Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!

Mel Gibson

Freedom is one of the most popular tropes in modern thinking. We yearn for it and yet feel constantly thwarted. Like Macbeth we are “cabin’d, cribbed, confin’d, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.” Wouldn’t it be great to be free of all the constraints which control us? But what might those constraints be?  

This is a question which obsessed the hugely influential counter-culture psychiatrist and supposed visionary, R.D. Laing:

Is love possible?  Is freedom possible?  Is the truth possible?  Is it possible to be one’s actual self with another human being?  Is it possible to be a human being anymore?  Is it possible to be a person?  Do persons even exist?

Maybe freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe some of our constraints might not be all that bad?

Laing began his career in the mental hospitals of Glasgow in the 1950s. As you might imagine, this was a violent and frightening world in which doctors tried to manage schizophrenics as best they could. He noticed that the psychiatrists hardly ever spoke to their patients, so as an experiment he took 12 women and spent months talking to them about their lives, circumstances, feelings, hopes and fears. Amazingly, all 12 were well enough to be released after his intervention. But within a year, all 12 were back in hospital. As Laing himself said, “No one knew why they’d come in in the first place and no one knew why they had come back again.”

Determined to find out the reasons for these schizophrenics’ behaviour, Laing began to investigate their family backgrounds. He became convinced that the roots of madness lay concealed in the black box of family dynamics and that his patients’ conditions were caused by the very environments to which doctors were striving mightily to return them. From here it was a mere hop, skip and jump to conclude that a startlingly wide range of mental health issues were caused by the pressure cooker of family life.

Example of Laing’s game theory questionnaires

His research lead him to use game theory to examine the exercise of power and control in ‘normal’ families. Game theory uses mathematical models to predict patterns of cooperation and competition between ‘rational agents’. The thinking is that all the decisions we make have a rational route and that if you can discover what prompts a decision then you’re half way to understanding not only human behaviour but how to manipulate it for your own ends. The ‘games’ we play have rules. Some of these rules are explicit – Don’t answer back! –  while some are unspoken: I want you to desire me. Based on questionnaires he administered to hundreds of families, Laing produced mathematical equations showing that all so-called normal families continuously use complex strategies to selfishly manipulate one another. What most people would interpret as acts of kindness and love, Laing believed were weapons for dominance in a secret war. He saw the family as a machine for fulfilling the aims of society and controlling people and in so doing condemning individuals to bleak, sterile existences. Laing compared ‘normal’ family environments to “walking into carbon monoxide gas chambers.”

Laing’s bleak, paranoid ideas have infected thinking throughout society. People are essentially selfish; state institutions cannot be trusted, and anyone claiming to be motivated by duty or altruism is either a dupe or a liar. Tradition needed to be torn down in the name of freedom. Only if everyone was free to act entirely as he pleased, without constraint, could he be truly happy.

This is an essentially Romantic worldview in which man in his pre-lapsarian state is a noble savage and any attempt to curb our natural development is unnatural. You can see where this kind of think has got us. Schools are institutions of social control interested only in further the aims of the state for stability. Children are noble creatures brutalised by their families and teachers. The aim of education is to crush individuality, curiosity and creativity in order to create obedient, subservient subjects. Into this “carbon monoxide gas chamber”, heroic teachers can fight the system and help preserve all that is good and natural in children. To be free of external control is the highest goal of humanity.

According to Laing, if you argue against this narrative, you merely reveal the extent of your delusion. This sort of closed circle thinking prevents us from learning from mistakes. The sixteenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes argued in his masterwork, Leviathan, that a lack of constraints lead to a life which was “nasty, brutish and short”. In order to escape from this self-destructive cycle, we need rules, laws and government. Without these things, human beings, naturally, exploit each other: might is right and the devil take the hindmost.  Rousseau, a champion of the romantic ideal was instrumental in developing and refining Hobbes’ theories with the idea of the ‘social contract’ in which we agree to give up some freedoms in oder to respect and defend the rights of others. Perhaps more than anything else, this has helped lead humanity into an era in which – often contrary to our intuitions – violence is at an all time low and the rights of the individual have greater protection than ever before.

Schools operate with just such a social contract. We send our children to school, giving up some of our – and their – freedoms in order that they learn that which they are unlikely to learn in their natural state. To make this happen, the members of a school community must guarantee the rights of pupils to learn without fear of predation from their peers. Laing’s belief that we can’t trust institutions is entirely wrong; although they’re very far from perfect, they’re far more likely to prove reliable and trustworthy than the kangaroo court of the playground. The sort of freedom Laing encouraged his patients to strive for is, in the words of Hobbes’ the “right to all things”: the freedom to bully, plunder and dominate. The sort of freedom we actually value looks nothing like this. The freedom we hope to provide children with is the freedom to make informed choices, to take part in the ‘conversation of mankind’ and the freedom not to live in fear.