What is liberation? What does it mean?
Liberation could either be: The act of experiencing ones freedom. The suffix –tion means the praxis or action of, in this case, liberty. So it is possible that liberation is the enjoyment of one’s liberty, living into the freedom one has. The act of practicing your liberty. I have the freedom of speech and so when I use it that is liberation. Or it could be mean the act of securing one’s own liberty. The process of working it out, trying to make it happen. –tion meaning the praxis of gaining liberty that is currently not had. Moving from non-liberty to liberty, the action of liberating (freeing not just being free).
These two different forms are valid in the act of defining, the first makes sense grammatically. The first is an attitude of rights, as in “I have my rights and I use them! But the second definition is a term of action and movement. The next issue is: When does one have liberation? Is it small steps or total? Is liberation when a country throws off the colonial rule politically but is then still oppressed by debt and European trade? Can liberation exist in incremental and small steps or does it demand holism and across the action?
Is Liberation Escape?
According to provisional figures compiled by the UNHCR, the total population of …(refugees)…at the end of 2003 was 17.1 million, the lowest in at least a decade. The figure includes 9.7 million refugees; 1.1 million returned refugees; 995,000 asylum seekers; and 912,000 others, including stateless people; plus the 4.2 million internally displaced people and 233,000 returned IDPs that were assisted…In 2003, more than 3 million people were newly displaced, the majority by civil wars and inter-communal violence in Africa. Some 700,000 people were uprooted in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo alone… (Face of Human Rights, 674- 675).
So, does liberation merely mean being able to leave ones home in time of violence or upheaval? Those people uprooted, running from the fire are leaving to save their lives but often move into other danger. Out of the pan and into the fire. Escaping is not liberation (or rather escape does not equal liberation). There needs to be a degree of choice. Why do you leave? One should be able to move on their own accord nor for fear of death. One should also be able to return home.
Machiavelli presents the following, “How one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him… (Machiavelli, The Prince. Chpt. 15).”
Here, the “one” referred to is given a weighty task to choose “how one ought to live” and “how he lives.” This is the life of my first question, the praxis of liberty and living in it. This is a life of freedom. The man referred to here can be the master of his own destiny. He can make the decision to act according to his “professions of virtue” and he also has the freedom to be destroyed.
There is another side to this coin, the inability to choose. For those living under the thumb, or heel, of others they lack the ability to make choices. Forget choosing between “how one ought’ and how one does. For these “wretched of the earth” choice never comes into it. Destiny is taken away. In prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts (Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison).” He recognizes, in his imprisonment that liberation is not only physical but also mental. The ability to think is a freedom as well. The ability to make choices and to decide for oneself is liberation. Bonhoeffer also recognized another path to liberation, further in. “…not only action but suffering, too, is a way to freedom. In suffering, liberation consists in being allowed to let the matter out of one’s own hands into the hands of God. In this sense death is the epitome of human freedom (Bonhoeffer, LFP).” This is the liberation struggle of others like Gandhi. Facing the risk of death, come what may, and in so doing one is set free. However, death can also be oppression, when it is forced and not chosen.
Slavoj Zizek explores this idea of liberation and choice in his book The Parallax View. He states “What would a truly free act be, a free act for a noumenal entity, an act of noumenal freedom? It would be to know all the inexorable horrible consequences of choosing evil, and nonetheless to choose it (Zizek, Parallax View, 23).” Zizek reflects this idea of choice presented by Machiavelli and Bonhoeffer. Here, his subject enacts his freedom by 1) knowing. 2) Choosing. Zizek comments not only on the act but the choice, for evil even in the face of the knowledge of it. Whether or not the subject chooses evil and its consequences or good and its consequences is not the issue I am trying to draw out here, it is the fact that liberation (here shown by the subject making a “truly free act”) is enacted by the ability to know and the ability to do something about Knowledge and Action are liberation. The ability to know and the ability to act, for good or for evil, to decide on ones own path is the praxis if liberty.
John Steinbeck’s powerful epic of brotherly love and hatred, East of Eden, may help us shed some light on this whole thing. Lee, the Chinese servant who turns out to be a sage, tells Adam his thoughts on choice. “It is out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there (Steinbeck, East of Eden, 302).”
*Note: I just realized all these examples so far are white guys. Sorry. I will try harder.