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June 10, 2020

Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace: Part 1

The Multiplicity of Freedom

Teresa Kuan

May 2020 witnessed a wave of street demonstrations against stay-at-home orders in the name of personal freedom, in more than 30 state capitals across the country. In the state of California where I lived most of my life before moving to Hong Kong, protests took place in other cities as well – San Francisco, San Diego, and Huntington Beach. When California governor Gavin Newsom ordered a closure of state beaches, more than 3,000 people turned out. One protestor told the Los Angeles Times, “I served in the army and fought tyrants and dictators overseas and this has gone too far. I didn’t do that to come back here and live under a tyrant in my own country.” A surfer on a bicycle expressed his view not on a placard but on his surfboard, “Newsom is a kook.”

It may well be a small minority of people who feel violated enough to take their grievances to the street, angry enough to equate the lockdown with tyranny. But a love for freedom, simply understood, is pervasive and it runs deep in the American psyche. I still have memories of elementary school playground fights that would end with one kid declaring, “It’s a free country I can do what I want,” invoking a principle that, to our young minds, appeared unassailable.

In the context of America’s response to Covid-19, which has been and continues to be shaped by systemic and cultural factors, the outlines of this simple notion of “freedom” appears more clear than ever before. It both unites and divides. Unites because we generally agree freedom is good – and perhaps those protestors felt an intoxicating sense of togetherness being amongst like-minded fellows; divides because this conception of freedom – i.e. the freedom to do what I want regardless of how it affects you – rests on a totally impoverished understanding of what it means to be human and what contributes to our flourishing. What this way of understanding freedom fears most is impingement on individual autonomy. It leaves little room for thinking about meaningful relationships and the systems that make them possible.

In my contribution to our research group’s publication project, I explore the importance of others and social spaces for being-with-others in the context of China’s “psycho-boom” (xinli re), a term scholars in the field use to describe the flourishing of interest in all things psychology. It is interesting to follow this trend, predominantly an urban middle-class phenomenon, in light of what we might expect to happen with the emergence of pop psychology in an individualizing China. A unique feature of the Chinese psycho-boom is the popularity of training courses and workshops, where participants are doing much more than acquiring knowledge of a subject. In the context of sharing stories and experiences, facilitated within certain group activities, participants come to see their own suffering as something shared. In the way they talk about the effects of learning in a group on their sense of well-being, we can glimpse an insight Simone de Beauvoir once expressed, going against Sartre’s association of freedom with autonomy, i.e. that freedom is “the ability of each of us to act in the world so that we can take up each other’s projects and give them a future meaning” (Kruks, Retreiving Experience, pg. 35).

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