Friday, May 14, 2010


Temple Grandin is famous for her work with cows.  She is also famous for being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a variant of autism in which much of the person’s higher intellectual functions appear to be spared.  She claims that her Asperger’s gives her the ability to get into the cows' mind-space and understand, for example, how a cow feels when it is undergoing the stressful transition from pen to slaughterhouse. 

She reports having a pivotal insight while watching calves being inoculated on her Aunt’s Arizona ranch.  The ranchers used something called a squeeze chute, a device that literally clamps the calf tightly from the sides so that it is unable to move while it receives its dose of antibiotics and growth hormones.  What she noticed—an apparent paradox—was that many of the calves calmed down and relaxed when they were being constrained.  This insight eventually led to the redesigning of various physical structures used with cattle and other factory farmed animals in slaughterhouses and dairies around the world. 

I’m curious as to how this apparent paradox that there is comfort in constraint might also apply to humans.

That there is comfort in constraint suggests that freedom causes anxiety.  To be truly free to pursue your own freely chosen goals means that you are responsible for the outcome of your goal pursuit.  That can be a very scary thing.  It is also a very rare thing.  Most of us are pursuing goals that have been created for us, goals that we would never choose to pursue if we were given an actual choice.  What kind of person would freely submit to a 40+ hour work week in pursuit of fleeting material wealth and the dubious promise of a “better” future?  Who would choose to submit to a state-(and corporate)-defined formal education designed primarily to instill the skills and habits of mind necessary to become an effective consumer?  Who would willingly renounce his or her natural rights to clean water, fresh air, and a healthy land base? 

Rhetorical questions, of course.   

The discomfort of freedom is something that most of us eagerly trade for the illusion of safety found in artificially-crafted constraint; we gladly give control of our lives to other people and things so that we don’t have to bear the existential burden of freedom.  The life of a wage slave is preferred to the life of a free (wo)man.  The pursuit of convenience, comfort, and mindless entertainment is preferred to a freely chosen life purpose.  Identity foreclosure and hollow imitation is preferred to a life-long journey of self-discovery.  We have become like timid cattle—both of us animals that bear little resemblance to our spirited and fearsome evolutionary ancestors—living in domestic servitude to powers of which we choose to have little awareness and even less understanding, held comfortably placid in our corporate-consumer squeeze chutes.

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