Freedom and the humanities - Social consciousness and freedom


Institutional Communication Service

16 May 2022

The interview series Reflections on Freedom continues. A look at the humanities in collaboration with ISI, USI Institute of Italian Studies.  Vincenzo Matera, a lecturer at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society and full professor at Università degli Studi di Milano, explores the theme of social consciousness in relation to freedom.

To answer the very complex question of what social consciousness is and what relationship it has with freedom, I would like to recall what a famous anthropologist, Marc Augé, wrote in a book dedicated to a wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of our social existence: "All human groups have cosmologies, representations of the universe, the world and society that offer their members points of reference to know their place, to know what is possible and impossible, what is permitted and forbidden.  These reference points may be materially inscribed in space (e.g. in the form of statues, shrines or characteristic natural places), imprinted on the everyday utensils and tools, or sometimes on flesh, for example, in the form of scarification.  Myths develop cosmologies, and rituals put them into action: individual lives are essentially ordered on the model thus drawn. The stronger the adherence to this model, the less freedom is present, while the more sense is present; individuals have no desire to do anything other than what is imposed or permitted upon them: they know what they must do, and even better know what they must not do.  Their world is without freedom but imbued with meaning" (Marc Augé, 2004, Why We Live, Meltemi, p. 11).

Augé's words outline a somewhat surprising relationship between 'social consciousness' (a sense of belonging to a community) and 'freedom': the more our choices are 'forced' (think of expressions such as "I had no choice", "I had to do it" etc.) the more they are loaded with meaning. A classic theoretical model of cultural anthropology operates here, which places in the foreground to understand the importance of individual lives - it is no coincidence that the book from which I took the quote is entitled Why We Live - humanity's immediate need to give (and give itself) a 'stable, ordered directional' order. How is such an arrangement achieved? By constructing reference systems (models, arbitrary, because historical) in relation to which people's lives are arranged. Adhering to the model that our society proposes to us (or imposes on us) means for most people obtaining an existence endowed with meaning, recognised, appreciated, and therefore gratifying. Is this how 'happiness' is achieved? Probably not, but, as has been said, happiness is not of this world. In such a framework, to add a further cue, we can recall that, as a rule, moments of exaltation in a person's life coincide with moments of 'breaking' of the standard order, extraordinary moments in which one comes out of a routine and perhaps even feels 'free, at last!'. But these are short-lived moments, destined to a return to the social ranks, or else, should the subversive drive persist in an individual even beyond the festive, celebratory, orgiastic period that every human community has always foreseen and granted to its members, he or she would inevitably be condemned to an existence on the outskirts, isolated, placed outside the perimeter of the community. In short, between freedom and social meaning, there is a complex, ambiguous, conflictual relationship. We can add here a reference to the well-known reflection of Eric Fromm. He, in Escape from Freedom, argues that the crisis of the autonomy of the individual (which drew its foundations from a solid ethical father-son relationship) provokes a flight towards the model of collective authority embodied by the dictator and towards a form of "masochistic subordination" (the submission to the leader typical of every fascist, totalitarian ideology). Fromm writes that in this way, the individual: "(...) gains a certain security by being united with millions of others who share these feelings (E. Fromm, Fuga dalla libertà, Edizioni di Comunità Milan, 1963, p. 127)".

Moreover, one of the most relevant contributions of the Frankfurt School is the critique of mass society, the advent of which appears to its exponents as a disaster for the individual.

Mass society does not reduce inequalities; on the contrary, it extends the mechanisms of domination from the labour sphere (the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist) to every moment of individuals' everyday life (including leisure time). Even individual freedom then reveals itself to be a fiction in modern democratic societies: our freedom of choice increases on the surface, but in reality, we all remain at the mercy of tools such as the mass media (and with the so-called new media, our dependence only increases, think of how much we cannot do without our smartphones), advertising, and consumption, which show themselves to be instruments of coercion.

Even the culture industry, which corresponds to one of those cosmologies that tell us how we should be and live, as indicated by Marc Augé, organises moments of leisure, entertainment, and cultural activities, which are aimed at achieving an almost total uniformity of individuals, thus wiping out individuality.

