Expanding Our Notions of Freedom in Society

What is freedom? How do we measure it? What are we moving towards in regards to increased freedom on a sociological level?

All great questions, but what was most fascinating was the take that Hanzi Freinacht took on the topic. You may notice that I’m quoting Hanzi quite a lot these days, and for good reason. (okay maybe I’m fanboying a little bit, but his writing is stunning).

The Subtle Components of Freedom

“People are only as free as they really feel in their everyday lives”

The novel perspective on freedom that Hanzi puts forth is that freedom is as much emotional as it is sociological. Freedom is a feeling. If we don’t feel free then we’re not free. The cultural component of freedom is as much a part as the legal components of freedom. So let’s dive into some examples.

A person is freer if:

  • she gets to follow her dreams and work towards goals and ends that are genuinely inspiring, rather than having to work to pay the bills
  • she dares to speak her mind in every situation, rather than feeling she has to hold back in order to avoid the judgment and disdain of others
  • she feels that she is a responsible participant of her community and society, rather than a passive spectator
  • she can make life choices without fearing for her financial security
  • she can walk down the street and meet no beggars, see less social misery and not have her mind filled with commercials vying for her time, attention, and money
  • she consumes goods and services in order to do something she believes in rather than acting out of inner insecurities
  • her mind is affected by less cognitive biases and prejudices
  • she makes most of her choices in a calm, harmonious state of mind rather than a stressed, anxious one
  • she isn’t driven to work to make money to buy expensive clothes in order to feel more adequate and less ashamed of herself
  • she isn’t stuck in a peer group in which she isn’t respected
  • she isn’t pressured to do things at work that don’t rhyme with her values and convictions
  • she feels like she’s good enough(full stop).

The core of this perspective is that it honors and values our internal experience much more than our current societal attitudes towards freedom do. Do you feel constricted by shame and guilt? Okay, let’s take that into account. What are the cultural situations that lead to the most intense feelings of being trapped?

A few obvious and salient examples come to mind.

We’re not living in a free society if homosexuality is shamed, slut-shaming is still endemic, and so many of us feel utterly trapped in a 9-5 rat race doing work that we despise.

Freedom = Emotional Freedom

“Emotions are just as important a part of freedom as our institutions and legal rights, and in order to reach higher levels of freedom, people must be emotionally emancipated.”

Hanzi puts forth the obvious case — “Can we be free while being controlled by a paralyzing terror or shame? Not really.”

Your shame, guilt, envy, fear, and anger are controlling you — whether you recognize it or not.

“It’s not that negative emotions are all bad, or that they have no important role to play. We cannot just remove them and “be free”. In fact, society wouldn’t be possible without negative emotions. If we all were to be entirely liberated from shame and guilt when behaving inconsiderately or harmfully towards others, society would soon plunge into a brutish and nasty state.”


“Negative emotions like shame, guilt and envy are socially dependent; they don’t emerge autonomously in a given person, but are always derived from society’s norms, values, routines—and most of all, the games of everyday life.”

Do you see the dialectic here? Negative emotions are utterly necessary for a functioning society AND negative emotions are socially dependent are unnecessary in many cultural situations/contexts that they are present today (ie: homosexual/LGBTQ shame, social norms that elicit low self-esteem & comparison).

Emotions are social by nature, and the social spheres we inhabit aren’t as rigid as we make them out to be. We can co-create new social dynamics that alter the emotional landscape of all involved. Less unnecessary shame and guilt for all!

“The degree to which I can enjoy freedom largely depends on a long chain of interactions in everyday life, on how you and everyone else act, think and feel. If you feel judgmental, disdainful, hateful or envious towards me, and I am not in a position to ignore your reactions, it limits my freedom. It curtails my very thoughts and motivations in a thousand ways. It stunts my becoming of myself.”

“If most people around me feel negative emotions towards me, I lose almost all freedom and I am reduced to an impoverished existence where all my choices are about avoiding these negative emotions targeting me.”

“Hence the collective emotional reactions of my surroundings largely determine the severity of my shackles—or conversely, the heights of my freedom.”

It all seems to come back to one core insight — Interdependence. We aren’t separate individuals of our own free will, we’re enmeshed in a social fabric that influences our identities in profound ways. So many insights about development and society arise when we contemplate the lesson of Indra’s net.

Wikipedia says “Indra's net has a multifaceted jewel at each vertex, and each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels.

The Vedic metaphor of Indra's Net
The Vedic metaphor of Indra's Net

In the same way, we’re all a part of Indra’s net. Sure, there are so many spiritual people that shout We are all One, but I’d reframe this as We’re all interdependent in such a fundamental way that everything you do and are is inter-meshed with who I am and what I do. We aren’t separate. Our actions are co-dependently arising and affecting each other in incomprehensibly profound ways. Your judgment is directly intertwined with my shame, and my envy is directly related to your narcissism.

Approaching life and collective identity in this way requires that I take more responsibility for all of reality, and for you to do the same. I can’t develop myself if society doesn’t progress, and likewise, society can’t progress if I don’t develop myself. Which is also the essence of Ontological Design.

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You’re doing amazing. Keep on feeling what needs to be felt and stepping up to the challenges that life is constructing for your own development!

1 All quotes are from Hanzi Freinacht and can be found in his book Nordic Ideology.

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