“Freedom breeds uniqueness” says Venkatesh Rao. And indeed, freedom means the ability to make different choices and therefore allows people to head off in different directions. Conversely, nothing gives a better clue of oppression and dictatorship than displays of uniformity and collectivism.
However, could it not be the case that people all agree on things and have come to this universal agreement in freedom? When something is true, we should all accept it uniformly if we are rational human beings that think freely. Hence, people who look like they’re the pinnacle of unfreedom because of the consensus they display, are in fact free. Freedom is then not an appearance but a capacity, namely the capacity to make a voluntary and informed choice between propositions. This capacity can lead to diversity, but also to uniformity.
Sounds obvious, but often we label people unfree merely on the basis of how they look. Often when we see conformism there is in fact freedom. The rational consensus cited above may appear to us as something less than rational and based on group pressure or confirmation bias. Buddhist monks may sound as if they are merely reciting the same age old mantras they were taught by their elders whereas their detachment is in fact a form of freedom. The burka wearing Muslima may look like a victim of religiously imposed conformism but perhaps she made a free and informed choice to be what she is.
Hence, uniqueness may well be a sign of freedom, but freedom is more than just apparent uniqueness. Uniqueness can even be a cause of unfreedom. The urge to be unique can lead people to torture themselves in order to achieve something, or can lead them to reflexively oppose themselves to others (as we see in some subcultures). There’s nothing free about the compulsive effort to distinguish oneself or about knee-jerk opposition to others.
More posts in this series are here.