A few years ago I heard a CBC radio interview with the American counterculture novelist Tom Robbins, author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Skinny Legs And All. He said that the ultimate archetypal battle facing the human race is not the struggle between good and evil, as we have been conditioned to believe by everything from childhood fairytales to U.S. Republican rhetoric, but rather the struggle between freedom and enslavement. I believe he is bang on. No matter how much we may want to simplify things in order have a strong, clear moral foundation, the world cannot be broken down along the simple lines of good and bad, right and wrong. To attempt to do so is foolish and dangerous. It’s at the root of the “us against them” mentality — Jews vs. Muslims, black vs. white, East vs. West — that has been so destructive and divisive, and has left us so open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. As modern physics from Einstein on has revealed to us, the universe is a messy, chaotic place where all things are relative. We need only look at such complex and multidimensional issues as what constitutes pornography and the debate over abortion to realize that there is no such thing as black and white, checkerboard-style truth.
The ultimate struggle, Robbins asserted, is the struggle between freedom and enslavement. I think he’s bang on. On a global level, there are the torture chambers and prison camps of the world, and the enslavement of whole countries by military and economic means. Luckily for us, most of us have been born into circumstances where we are not faced with the prospect of literal enslavement. Most of us will never see the inside of a dungeon and will never be subject to the sort of violence and degradation that many people around the world are faced with.
This does not mean that we’re free. It’s just that our enslavement takes a variety of different and more subtle forms. When we are forced to work at menial, soul-destroying jobs for bare subsistence wages because the alternative is living on the streets, when we are manipulated into living in a climate of fear, coerced into believing that every stranger is a potential rapist, thief or pedophile, or every foreigner is a potential terrorist, we daily give up a little bit of our personal liberty and dignity. When we are afraid to open ourselves up to new ideas or try new things because we are terrified of failure, or censor every thought and action because we frightened that we may look foolish or offend someone with our opinions, we are stacking the psychological bricks of our individual prisons.
This is a vast generalization, and things are changing, but I believe that women are more subject to the loss of subtle liberties than men. From an early age we have been taught that it is “natural” for boys to be exuberant and flamboyant, whereas we are conditioned by a million subtle cues to be more circumspect and reserved. We are told by a million different sources that we should look a certain way, dress a certain way, have a particular body shape, or buy certain products. We are told that in so many ways that we are all victims, that it is not safe, for instance, to walk the streets of our own neighbourhoods after dark.
As a species, human beings are curious, imaginative, social creatures. Until it is suppressed within us, we are born with an innate drive to explore and experience the world about us. Watch as a young child enters a room full of people and her face lights up with the sense of endless possibilities spread before her. This freedom within ourselves is a fundamental part of who we are, and a vital component of what it means to lead a good life — one of fulfillment and joy instead of fear and doubt. It is only by setting ourselves free, from the inside of our own skulls outward, that we have a chance of making any real difference to those around us, of making the world a better place.