A Critical Evaluation of the Statement “I Am Free to be Whatever I Want to be”

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The statement “I am free to be whatever I want to be” is very powerful. It immediately turns the mind to times when, both personally and historically, there has been an ideological struggle to establish freedom of identity in the face of social constraint. This kind of freedom is accepted, virtually without question, as being an existential ‘good’ which should be searched for individually and accommodated socially. In this essay I will contemplate the nature of freedom of identity, both generally and with specific reference to the assertions of the experiential perspective.

This will conclude with a recognition of the limits of this freedom and the notion of ‘situated freedom’. From here I will describe some of the constraints on freedom of identity within the three categories of: genetic/biological constraints, the constraints of individual experience, and the constraining effect of social context. In doing this, I will analyze the implications of an ‘unconscious self’ and a ‘distributed self’, and question whether we are forced to accept a duality in the definition of ‘I’.

In conclusion I will answer the question of whether ‘I am free to be whatever I want to be’ with an almost definite ‘no’, and reflect upon the human drive towards change and to break boundaries. Defining ‘freedom’ is not an easy task. It is oxymoronic to place boundaries around a concept of ‘being without boundaries’, and so we can only float some generally accepted correlatives. In relation to freedom of identity the best of these are probably ‘autonomy’, ‘self-determinism’, ‘having choice’, ‘unrestricted’ and ‘unconstrained’.

In social psychology these terms are perhaps most associated with the experiential perspective, indicating that this perspective is most likely to advocate the ‘I am free’ statement. The experiential perspective combines humanistic notions of autonomy with the existential quest for self-definition. Autonomy requires that the person has alternatives to choose from, that they are able to reflect upon those alternatives and commit to one of them.

At the level of action, to achieve authenticity they must also take responsibility for their choices and be accountable to others for their actions. We undoubtedly do define ourselves by our actions but a more interesting aspect of self-definition is our capacity to choose how we perceive ourselves. James (1890) refers to the mind as a “Theatre of simultaneous possibilities” (in Stevens, 1996, p156), and since consciousness involves the ability to selectively attend to those possibilities, our experience of reality is self-determined.

This ‘intentionality’ which Kelly (1970) describes as ‘constructive alternativism’ (in Stevens, 1996, p165) extends to how we feel about things especially about ourselves. Two problems with this are that we enter the realms of philosophy in deciding whether perception is reality, and that we have to encompass a dual notion of the self which is consensually accepted and individually experienced. Given this, the question of whether ‘I am free to be what I want to be’ also contains the question: am I free to see what I want to see?

I will return to the problems of dual notions of self and freedom later, but before the experiential self becomes too ethereal to be useful, we should recognise that this perspective does place limits on the construction of self. Freedom is seen as ‘situated’, that is constrained to an (undefined) extent by the nature of ourselves and our place in the world. These constraints can be generally grouped into genetic/biological constraints, the constraints of individual experience, and the constraining social context.

The first category deals specifically with freedom of being, whereas the latter categories also deal with the sub-problem of whether I am free to see myself the way I want to see myself. An experimental biological perspective places the self in the context of the body, which requires us to address issues of genetic determinism, development and general matters of embodiment. The most severely constraining view of the self is one of preformationism, which states that we are simply the current expression of previous generations.

Since we cannot choose our ancestors the extent to which we are simply an expression of them restricts our freedom of identity. At a minimum, it is clear that we inherit physical characteristics which affect us aesthetically such as height and hair colour, and functionally such as metabolic rate and predisposition to disease. Our freedom to be what we want is physically constrained by our genetics. This constraint can be absolute, for instance I will never be able to leap tall buildings or run faster than a speeding train, and I most certainly will die.

Or I may be restricted in what I can do, for instance I can develop my fitness but I will never be an Olympic athlete. Physical characteristics translate to social manifestations of self. Our looks partially determine how other react to us and whilst we can alter our appearance to affect this reaction we cannot change it completely. Since others reactions to us is a determinant of how we feel about ourselves we must accept that biology also has a bearing on our emotions and personality.

Further, the biological perspective would assert consciousness itself to be a neurophysiological property, and hence the very concept of self is subject to the idiosyncrasies of an individual’s brain. Moving on to the constraints of individual experience, it is clear that our past circumstances have at least a bearing on who we are now, but some psychologists would go beyond this. Behaviourists would argue that we are little more than products of our experiential history. Our current behaviour is determined by our genetic endowment, past history and current situation, and that our self resides in our behaviour.

