“Freedom is in the heart.”

Posted by jlubans on March 13, 2013

My class recently discussed Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World, the NOVA DVD about Edward O. Wilson’s research.
I blogged about my decision - freely made, by the way, not predetermined or decided by chance - to use this film in my Democratic Workplace class. My point was to demonstrate how a leaderless group like ants or the much more likeable honeybee and several other creatures, cooperate to gain advantage and to survive. These were my discussion questions:
“According to Dr. Wilson humans’ inherent weakness is to emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways a weakness or not a weakness?

Will the “eternal paradox, a tension between individuality and self-serving, on the one side, and the needs of the society on the other,” prove fatal?

Is there then good reason to rely more than we do now on democratic organizations in which extreme individualism is subordinate to what is good for the group? Is that possible?”

The discussion went in a direction I’d not anticipated, but I am glad where it went. While the students noted the ants’ ability to cooperate, to be mission-focused, and to sacrifice-self for the group (“one for all, all for one”, they were not convinced that an ant-like society, however wonderful the cooperation, would be an improvement over present human society.
There are lessons, the students believe, to be learned from the ants: “Ants example proves that people need to cooperate and “try” to work in groups.”
I was particularly sensitive to the discussion because I’ve been thinking about what democracy means and along the way have encountered the eternal arguments about free will and questions about man’s need or desire for freedom.
The Ants movie emphatically illustrates that humankind is different from the ant. The student discussion did not miss out on the difference. “Ants are little ‘robots’, but people not!” The ants follow instincts, not emotions, a minus” in student eyes. “Human cooperation is conscious.” “It is not a weakness to think about the individual needs.” “Humans have progress because of individualism, a plus”
Man is far from perfect, however. “Ants preserve nature, a plus. Humans do not see limits of destruction of nature, a minus.”
And, “People (human) need to learn from ants: how to make a democratic society!!! We are trying to do our BEST!” And, “we must find middle way between individual needs and needs of society.”
That these students live in a society only 22 years out of Communist oppression – “an all-knowing, all-caring, all-providing Soviet” – makes them more acutely aware than most about what subordinating people to some coordinating power really means. It’s totalitarian, regardless what you label it. And, if you buck the system, you are deemed a traitor and on your way to a Siberia not of your choosing. At least that is how I interpret the students’ response.

Shortly after the discussion, I gave a mini-lecture about Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs” – many in the class were familiar with Maslow – and I think it was helpful to compare ants to humans on this hierarchy. (It’s helpful to remember when Maslow wrote about the needs hierarchy: during and after the horrors of the 2nd World War.)
I pointed out that the ants “selflessness” and sacrifice gains them the first two and a half steps up the “needs ladder”: Biological and Physiological needs, Safety needs, and maybe, Belongingness. Still, we quickly see that ants miss out on the higher needs of esteem and self-actualization. That’s probably OK with the ants, but it does not make for anything approaching a human life well lived. To fulfill only biological and safety needs kills in most people - although there are remarkable exceptions – the desire for a better life.
If “freedom is in the heart!” as one student stated, is not totalitarianism then only going to permit people an ant-like existence? In other words, to achieve the esteem and self-actualization the individual has to have freedom to choose.
Before I become incoherent, I’ll try to link the discussion to the workplace. In the democratic workplace, the worker has a say, she helps make decisions and is encouraged not to hold back. It is through the collective wisdom of those people doing the job that we make improvements and produce better services and improve our productivity. That can only happen with freedom.

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