Toward a Mature Understanding of Freedom: Reflections Following the Fortieth Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon

“Freedom” can be an inspiring word. But it is also a word we must use with great caution — especially when “freedom” is used as a rallying cry. Just where freedom is best thought to lie is more often than not legitimately debated. The observation that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” holds more truth than we like to admit. And while almost all revolutionary movements identify with freedom, successful revolutions often do little more than replace old repressive regimes with regimes that are equally repressive (or at best they result in incremental change). At its ideological worst, the word “freedom” becomes little more than a linguistic justification for seeing one’s own kind as “chosen” and some other group as worthy of dismissal and antipathy.

Even when the word “freedom” is not applied in such blatantly ideological and self-serving ways,it tends to be a partial notion that easily gets in the way of good decision-making. It can do this in a couple of further ways. The word’s use can blind us to the fact that cultural systems evolve and that people at different stages in culture’s evolution can see the world in very different ways. It can also shield us from the fact of real limits. A defining characteristic of culturally mature understanding is that it acknowledges limits—limits and freedom become aspects of a single larger picture (see the theme of Acknowledging Limits in the blog library). Because of the importance understanding freedom in more mature and creative ways, Creative Systems Theory speaks specifically of a “myth of freedom.”

I was reminded of the essential task of rethinking freedom with the recent fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Each of these ways in which the word “freedom” can get in the way of mature systemic perspective was reflected in how the word was used during the Vietnam War. Certainly it served as a polar rallying cry. The Cold War ideological thinking that provided the war’s context and ultimate justification set an idealized picture of the West as the “free world” in opposition to a representation of communism that demonized it as freedom’s antithesis. If Vietnam fell, it would be but one domino in evil communism’s destruction of freedom throughout the whole of Asia.

If I understand Vietnamese history correctly, the larger portion of the Vietnamese people experienced the situation quite differently. While Ho Chi Minh (the North Vietnamese leader) was accurately described as a communist, more than this he was a nationalist. The essential recognition for understanding the Vietnam War is that it was this identity as a nationalist that produced his great attraction for the Vietnamese people. Vietnam has never trusted its overbearing communist neighbors to the north, neither before nor since. Rather, the issue was 100 years of French colonial rule, and since 1945, American support for that rule. The South Vietnamese government was identified—not inappropriately—with those years of foreign domination. The North Vietnamese also identified their cause with “freedom.” Given their history, they had as good a claim—and arguably a better one—to the word than did the South and the United States.

The second way the word “freedom” in its common usage can get in the way—how it can blind us to the fact that cultural systems evolve—also played a role in the Vietnam War. A person could justifiably object to the argument that I just presented by pointing to the very real differences between the governmental systems advocated by the two sides in this conflict. Communism reflects centralized control. Democracy (though not necessarily as then practiced in South Vietnam) is about more popular determination—and thus greater freedom.

This is an accurate and important observation. But if we are to use the word “freedom” at all usefully, we must recognize that it describes a development difference, not one of right versus wrong. This distinction is critical. Clearly we would be missing the point if, on comparing two individuals, we used the accurate observation that a young adult is more developed in his perceptions than an adolescent to argue that young adults represent good and adolescents represent evil. The distinction become even more significant with the recognition that while we commonly regard modern representative democracy as an ideal and end point, there is every reason to conclude that it is neither. The concept of Cultural Maturity includes the recognition that further important chapters in the evolution of government and governance lie ahead.

If we are to understand freedom in a way that can serve us going forward, we also need the second additional observation noted earlier—that freedom as we customarily think of it leaves out the fact of real limits. The recognition that limits are intrinsic to how things work represents one of culturally mature perspective’s pivotal insights. When that insight is missing, our thinking inevitably becomes narrow and ideological. We can come at this further observation in a handful of ways that each shed a somewhat different kind of light.

The first turns to cultural narrative, to the stories we tell about how things work (see Human Purpose, the Evolution of Narrative,
and the Challenge of a New Cultural Story
). The kinds of stories we are most familiar with all in some way support myths of limitlessness. In doing so, they imply ultimate freedom as a reward. Certainly this has been true of our most recent cultural narratives, the heroic and romantic stories that ordered Modern Age belief and more recent postmodern narratives. Heroic narratives imply that if we can overcome some obstacle, all will become possible. Romantic narratives proclaim that connectedness with some other (usually another person, but it could also be nature or some spiritual ideal) produces complete and final fulfillment. And while postmodern narrative might seem to discard such fanciful conclusions, the anything-goes claims that lie at the heart of such beliefs in the end represent an even more ultimate argument for limitlessness.

The box-of-crayons image I use to depict culturally mature systemic understanding in another way highlights such partiality. With it, we can think of ideology as what results whenever we make a single crayon (or several in combination) final truth. Single-crayon views of any sort—political, religious, scientific—similarly hide myths of limitlessness. They imply that we only need to give that crayon ultimate say and anything we might wish becomes possible. Whole-box-of-crayons systemic perspective makes us confront the fact that claims of limitlessness—and final freedom—are in the end self-serving and illusionary. Ironically, because single-crayon claims of ultimate freedom protect us from recognizing underlying dogmatism, in an important sense they represent freedom’s opposite. They undermine any kind of freedom that can ultimately serve us.

Creative Systems Theory provides a further more explicitly conceptual challenge to conventional notions of freedom. It draws on how human cognitive processes—and human reality more generally—ultimately works. Creative Systems Theory proposes that intelligence is structured to support our toolmaking, meaning-making—creative—natures. It also describes how creative processes evolve as a generative interplay of polar relationships. We can usefully think of the most fundamental polar relationship in a variety of ways—oneness and separateness, mystery and manifestation, the spiritual as opposed to the material. We can also think of it as freedom set opposite to limitation. Any human creative act–and certainly any act of choosing that is at all responsible — is ultimately a conversation between freedom and limitation. In another way we see how “freedom” as we commonly use the term is not some ideal and end point, but rather just one aspect of what it means as humans to be whole and ultimately vital. (Creative Systems Theory goes further. It proposes that the fact that we have life, indeed that anything exists, is ultimately a product of this kind of generative conversation within existence as a whole.)

If the concept of “freedom” as we commonly think of it so readily gets in the ways of today’s needed maturity of perspective, just what should we do with the word? Often it is best just to find other language. We can also apply the word in ways that put it in appropriate historical perspective or explicitly expand the word’s usual definition. What is most important, ultimately, is simply that we appreciate the larger implications of however it is that the word is used.

[My recent book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Explains What It Is All About (Really) describes how the use of a creative frame reconciles the apparent contradiction between determinism and free will. The CST website includes an excerpt from these reflections.]