Are we free in these modern times?

July 19,2017

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The relationship between the individual and society has been a recurring theme of discussion for decades. The nature of this relationship varies in different political systems and impacts the level of freedom available to an individual.

The level and nature of freedom is also inextricably linked with a number of factors that determine it. Some of these factors include gender, ethnicity, social class and nationality. These factors not only shape but, in some cases, determine the individual freedom. As a result, freedom – in an indirect manner – is associated with power. With more power, an individual has more freedom to act.

It is important to understand the term ‘power’ in order to elaborate this point. Power can be explained through French sociologist Bourdieu’s concept of capitals: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital. Economic capital refers to economic possessions, such as cash and property. Social capital denotes an individual’s social links in society. If a person has a social relationship with influential figures, it suggests that he or she has more social capital.

Cultural capital refers to the socially-renowned and prestigious aspects associated with a person. For instance, if a person has attended a prestigious educational institution, it would enhance his or her cultural capital. A significant element of cultural capital is linguistic capital. If a person is proficient in a language that is considered powerful in society, he or she has linguistic capital.

These categories of capitals are sometimes inter-transferable and can influence one another. Each capital denotes a specific form of power that a person has in society. The more power you have, the more space you have to exercise your liberties.

Freedom is also shaped by social institutions. These social institutions include the family, educational institutions, religion and the media. In the wake of industrial progress and technology, it was believed that human being would be far more independent and free as compared to the past. But ironically, the exact opposite has occurred. The corporate sector, which has a large amount of funds for marketing, continues to shape people’s desires and needs.

Although people are under the impression that they are free to make key choices for themselves, the reality is far from that. Instead, a person’s individual freedom is influenced and shaped by the powerful advertisements. Adorno, a German philosopher and sociologist, suggests that in modern times individual freedom has been replaced by a corporate logic.

Education – as an important social institution – essentially aims to lead people towards freedom. It is geared towards closing the social and economic gaps that exist in society. However, education has been responsible for further widening the gaps between the haves and the have-nots in modern times. Unlike the past, there are now separate schools for the elite where ‘common people’ cannot even think of sending their children to access quality education.

There is also a marked difference in the life chances of students who attend elite and non-elite schools. Freedom – the promised objective of education – may not be available to students who are enrolled at non-elite schools. This is primarily because they don’t have access to basic physical facilities – such as proper buildings, drinking water and toilets – and the teachers and the overall classroom dynamics do not give them the freedom to ask questions and express their own views. The usual freedoms attached with education are usually denied to students of non-elite schools.

Let’s assess the role of another important social institution called the media. The media has emerged as the most potent social institution. It has dwarfed the influence of other social institutions in terms of its impact on a wide audience.

The media is supposed to inform the readers and audiences about a diverse range of issues. This information and knowledge should empower them and enhance freedom of thought. But is this happening around the world? To answer this question, we need to understand the politics of representation and the media is an important proponent of this idea.

As Foucault suggests, there is a powerful nexus between power and knowledge. Those who are in possession of power construct a specific form of discourse that leads to a social reality that justifies the actions of power.

In modern times, power emanates from the possession of the sources of that produce knowledge. A powerful vantage point enables powerful groups to construct identities of their choice. They can glorify or stigmatise identities by constructing realities of their choice. The media can do this by setting the agenda and using the techniques of priming and framing. This is in line with Gramsci’s concept of hegemony through the civil society that operates on a discursive approach.

The discursive approach, according to Gramsci, is far more effective as it seeks to control people’s minds. The media has therefore emerged as a powerful social institution that has the ability to make others think and feel in a particular manner. All this is carried out in a subtle way. The audience, which is under the impression of ‘freedom’, makes a choice that is predetermined for them by the media. Gramsci calls this the ‘spontaneous consent’ whereby the audience or the influenced groups internalise the given concepts of their own free will. This spontaneous consent is essentially a form of ‘manufactured consent’, as Chomsky would put it.

The manufacturing of consent is made possible by the construction of specific forms of agenda-based realities through the help of language. This has been eloquently explained by Norman Fairclough in his seminal book, Language and Power.

It is fascinating to study the coverage of the same event on different news channels. For example, a study of the coverage given to the Iraq War by Fox News, CNN, and Al-Jazeera will highlight countless differences in the approaches taken to the issue. Such studies reveal that reality is not fixed. In the postmodern age, reality is considered to be somewhat fluid and entails multiple versions of the same event. It is not fixed. Instead, it is constructed on a regular basis by social institutions such as the media.

With more progress, freedom seems to have been further curtailed. Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, describes how the focus of punishment has shifted over time from physical bashing to mental torture. His view of panoptic surveillance suggests that modernity has further reduced privacy and individual freedom as people are constantly under surveillance.

The writer is an educationist.



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