What do you think of when you hear the word “constraint”? Perhaps handcuffs or straps. Maybe, like me, the first thought that comes to mind is a prison cell.
Whatever comes to mind, my hunch it is the opposite of “freedom.” We’ve been taught to view freedom as life without constraints. The more thoughtful might grant that freedom and constraint are compatible, but only insofar as we choose to impose constraints on ourselves. But generally, financial freedom is what you get when you’re not constrained by lack of money. Sexual freedom is what you get when you throw off all those old oppressive mores about chastity. Academic freedom is what you get when you don’t have to answer to the bishop for your journal articles. Think of any mutual fund commercial, or a recent ad for the Ontario lottery, which opens with an image of a man leaving his workplace (complete with a cake saying “you’re too young to retire”), and ends with the slogan: “imagine the freedom.” We have become a culture who, instead of facing up to the logic of this view of freedom and its messy, arbitrary, and will-to-power conclusion, have decided to take a detour to an all-inclusive in the Dominican.
But what if that conception of freedom is itself a constraint that binds us tighter than any straightjacket? What if the notion that we can escape constraints at all is just a flat-out lie, and a lie that is likely to send us wandering about aimlessly or, worse, end up with a whole lot of people hurt?
We want to argue that this notion of freedom—often asserted, rarely interrogated—actually undermines the liberty, equality, and solidarity that create a good society. We think that the trope we sometimes say about money—that “we have so much we don’t know what to do with it”—also applies to freedom, and it extends much further and deeper than most of us care to imagine; it extends to our society and to our souls.
This issue of Comment will explore how constraints—properly constituted—are integral to freedom and to a good society. We are not looking to celebrate all constraints, of course. Our project is not sadist. Our eyes are wide open to how constraints are often used to oppress, to facilitate bondage of all sorts. We don’t want to return to the days when legal personhood was denied to people who obviously were persons. Nor are we keen to return to times when cultural mores or various economic structures posed constraints that inhibited the just pursuit of legitimate vocations for many in our culture. But in continuation of our anti-revolutionary approach, we’re not keen to exchange one form of bondage for another just because it calls itself “freedom.” We think the freedom being sold to us by many in our culture is counterfeit. The bank of secular liberalism is empty, and increasingly we’re paying for its debts with the very thing it promised us: our autonomy.
Consider an analogy: the opposite of a life without slavery is not a life free from the daily grind of work. On the contrary, liberation from slavery is a movement from unjust, evil, dehumanizing constraint to daily constraints of hard work for an honest wage, aimed at life, justice, growth, and fruitful orchards. How can we develop the resources to make sound judgments about constraints? How could we tell the difference between, say, a cold-turkey diet (no chips or chocolate you philistine; no fat, no flavour!) and a pattern of simple eating and feasting? Both are constraints, but of a very, very different sort that will shape our grocery bills, our dinner habits, indeed even our food systems in different ways. Where might we find a notion of freedom that emerges from an inevitable web of constraints, one more in tune with the way we, and our world, seem to work?
Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head is one place to start. Crawford offers a different take on freedom, centred on the notion of a jig. A jig, he says, “is a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time, without having to think about it. . . . A jig reduces the degrees of freedom that are afforded by the environment.”
Crawford further notes that “to keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed.” You need a jig. Sometimes it means blocking something out; sometimes it means putting something in place so you notice it (like my habit of placing my keys and wallet in a small basket by our front door). Put differently, a jig is something that constrains our attention to keep us on the right track to act toward some guiding purpose. We offload some responsibility and attention onto a jig, not in order to be irresponsible, but precisely in order to focus our agency, to free it to take responsibility for what matters. One of the things you’ll notice in this issue is a spattering of different jigs that our readers use to help them structure their lives. Take a look at the jig that a couple of octogenarians employ to keep their marriage “juicy” (their word); look for a small jig that a young family uses to make sure that giving to charity and the drinking of wine are seen as parts of a whole; or try to imagine the habits that a young police officer needs to ensure that he treats that drug-addled prostitute as the person made in the image of God that she is.
While some of those jigs won’t be for you (a sonnet in place of an alarm clock?), what does arise out of these is a picture of freedom that takes personhood seriously. Rather than an abstraction that says you can have it all, a jig affirms the fact that you’re a finite creature made of flesh and blood with a finite amount of energy and attention. We like to think that we’re acting on our own volition, making decisions for ourselves based on our best understanding of a situation. But the reality is we rarely, if ever, do that because of those limits. That’s why we speak of having an “attention span.” It may extend to greater or lesser degrees, but like a bridge, our attention can only be extended so far without crumbling. There is, in a sense, a physical architecture to our attention.
Such architecture is also embodied in our social life. There are, as Crawford puts it, cultural jigs: a vast array of assumptions, institutions, habits, judgments, and practices that sometimes constrain, sometimes trigger, our actions toward some guiding purpose. We focus a lot on the state’s part in constructing those jigs—nudges, the effects of policy x on behaviour y—but we pay less attention to the way that things like dinner time, your aunt’s tut-tutting about how much money you spent on your shoes, what you do on Sundays, shape our society. They don’t get attention because they’re jigs. They can act both perniciously or beneficially without your even realizing it. More sobering, they can also disappear without notice. That is, until you start living with the consequences of a jig that is no longer there.
In this edition of Comment we invite readers to take the time to step back and evaluate these cultural jigs and consider the ways they help us live, or hinder us from living, skilled lives. You’ll read about small jigs like family budgets and dinner times, and big ones that maintain peace. We hope some of these essays will help you see old, familiar things in new ways. And, importantly, we want you to join us in imagining the shape of new jigs—jigs previously unimagined—that can help us more deeply appreciate how less freedom can mean more. Or, to return to our earlier metaphor, to trade slavery to ourselves for slavery to God, in whose service is perfect freedom.