Are We Truly Free?

By Abel Merawi

Are-we-truly-freeDecember 9, 2019 ( -- Human struggle towards freedom has been and still is the most important expression of our unyielding spirit. There have been various institutions that stood as a barrier against the individual’s quest for freedom. There were times when monarchs have made the rest of the people disposable subjects that exist only for their pleasure. After a bloody and arduous effort, to a great extent, the world has freed itself from such captivity. There were also times when religious institutions conquered the human spirit, making freedom appear an illusion. Yet, the unconquerable human spirit also defeated the fear instilled in the mind and threw away the shackles. In recent history, freedom was denied through authoritarian governments that desire to dictate the life of people, which is manifested in fascism, Nazism, colonialism, socialism, or in the various forms of other dictatorships the world has seen. But once again, the people have managed to struggle and take back the freedom that belongs to them as individuals. Currently, in countries that operate under the name of democracy, the individual has at least something that resembles freedom. However, judging from the way our world is operating, we have to ask whether we are truly free or automated individuals with the delusion of freedom.   

It is common to use expressions such as ‘I think,’ ‘I feel’ and ‘I will.’ These words carry the connotation of freedom because they show self-expression. However, there are cases that show that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not ours but the result of external influences. In 1939, a psychiatrist named M. H. Erickson conducted a study using hypnosis to check the validity. In this study, there are three people involved: let us call the person under induced sleep or hypnosis ‘A’, the psychiatrist or hypnotist ‘B’ and the third participant ‘C’. While A is under hypnotic sleep, B tells him that he has brought a manuscript that kept record of his important events and that he will want to read it. Then, he will not find it and believe that C has stolen it from him. Because of this, he got very angry at C for stealing it. We should keep in mind that there was no manuscript to begin with and, so, no need to assume it was stolen or there was anger because of it. After waking up from the hypnosis, A began searching for the manuscript, decided it has been stolen and got angry at C for stealing it by stating various rationalizations to show that he was right.

Upon reading the above experiment, we can see that the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of the hypnotized person were not really his own. In other words, the very individual manifestations of freedom can be controlled and manipulated by external forces, including other people. Presently, we live in a world where democracy is backed by propaganda and capitalism is reinforced by emotionally gratifying advertisements. We form our conception of the world, express our feelings and conduct our actions based on the data we are fed. When we say ‘I think’, we are mostly expressing the thoughts of influential others. The influence could come under the semblance of family, society, leaders, media, religion or advertisement. All of these things put the individual in mental chains that are difficult to even recognize. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Social Contract states, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Verily, this is a genuine description of our current existence since the individual is enveloped and suffocated by invisible chains of oppression.

The external forces that hold the individual captive do not succeed without the help of the individual himself. Erich Fromm in his work, ‘The Fear of Freedom’ treats this issue broadly. He argues that the individual contributes to his/her own captivity through realization. He draws a distinction between reason and rationalization by claiming that reason is the logical procedure we follow in order to reach a conclusion while rationalizations are excuses we make up after we have reached a conclusion. In the hypnosis case presented above, the person who claimed to have his manuscript stolen by the person next to him had rationalizations to certify the false conclusion. Erich Fromm shows how we act in automation in our daily interactions. We go to a celebration of any kind and display gestures to confirm to others and ourselves that we are having a good time because our definition of happiness is established by others. We talk about political and social issues as if we know them, but we have gained our information and conclusion from the news we received from the media. We act friendly not because we are friendly but because our parents and teachers told us friendliness is the correct behavior. We go out to protest or riots filled with anger when our thoughts and feeling find their origin not in our mind but in our opinion leaders. We buy certain commodities because we are lured by advertisements. We talk of football matches or other events largely after we receive our thoughts from the commentators. However, we assume that our thoughts, feeling, and actions are our own because we operate with the assumption that we are free. Unless we really try to reclaim our lives from external forces, we will never really be free.

It can be difficult for individuals to be free from subliminal influences for the very reason that we do not even know how they imprison us. Since childhood, we are surrounded by external influences that begin with our parents and expand to the whole social, economic and politic system. Mostly, we are like a cog in an enormous machine as both employee and employer because we are performing our work for reasons we don’t fully realize. We are also easily replaceable since we have become commodities for others, not as an autonomous human being but as a performer who acts a given duty. Erich Fromm states that the only way an individual can become free is through spontaneous activity. He explains that spontaneous activity is free motions of the self and of one's free will. Activity is the quality of creative decision-making that can operate in one's emotional, intellectual, and sensuous experiences. This can occur only when the individual manifests a combination of natural characters with reason, which is acquired through honesty to oneself.

In the end, we have to shake off our fear of isolation and realize that the meaning of life is found in the act of living. Rene Descartes declares, “I think, therefore I Am.” It is when we genuinely think that we can declare our existence. In showing the role of the individual in society, Erich Fromm states, “The only criterion for the realization of freedom is whether or not the individual actively participates in determining his life and that of society, and this not only by the formal act of voting but in his daily activity, in his work, and in his relations to others.” Thus, let us cease to be automated people and take back our freedom by becoming spontaneously active in our personal and social life.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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