Conscience manipulation has the purpose of inducing specific consumption and, in doing so, also maintains the given order, eliminating any capacity, even interior, for rebellion among individuals. Herbert Marcuse, in his very famous book The One-Dimensional Man (1964), reiterates this reflection: the one-dimensional man is the man who is a member of mass societies, deprived of his criticism, totally entrapped in the system, indeed, even complicit in the reproduction of the system itself. Advanced industrial society, Marcuse states, with a specific predictive capacity, through technology, invades and destroys that 'private space' in which man, though still formed by and in society, can (could) maintain autonomy. It no longer happens once industrial mass production takes over. The result is a complete identification of humans with society.


It is said that a person's freedom ends where another man's freedom begins: is this true?

Again, following an important hint by Umberto Eco, I start the reflection by placing myself "on the shoulders of a giant" to see further. The giant, in this case, is a scholar and pupil of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist who has carried on the master's teaching in a very significant way. Françoise Heritier states:

"To make a society habitable, it was necessary to legislate and regulate several drives specific to the human condition. The two drives best controlled, enclosed in various bodies of law, are, on the one hand, that which affects the life and physical safety of others, and on the other, that which affects the property of others: houses, fields, animals, objects, various possessions acquired legally in various ways (another defined so precisely that these limiting rules do not protect, as is well known, any human)" [in Dissolvere la gerarchia, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2004, p. 200].
Heritier's first words seem, all things considered, to confirm the statement recalled in his question, attributable to M. L. King and part of common sense on the subject of freedom: for a society to be habitable and not become an endless hotbed of conflict, abuse, aggression, it is necessary to regulate, to set limits, to indicate boundaries to protect human life itself and also the property (legally recognised as such) of each individual. After all, 'thou shalt not kill' and 'thou shalt not steal' have ancient roots and are a fundamental part of that pact with God that would put people in the privileged condition of being freed from all forms of sin. God does not impose the commandments to subjugate, but, on the contrary, the tables of the law are understood, in the religious vision, as the foundation of our freedom in the direction of eternal salvation. And here, I would like to add another fundamental reference: "To greater strength, and a better nature, you are free" (Purgatory, Canto XVI)".

The "liberi soggiacete" of which Dante speaks to us - without going into complex interpretations of a much-discussed verse of the Divine Comedy - in my opinion, partly returns to the idea that "the conscience is determined by one' social existence" and more generally in the belief that individuals are in any case "dominated" by the social and cultural structures within which they are embedded. If we were to start from the fact that we are conscious animals, capable of acting based on a plan to achieve certain ends and go so far as to agree with the famous passage in The Capital in which Marx expresses this concept through the comparison between the worst architect and the best bee, we would find ourselves faced with a constant problem for anthropologists, as well as linguists, but even before that for a multitude of philosophers and theologians: Explaining the human capacity to act, precisely based on an idea, a project, a conscience, or by way of free will, whatever, subject to the constraints that all social living imposes. However, it is an imposition that dictates our freedom according to a partly oxymoronic mechanism.

Here we find again what is described in the passage quoted above by Marc Augé: the more a society rigorously dictates the conduct to which we must adhere, our place in the world, the more we feel 'certain' of the meaning of our actions and certain of our identity. But all this certainty comes at a price in terms of the loss of the capacity for critical thinking, which is the true matrix of our freedom.