This axiom means that we can only create ourselves now in terms of what we have been before. The psychodynamic perspective also presents the self as a product of its history but allows, with assistance, that we can diverge from it. Early childhood experience holds strong sway, creating aspects of self that are largely unconscious and which initiate predictable patterns of behaviour. This can be seen in studies of attachment. Ainsworth et al. (1978) showed that the quality of a child’s relationship with its primary caregiver predicted attachment patterns. Main et al. 1985) showed these patterns as predictably developing in later childhood, correlations with aspects of adult personality, and a next generation tendency towards the same pattern (both cited in Smith et al. , 1998). Once again the most interesting implication of these views for freedom of identity is not that which is seen in measurable behaviour, but rather is in the conscious perception of ourselves. If we accept the idea of an unconscious but at the same time regard the self as only existing consciously, then our freedom to be what we want is constrained from within, for example by the superego.

On the other hand if we define the self as including the unconscious aspects, then even though we may internalize external forces, it is still the self that applies those forces and hence determines what we are. In those terms we are free to be whatever we want. It may be argued that unconscious processes are involuntary and hence should not be included within the definition of self, but to draw a biological parallel, the beating of our hearts is an autonomic function which few would exclude from the definition of their physical self.

Easy allusions to dark social forces that tacitly restrict us are nai?? ve. The social context does enable the experience that shapes self-definition, but more fundamentally it creates the underlying framework that allows us to conceive of a ‘self’ and at the same time provides a medium for the existence of that self. Indeed, from a social constructionist perspective the self cannot be separated from the context that it is in at any given moment, it emerges in interaction and is continually negotiated and reflected.

Seen in this distributed way, the concept of self is meaningless without relations to objects and other subjects. It simply does not exist as a unitary, independent entity. This view of self significantly complicates the idea of freedom of identity. Freedom to be what we want is of course restricted by the fact that the individual is only one party to the negotiation of identities, and freedom to see ourselves any particular way is limited by the paradigms of our culture. However, other effects are not easily separated out. Do multiple selves indicate freedom or a lack of it?

The capacity to choose our milieus may be a type of freedom, but do we adopt multiple selves because a single one is not acceptable or possible? More crucially, the primary concept of self is destroyed by inconsistency when taken to its distributed extreme. When there is no connection between contextual selves then the concept is reduced to that of a hypothetical ‘soul’ or Di?? scartes’ ‘Ghost in the machine’. The social constructionist position on the ‘Free to be whatever I want’ statement, would seem to be that not only is our ‘being’ constrained and our ‘wanting’ constrained, but also the ‘I’ we refer to may be an illusion.

Faced with this, we may be forced to accept dual notions of self in order to retain optimism for a free ‘I’. Mauss’ (1985) distinction of ‘Personne’ a culturally specific self, and ‘Moi’ a conscious, reflexive self is one attempt to do this, as is Lewis’ (1990) division of ‘Existential’ and ‘Categorical’ selves. However, in promoting dual concepts of self we allow ourselves to sidestep the harder message of social constructionism by asserting a part of ‘I’ that cannot be touched. The need to do this may itself be a product of a specific cultural background.

In this essay I have attempted to establish an a priori ‘self’ which has the potential to be whatever it wants, and I associated this most closely with the experiential perspective. From there I proceeded to consider the overwhelming constraints on freedom of identity on two levels: freedom of being and freedom of perceiving. The constraints were set out generally in line with the three other perspectives from within social psychology, each giving strong answers to the title question. I would summarise what I find to be the most persuasive of the arguments with three questions.

First, how would an immortal feel? Without the psychological restriction of an inevitable death surely its ‘being’ would be qualitatively different from ours in a way that we could never know. Second, if an unconscious mind restricts what I am, is it me doing the restricting? Finally, even if I were free to be whatever I want, do my wants belong entirely to me? All this forces me to conclude that ‘I am not free to be whatever I want to be’, yet I cannot escape the optimism of human potential.

In this I am reminded of the character Kunta Kinte from the novel ‘Roots’. Kunta dreams of the noble warrior he should and would have been if he had not been caught by the slavers. But he is still a black man faced with the slave Toby’s reality, and even his dreams have been given to him by his original culture. His freedom is situated in a way that seems to be no freedom at all, yet his desire not to accept the ways of the born slaves is his true nobility, and is impossible not to admire.

Whether or not freedom of identity is an illusion, it cannot be denied that the human race has always sought after it. Historically, humans have separated themselves out from other animals, fought each other and died for their rights, and have continually adapted themselves and changed their environment. What we see in the world today is what Newell (1990) describes as the “Efflorescence of adaptability”, the proactive drive to change which produces “Dazzling variety”. Perhaps the existence of this variety is more important than the ownership of it.

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