Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 9:

The free prisoner

Imagine a prisoner in a cell. Is the prisoner subjected to violence? The prisoner’s limits of aspiration are defined by the walls of the cells, and by the rules of the jail, which determines times for sleeping, eating, etc. If the prisoner is perfectly content with being within the confines of the walls of the cell, and abiding by the rules of the prison, then the prisoner is absolutely free, since she is allowed to follow her aspirations. Only if the prisoner aspires beyond the limitations put up by the prison is she unfree. Only then is she subjected to violence. The prisoner may then after some time align her aspirations to the limitations of the prison in order not to get hurt, and thereby gain her freedom. 

In a way, a culture works very similarly to this prison, since it sets up invisible walls and limitations around its participants, and if you break the rules you risk social stigma, ridicule, or ostracism. Thus the culture forms the aspirations of the people within in it. And the culture is also formed by its participants, for there is a feedback loop here; the participants in a culture create the social norm within which their possibilities for aspirations are defined. In an ideal progressive culture, these invisible walls are constantly pushed; in an ideal conservative culture they are cemented.1

Being culture savvy is to be a free prisoner. But a free prisoner is an oxymoron, for she has merely succumbed to circumstances and is still not free. To become liberated is to claim one’s personhood, and just as the prison is not an individual one, but maintained and guarded by all the prisoners in the culture, the freedom in the personhood claimed must also be a social one. The shackles are put on by insecurity and fear and manifest in self-consciousness. The liberation, as we will see in Episode 10, manifest in self-awareness and is based on reaching out with our vulnerability towards each other.

Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is the seal of attained freedom? -No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.”

To be a free prisoner is the strategy of the culture savvy2. But to truly gain freedom is not to let the walls of our culture define our aspirations, but to keep our aspirations transforming, and if they are larger than the cell given to us, move the walls. But with care, for if the aspirations are dictated by insecurity and not by a sincere will for claiming personhood for ourselves and others, a moved wall may come in the way of someone else’s aspirations. For a free prisoner is not free, her freedom is a pose. And the prison guard is not a bit freer than the prisoner, for the guard upholds the same pose, the free prisoner is herself a guard. To truly liberate oneself from the shackles of one’s cultural fears and insecurities must also involve liberating the guard, else is little gained. 

If one moves the walls of the culture such that they get in someone else’s way, that is an aggression.

On Violence

Since insecurity, or social pain, manifests itself physically just like physical pain (minus the bleeding), this suggests a redefinition of the word violence, for violence means to inflict pain. 

To kill a human being is in a sense the ultimate crime, since it puts a definite stop to her possibilities and aspirations, denying her to be able to fulfill being a human being with immeasurable personhood. But there are plenty of violent and “non-violent” ways for achieving the exact same result, through different forms of oppression.

By forcing a human to conform to social norms, by forcing the mask of an identity onto her face, either through physical violence (or threats thereof) or social violence, such as ridicule or ostracism, one commits a similar crime as the physical abuser, and those who break social norms tend to get punished (unless they are high up enough on the social ladder to merely be considered eccentrics).

What a culture does to maintain its hierarchies is to define normality. If I use the word “normal”, I am committing a crime against those whom I exclude (similarly with the word “natural”). Not to commit this crime does not mean seeing others as normal, it means accepting those who do not live up to my ideas of normality.

Based on this reasoning, a definition of crime emerges.

Three kinds of crimes:
1. Physical violence (causes pain and possibly an untimely death).
2. Direct Social violence (causes pain and possibly an untimely death.)
Indirect Social violence by denying (or complicate) someone’s aspirations for personhood, through social structures.To obtain cultural savviness is to know one’s place in society. Some people’s place is to struggle to get by. If you are too busy surviving, then matters of personhood are at the outer limits of your reach. Financial insecurity is as much a tool for conformity as social insecurity. It is a crime to let people live their lives in such conditions. We are denying people their infinity which is personhood, and the size of the crime is immeasurable.

There is also the crime we commit against ourselves when we try to conform to a norm or an identity, and to be content with our savviness is to deny ourselves our own infinite personhood. Our identities are primarily formed during adolescence, and maintained during culture savvy adulthood. As a part of our maturity into personhood, we must question, reflect upon and decontruct the identities we have adopted and striven for.

Non-violence is also violent

Franz Fanon: “I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.”

