My father was a piano player. I was eight years old the first time I’d heard him play a song that captured my imagination. I begged him to teach me how to play it and he eventually relented. I was not an easy student. He explained where I needed to place my fingers on the piano, but it was difficult for my little hands and I tried to create shortcuts. My father would not allow shortcuts, though. He explained that I needed to do things the right way or not at all. I hated being told that, but what I didn’t understand at the time was that music has structure and in order to play music you need to operate within a structure. You don’t have to learn it the same way as everyone else, but you do have to learn it, otherwise you will never have the freedom of playing music.
You only have freedom if you have choice, but choice requires structure. This means that while all structure does not allow for freedom, freedom itself requires structure. I know that sounds convoluted and counterintuitive, but we actually experience it every single day. For example, if you want to read any book, you must first learn to read. There is no way around it. Someone could read it to you or you might catch the movie version, but unless you yourself actually learn to read you cannot choose to read a book. There is no choice and therefore no freedom. Once you learn to read however, you are free to choose to read whichever books you like. You are also free to never read anything ever again. The choice is yours, but again there is no choice or freedom without first having—in this case—the structure of literacy.
Culturally as Americans we want to act as individuals and to follow our base instincts, but to actually function we must learn to move beyond that behavior. We want to be left to our own devices and we falsely think of that as freedom. Our impulse is to buck at anyone telling us to do otherwise and scream for that reverse freedom to be protected. But the act of following our base instincts is not a thing that needs protection. On the contrary, it is a thing we must always be protected from. Literally none of us would have lived to see even our first birthdays if we weren’t actively kept from putting every single thing we could touch into our mouths.
Throughout our lives we are taught to overcome our base instincts by our families, schools, societies and religions. As broken and wrong and brutal and deadly as these institutions can be when they are at their worst, at their best they can be vehicles of actual freedom allowing us to seek out, find and become our very best selves. Unfortunately, far too many of these institutions promote, interpret or are deliberately built on ignorance or prejudice and bigotry. This allows for many of us to believe that ignorance, prejudice and bigotry are equal to, if not more valuable than knowledge, compassion and curiosity. That belief leads to another: that structure is the enemy.
And so here we are in this moment, besieged by a global pandemic and led by the self-aggrandizing embodiment of American unstructured base instinct. Arguments from ignorance abound to the point of political voices nearly superseding all scientific truth. And too much of the public confuses conspiracy theorizing for critical thought. We are held captive by our cultural misunderstanding of freedom and I hope we release ourselves before it is too late.
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