Monday, June 01, 2015

A bird in a cage

Last week, I stated that man is a prisoner of his or her own habits and routine. Even if the door of the prison is open, s/he doesn’t use the opportunity to escape, as any animal would do. Is it true? Maybe man is more rational than animals. Why should s/he escape when the door is open? Once you are free, you have to decide for yourself; not only now and then but always. You can do anything you like, indeed. However, if everything is possible in the end nothing is possible. For how to choose? Moreover, once you take a step, it limits the number of the next steps you can take. When, for instance, on your own walk through life you reach the bank of a river, your choice where to go seems almost without limit, but once you choose to spring in the river, your number of choices will be reduced to four: Going back, swimming to the other bank, giving in by following the stream, or becoming recalcitrant by going against the current. And do you know where it will bring you, whichever decision you take? Most men are not adventurous and don’t have enough insight in order to be able the take the right choices in all unexpected circumstances – or at least in most – so that it is wiser to stay where you are: In your cage. And because you know that the door is open, you keep the freedom to leave when you get an idea what to do outside, with the possibility to go back when you like. Seen that way it is not unreasonable to stay where you are and limit your space of freedom in practice to your cage.
Or is this freedom an illusion? For whether the door of the prison is open or closed makes for most people no difference at all! Even if it is open, they don’t see that it is open. They see no cage. They simply think that they are free and can go where they like. Why this is so has been made clear by the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye. Although her metaphor has been developed for explaining the idea of oppression, I think it can also be used for making clear why many people have the illusion that they are free. Let me first give a long quote from Frye’s article “Oppression”, where she puts forward her picture of the bird cage:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

This picture used by Frye for grasping why it is so difficult to see why and when oppression exists can also be used for grasping why many people think that they are free, even when they actually live in a cage. For most people just stand too near to the wires and see only the wire that is right in front of their eyes. This gives them the idea that they are free: Isn’t it so that it is easy to go out by walking around the bar? However, if they would do a few steps back they would see that they are caged in ... and maybe they would see also that there is a door that is open.

Quotation from Marilyn Frye, “Oppression” on

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