All of the above constitute violence. If someone who is more powerful than you, is forcing a mask unto your face, by use of violent force or other forms of power, then violence may be a valid strategy for you to regain or defend your personhood. Violence is motivated as long as it takes you and others closer to your goal of personhood, without committing a crime against someone else’s. The word non-violence usually only refers to how to avoid the use of physical violence, and it is only a strategy of the disempowered and underprivileged. The ones with power already have non-physical violent means to oppress (as well as physical means, often by proxy). But “non-violence” is still violent; it is a strategy for shaming the physically violent oppressor, and is thus a form of socially violent self-defence.3

Also, the strategy of social violence can be utilised by the disempowered through the use of satire and parody, ridiculing those in power. Satire and parody as comedy is only funny when it is directed from the less powerful to the more powerful. Just as physical violence is only motivated if it “kicks upwards”. 4

Next page: Identity Politics and the World Ordering

Page 1: “People Taxonomy”, “A Person’s Evolution”, “Just a Normal Culture”, “The Insecurity of being Normal”
Page 2: “The Free Prisoner”, “On Violence”, “Non-violence is also violent”
Page 3: “Identity Politics and the World Ordering”
Page 4: “Contagion”, “Some Final Points”

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  • mcarefully

    There is so much in this entry!, I’m sorry I missed its publication earlier.

    In the early sections, in several of the places where you mention ascribing value (/meaning), you modify it with the attribute, ’emotional’ (as distinct from intellectual, spiritual, social, material, etc). Is that because you see most/all value attribution that humans do as a process as at base emotional in nature, even if there may be other layers on top?

    I like very much your comments about violence as well as your acknowledgment of the liberation of the guard. One concrete example of this struck me very strongly in the ‘extras’ material on a dvd release of the film Favela Rising, where it presented a teach-back aspect of the cultural program in which the youth of the favela, having learned musical instrumentation and dance, etc, would then have opportunities to teach/mentor the local police who patrolled the favelas in learning those skills/arts. To me, this was immensely powerful, perhaps the most revolutionarily powerful aspect of the whole story/program, even though it was somewhat of a footnote due to presentational format.

    “…to be a free prisoner” (around footnote 21). — but this is not _really_ the goal, right? Are you presenting ‘free prisoner’ as distinct from liberated (/no-longer) prisoner here? Is the freedom in ‘free prisoner’ the posing sort or the true sort? If it is the posing sort, then does that undermine what follows about the pursuit/construction of indentity-free spaces(/subcultures)?
    >2>OK, you come back to this too,,, in your preview to Next Episode.. 🙂

    What about other aspects of identity that we carry around with us as internalized (expressed or un) projections? eg, ‘I am a person invested in social justice’ as a defining aspect of identity. Might these also be sand-trappy? In recent years I have come to believe that they are, that they are very hard to eliminate as one attempts to know oneself, reconcile self-world relationships, and/or ‘just live’.
    >1>Ah, OK, I see you come back to this ~footnote 31..

    re: foonote 24 and stereotype threat, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi is a good book on this subject (and accessible, in terms of not being overly academic or dense, for sharing widely).

    As a lesser note, interesting how funny words are. Your very legitimate use of the term ‘insecurity’ throughout this writing communicates well and accessibly, and yet has a sort of inverse relationship to the call for an embracing of insecurity (of a different, virtually opposite character) in eg Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity. insecurity as manifestation of fear and diminished/ing self-projected/internalized social value VS insecurity as manifestation of openness to (or recognition of) unknowability.

    • ToT

      McCarefully, wow, you are a good reader, I’m happy to have you come here! 🙂 And your comment contains a lot!

      On whether ascribing meaning to something is emotional foremost, as distinct to other attributes:
      Yes, I do think that the when a lump of non-descript stuff becomes a category in our mind, the process is not intellectual; it is when the stuff gains an emotional connection that a category can be formed. This is seen already in children who are very upset if they learn that a category they know is also something else.

      It is a very interesting and apt example from Favela Rising, thank you!

      On the free prisoner: yes, maybe that could have been made clearer before the preview of the next episode. I don’t think the free prisoner as being free, merely as someone who has made herself content in her own prison. The ‘free prisoner’ and the ‘culture savvy adult’ are very similar concepts in this respect…

      On Self-identity: I agree, they are a bit sand-trappy. With a self-identity with tend to reduce some aspects of ourselves into some kind of perceived “truth”. But as with all identities, with an openess that there not being a truth when it comes to these matters, they can still find their use. E.g. it could be a way to focus and transform different parts of yourself, by solidifying some aspects into an identity for a while, this opens up space and energy for transforming other aspects.

      Whistling Vivaldi: I’ll look for it!

      On the word insecurity: Hmmm… I haven’t read Watt’s book… I guess that I also promote an embrace of insecurity, since I think we need to acknowledge and become aware of our insecurities in order to take responsibility for our personhood. I suggest analysing daydreams as a method towards the end of the last post. It has proved useful for me, I don’t know how universal it could be. Is Watt’s view similar? From the blurb of the book it seems that it may be, but it is not quite clear.

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  • Axel Cholewa


    I know I’m late for this discussion, but man, this is a difficult article. I’m working o a summary in my own words, but by now I have only summarized everything up to “The free prisoner”.

    You find the summary here:

    I’m open for comments or corrections by everyone 🙂


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  • ToT

    Social contagion measured:
    The article says peculiarly little about how positive behaviour is spread, but seems to imply that the same applies for positive and negative social conduct.