5.12.2008

The Myth of Freethought

(Just remember: The problem isn't thinking for yourself, but thinking that your thoughts are somehow special or better than everyone else's.)

I recently saw an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that greatly amused me. The episode's name was "Authority," and it focused largely on a sound engineer who was campaigning against conformity and submission to authority under the slogan "No Sheep!". During the episode, he holds a rally in Manhattan that (predictably) attracts a huge crowd. The entire mass of people, goaded on by his exhortations, begins to chant, "No more sheep! No more sheep!" The irony of the situation is completely lost upon them.

Oftentimes, people operating under the guise of individualism, uniqueness, and anti-authoritarianism are the most unoriginal people you will meet. By striving to reject society's standards, they define themselves by society's standards. They tend to cluster around people who think the same way - just like everyone else does.

This phenomenon would be relatively harmless if it restricted itself to bad art, fashion, and music. (All three are prime media through which people distinguish themselves in the most superficial form possible.)

However, recently, this counter-cultural sentiment has gained such popularity that it has itself become the culture. Modern Western culture might be more individualistic than any other culture in history. (The roots of this cultural trend lie in the Enlightenment, during which intellectuals proposed a new chief principle of morality and politics: individual freedom.) We say things like "Be yourself!" or "Find the real you!", quoting Thoreau and other "freethinkers" (yes, pot-smoking transcendentalists count) in an absurdly shallow attempt to find meaning in life. I am reminded of Margaret Mead's quip, "Always remember you're unique...just like everybody else." The vast majority of today's self-styled individualists or non-conformists are deceiving themselves.

Of course, any exaggeration assertion of self-empowerment and individualism comes at the expense of traditional culture, thought, and morality. Individualism has penetrated past its inchoate aesthetic manifestations to worldviews and philosophies; postmodernism, deconstructionism, and other systems of thought all spring from its same tainted fountainhead.

The influence is most apparent in what is called "freethought," the proponents of which we call "freethinkers." The implicit assumption is that freethinkers have liberated themselves from the shackles of convention and tradition which so encumber the rest of us poor saps. (This is evidence, in my opinion, that religion's modern-day trials can be much better ascribed to a rejection of collectivism than anything else.)

People are wary and weary of organized religion, of being told what to do or what to think. (Of course, blindly submitting to authority - groupthink - is never a good thing, and religion, like any good thing, can be manipulated by individuals to their own gain.) Today, "religious" is a dirty word; "spiritual" is much better. When Nietzsche said God was dead, he really meant God was old-fashioned.

(Incidentally, the idea that organized religion is not personal may be selectively true, but it is by no means universally true. For true practitioners, I would think religion is an intensely personal experience.)

But the label "freethinker" is a complete misnomer. Freethinkers are generally just as influenced by their individualistic society as the pious are by their religious upbringing. Neither group can claim any greater objectivity, rationality, or "freedom of thought"; neither worldview is unique in any way.

The decision to adopt a particular religion can be just as personal and independent as the decision to be a "freethinker." There have been "freethinkers" for millennia, and most of them have thought along very similar lines. "Freethought" is just a new word for pride.

By all means, be fair and honest in intellectual pursuits - but don't pretend that your thoughts are better than other people's thoughts, or that new thoughts are better than old thoughts. (Chances are, the "new" thought has already been proposed and discussed centuries ago.) Rejecting, not acccepting, those assumptions is the true sign of intellectual freedom.

4 comments:

Casey said...

I love your blog. One suggestion, though, could you maybe change the design so the the letters are black on white? White on black wreaks havoc on the eyes. I'm not really all that old, either. :)

Speaker for the Dead said...

Hmm...

First of all, thank you! :)

Second of all, what's it like in Japan?

Third, the coloring...

I like it a lot, but I can propose a few alternatives...

1. Copy the text into Word.
2. Highlight it.
3. Subscribe to the blog, so you get free (normal-looking) e-mails! :P

If none of those work, I could change it. This problem could be pandemic, and I would hate to wreak havoc on our already over-strained eyes.

Elena said...

I like how you're able to draw up your arguments in such a clear and cohesive manner. :) I enjoyed this post very much -- thanks!

Casey said...

Ha, ha. Japan is great. Gas prices are too high, but hey, they're high everywhere, right?

The color scheme is only a suggestion. Don't go changing it for little ol' me. I also suggest a poll, though. ;)