“The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.”
In response to the Supreme Court ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates fundamental human rights, Kristin Perry remarked:
“Today we can go back to California and say to our own children, all four of our boys, ‘Your family is just as good as everybody else’s family’.”
Not only are basic rights granted and dignity restored by the decision, but as President Obama observed, we are all more free. And while the freedom sought is the right to wed whomever one chooses (and gain all the protections of marriage), freedom of consciousness also benefits.
The Declaration of Independence takes seriously freedom of consciousness as an unalienable right through its emphasis on the pursuit of happiness:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As The Declaration attests, the United States emerged in response to needs for both civil and psychological protections. This emphasis on personal autonomy was largely about religious choice. Consciousness was perceived as a fragile space that needed protection from exploitation, while also needing guidance from a higher power. Free will, intentionality, and rational choice were envisioned as protective faculties for a soul naturally guided by a spiritual quest. By defending people from unlawful intrusions from the outside, and acknowledging the person’s capacity to make wise and socially responsible decisions, consciousness became the seat for freedom of both self-exploration and self-expression.
The United States has been lax in protecting freedom of consciousness as an unalienable right. This is true despite all the time we spend manipulating our minds through education, self-help, and a myriad of other experiences (including psychotherapy) used to develop our psyches. As a result, we are susceptible to being overly reliant on external sources for deciding what matters to us, and perhaps more importantly, who we are.
This situation is not new. According to psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Géza Róheim:
“… civilization originates in delayed infancy and its function is security. It is a huge network of more or less successful attempts to protect mankind against the danger of object-loss, the colossal efforts made by a baby who is afraid of being left alone in the dark.”
Some societies manipulate this dependency, if not foster a state of infantile fear — a situation often driven more by the imagination than actual conditions. Fearing loss can cause both longing and anxiety, and such emotions can keep us dependent on government more than our survival requires.
In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville famously accused Americans of being immature and overly dependent on authority for protection from their childish whims. In the twentieth century, Thomas Szasz modernized this perspective with his portrayal of America as a “Pharmacracy,” writing:
“people perceive all manner of human problems as medical in nature, susceptible to medical remedies.”
And against the odds, the LGBTQ community overthrew the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ earlier portrayal of homosexuality as a mental disorder, challenging the power of Pharmacracy. By asserting civil rights, they realigned US law with the early understanding of consciousness as a space to be protected from intrusion.
The historian of ideas Michel Foucault coined the term biopower to describe the use of knowledge, like medicine, to supervise and regulate human beings for the purpose of optimizing their adjustment to society. Biopower is the strong-arm of Pharmacracy. It was biopower that contributed to portrayals of homosexuality as a mental disorder and threat to society, giving physicians the right to manipulate and control allegedly pathological minds.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the DSM-V came under attack at the same time the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. And all of us benefit. We are reclaiming the freedom of consciousness our Founders fought for, albeit with some ambivalence. On the one hand, we continue to feel the effects of centuries of biopower. Many of us are quick to medicalize perceived dysfunctions and limitations as signs of disorder. On the other hand, we acknowledge our minds as the determining factor for our pursuit of happiness, although often anxiously. If only I could retain more knowledge, think faster, imagine more beautiful images, or create more innovative ideas! Increasingly, it is difficult to tolerate any limitations on our freedom of consciousness.
Competing in today’s globalized marketplace is largely characterized as the capacity to imagine possibilities. This is today’s “manifest destiny”: the unbridled exploration of ideas and self-expression. Government is often valued to the extent that it protects and makes possible creative self-expression, hence a return to protecting the inalienable freedom of consciousness — which includes imagining the possibility of getting married, whether or not you make this choice.
However, when biopower governs choice, safety is ensured through distinctions between the normal, the pathological, and the subsequent eradication of the pathological. Safety is created by denying rights to those who are perceived as pathological. Safety also occurs through our capacity to govern ourselves. (Foucault used the image of the panopticon to relay how the State enforces self-governance.) But when creativity and self-expression become a person’s greatest capital, the roles of knowledge, consciousness, and government must also shift. And I think it is the shift to valuing individual creativity and self-expression that threatens biopower as a strategy for creating safety.
According to Foucault, central to the process of being a human being (what he calls the ethical subject) are the ideas available to us. Foucault saw thought as central to this process:
“[Thought] is the basis for accepting or refusing rules, and constitutes human beings as social and juridical subjects; it is what establishes the relation with oneself and with others, and constitutes the human being as ethical subject. … In this sense, thought is understood as the very form of action — as action insofar as it implies the play of true and false, the acceptance and refusal of rules, the relation to oneself and others.”
Although for many marriage as an institution and social contract has lost its appeal, it continues to carry symbolic value that extends beyond its practical benefits. Marriage exists in our thoughts as a possibility for self-expression, and is tied to beliefs about religion, equality, and the sanctity of family and love. And for all of us, it is difficult to know ourselves without at least having the potential to act on beliefs we hold as true.
Foucault spoke of “true discourses” that exist inside us and are the basis of actions we use to become ethical subjects. Foucault stated about these discourses:
“To say that they are necessary for our future is to say that we must be able to have recourse to them when the need is felt. When an unforeseen event or misfortune presents itself, we must be able to call upon the relevant true discourses in order to protect ourselves; they must be at our disposal within us.”
For many, marriage symbolizes a protected union that has ethical value through both social recognition and personal meaning. Regardless of the actual marriage, access to the possibility of marriage continues to be necessary for the creation of selfhood, the safeguarding of personal rights, and the protection of free will. The distinction between right or wrong, normal or pathological, is increasingly less relevant. Rather, the governing dialectic is more about freedom versus violence. Will the government protect our attempts to become ethical subjects and thus acknowledge our freedom of consciousness and self-expression? Or will it fail to protect our right to imagine the same possibilities as any other persons, and thus violate our freedom of consciousness and of choice?
Campbell, Joseph. 2002/1951. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the mythological dimension: New World Library.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline & Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1994. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press.
Rabinow, Paul. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.
Szasz, Thomas. 2001. Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America. Westport: Praeger.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).