The loss of the capacity for critical thinking has dire consequences. We then come to the second part of Françoise Heritier's words, in which she refers to that 'other' with respect to whom my freedom must be limited: not just any human being, but very well defined according to precise 'cultural' and 'identity' criteria. Respect for the other and recognition of the freedom of others ends (or diminishes, at best) when the boundaries of 'us', of the group to which we belong and in which we recognise ourselves, are crossed. This clarification is as essential as it is dramatic: it allows us to recognise that 'freedom' - as a notion such as human rights - is a historical product, a derivation, we might say, of the specific social sense proper to each social configuration. Actions detrimental to the freedom of others, and also to the human rights of others, which are forbidden and punished when committed against members of my group, appear entirely legitimate and are sometimes even encouraged when directed outwards. The 'thou shalt not kill' mentioned above has historically been fulfilled in a 'thou shalt not kill others of your group, others like you. This leads us to reflect on 'boundaries': being human means "conforming to human nature", "endowed with humanity"; humanity means "togetherness of all men" and "benevolence towards one's neighbour'; there is a link between belonging to the same species and perceiving someone else as "human", between the sphere of the human and the sphere of "empathic understanding": the other "thinks, feels, suffers just like us".
However, in most societies, this link is not very obvious - and there is no need to go too far in space or too far back in time - that very often aggressive behaviour, strongly repressed against members of one's group, becomes entirely legitimate when directed against 'outsiders'. Double standards appear to be a feature of all societies. What is the 'double standard' based on? Perhaps on the failure to perceive the suffering of others? It does not seem so because the human - other animal relationship does not derive from a perceptual error, but because humans (some humans, the vast majority let us say) believe they have the right to behave as they do. This, by logical extension, also seems to apply to relationships within the human species itself. That is to say, although those who inflict suffering on other human beings cannot be unaware of their suffering and pain, why should that matter? Those beings are so different from me, from us, they are, indeed, 'enemies' and as such, or rather, to be made such, they must be pushed out of the boundaries of humanity. The power of ideas can make - in fact, makes - the very boundaries of humans precarious and revocable. So it is not always true that my freedom ends where the freedom of others begins, just as not all 'humans' have this full recognition in terms of rights. There are still today, in the perception of modern Western democratic societies, first-class victims and second-class victims, first-class refugees and second-class refugees... first-class freedom and second-class freedom. I do not think it is necessary to make concrete cases.


How is it important to talk about freedom and social responsibility, and what is the right way to make these two aspects "work together"?

It is challenging to find a balance between (individual?) freedom and social responsibility because we have to start by recognising that balance does not exist in nature. Still, neither exists in societies, both of which are traversed by hierarchical relationships. It may be interesting to start a debate, to delimit the field and give some examples. For example, the terrorist attack of 7 January 2015 on the editorial office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in response to the publication of cartoons satirising Islam. This case - to which many more could be added - is indicative of the tension that inevitably arises between languages, forms of expression, worldviews and values that conflict in an increasingly interconnected world in which the freedom to make one's voice heard (even if offensive) is amplified beyond measure. In such a problematic context, many are fighting for the assertion of the right to freedom of expression, considered one of the pillars of Western culture. A country's freedom of expression, they say, is the test of any democracy. 'It must be total to be so,' argued a well-known philosopher like Giulio Giorello. According to this perspective, avoiding satire out of fear of reactions would mean going backwards in terms of values, whereas it would be important to reaffirm that the right to freedom of expression is one of the great achievements of Western history. Another phenomenon that challenges the principle of free speech is hate speech. The common point between satire and hate speech is the undoubted performative value of both. 'Saying' is equivalent in both cases (and many others) to 'doing'. An order, a request, praise or an insult generates consequences. Speech in these cases is a form of action: hateful and racist expressions are in themselves acts of violence. Therefore, if censorship is undesirable, total impunity of speech is no less so. Starting from this assumption, we can attempt to rethink the boundaries (the limitations to freedom) of our communicative codes, starting precisely from the concept of responsibility in relation to the consequences of our words. Freedom of satire will then appear to us as not unlimited, just as freedom of the press is not unlimited, since both imply ethical and political responsibilities. The myth of 'free expression' hides the fact that some are freer to express themselves than others and have greater access to the tools with which to do so and that in real life, we are dealing not with abstract principles but with complex issues of context.

Freedom of expression should therefore be balanced by responsibility for one's speech, by awareness of its possible effects. Indeed, freedom of expression is an inalienable value; it is accompanied by an awareness of the power of our words and the responsibility that comes with it. As I said above, this means nurturing critical and conscious thinking, our main instrument of freedom.