It’s a new semester, and I’m thinking about what I want out of it. There’s a lot that I miss about being on campus. The most substantial one might be the “How you doin’?” exchanged with the person crossing paths with you on the street. I miss running into some random person every once in a while and catching up for two minutes before class, being reminded of their presence and them being reminded of mine. I miss the chance meetings.
We have lost that interaction space, and it hurts. The pandemic has limited our chance meetings and, thus, the complex and beautiful network of our interactions. Perhaps we hadn’t recognized the fundamental place that this network holds in our lives, but I believe that it creates the space for a unique kind of freedom. So, I propose, we continue to grow this network — and our space of freedom — as much as we can, even just through simple action and speech that translate into activism and contribute to a cause.
There are different theories of freedom. I cherish the one that says freedom is the power to begin, to introduce novelty into the world by contributing to an infinitely complex network of actions. Hannah Arendt, perhaps the most influential political theorist of the 20th century, capitalized on natality, believing that an individual had the power to begin; each individual was a new beginning, capable of action. With each birth, something uniquely new comes into the world — not just because each individual is unique in a romantic sense, but because each person changes the dynamic space of interactions by contributing to a web of actions that is infinitely branched.
But, how does freedom relate to action and speech? In acting and speaking, we make our appearance in the world. The power to begin is always contingent upon others since, as Arendt posits, “The disclosure of unique identities through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always falls into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.” Action, and speech for that matter, is the actualization of the human condition of natality. They are the necessary ingredients for the power to begin, thus for freedom.
Yet, this power cannot be transformed into action until we have a space to enact our freedom. Our network of interactions is this space. This might sound idealistic — it is easily dismissed by pragmatists who run the world. Yet, isn’t this space where our freedom is actualized — be it our house, our workplace or the entire world — what we long for throughout our lives? It may well be that it is not self-interest, but rather a desire for freedom which motivates people to act.
Importantly, however, we need to emancipate freedom from a sole association with individualism. If not, everything collective seems to us the enemy of freedom. Attacks on labor unions are one example. We see collective action in violation with individuality, and in turn, with freedom. Yet, it is our interconnected actions which give us the agency and autonomy over our lives — an autonomy that cannot exist with radical individualism. As Arendt puts it in “The Human Condition,” “Action and speech are surrounded by and in constant contact with the web of the acts and the words of others. … We depend on the freedom of others and the complex makings of a fragile world.” Our freedom flourishes from collective action, from unpredictable interactions and chance meetings with people that are capable of introducing novelty into the world. If action is the way we exhibit our freedom, then it is through establishing human connection that we gain our agency. We need to start thinking that we belong to more collectives than life has brought us to live in.
Where does this all bring us? Why do we keep failing to attend to problems in faraway communities? Perhaps the impact of these crises are easily forgotten since they span long time periods. Think of the eternal yesterday: it feels as if there have always been children dying of hunger in Yemen or refugees shot at the Syrian border. You might have thought before, “Those places have always been conflict zones.” Another reason for our failure is our obsession with immediate success. While advertising for the “Fast for Yemen” campaign we organized as the Dwight Hall Peace Initiative, we were all aware that our campaign would not “end hunger in Yemen.” Yet, that was the reaction we got from many people who did not see the point in getting involved. Still, we considered it a success to share stories and provoke empathy. Indeed, our campaign raised $6,383 for urgent relief — a substantial amount. But perhaps more importantly, it created an opportunity for a new network of actions by acknowledging others’ sufferings. It valued collective effort, allowing their struggle to affect our own experience and leading us to respond with action.
I hope during this particular moment in our lives, with the pandemic tearing us apart and reducing our chance meetings, we see that we are capable of helping each other through various material and immaterial ways. We can also redefine freedom and carry our new beginnings with us, finding ways to cope with curbed individual freedoms by creating a different kind of freedom. Because we can only be free with others.
DOGA UNLU is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at email@example.com.