and can’t really enjoy the meeting. Your face shows sadness, but I want you to have fun because it’s good for you. You can’t overcome the sadness so I shout at you and tell you I want to see a f**king smile on your f**king face. When you don’t smile I grow impatient and beat you to a pulp and finally you smile, out of pure fear that in the next bout of anger I may break your limbs, crunch your ribs, scoop out your eyes. Is what is written above normal?

So what the word ‘freedom’ means? For me – RESPONSIBILITY, readiness to be bear consequences of my deeds and decisions, not the right to do whatever I want and not pursuit of my happiness. And the role of a government is to protect me, but not from myself, but from other self-serving people.

Many threads are deliberately unfinished just to trigger a discussion.

1 comment:

adthelad said...

Don't think I haven't noticed your post - I have :) Mixed thoughts as to your perceptions of the subject - especially regarding positive and negative freedom. Not quite the way I see it or how it's presented in the films.
Your final comment makes me think of all those in Afghanistan being killed for their own good and for our battle readiness. Lovely, eh?

Apart from that a meeting with Michał over a beer would be called for:)