San Francisco and the Paradox

Jones and Sutter. San Francisco, 2015.

Going to San Francisco is a pilgrimage. Some do it for its reputation of freedom, others for greed, and most of them do it in order to avoid freezing to death while homeless. Walking its streets and wandering around the whole Bay Area is submerging oneself in a paradox.

Isaiah Berlin famously spoke about negative and positive freedom and San Francisco seems like an ideal place to ponder about these concepts. Berlin wrote about the struggles, complexities and paradoxes contained in freedom —when he spoke about the negative one he did so because the concept was about the absence of something (obstacles to do whatever the person wants), while the positive variety obeyed to the presence of something (the moral strengths requires for self-determination). This can be illustrated with a father who also happens to be a junkie. He is free to walk around the street in any direction he desires, and he knows that he ought to walk in the direction of the school because his kid is about to leave and needs to be picked up because he is too young to be by himself, but, simultaneously, he is not walking there because he is prisoner of an addiction and is heading to a different direction where there is a dealer selling the drug to which he is addicted.

When writing about the paradoxes and slippery slopes interplaying these concepts, Berlin illustrated it by the duality of on one hand a higher self capable of moral action and responsibility, and on the other hand a lower self who is irrational and captured by damaging desires which are in conflict with the prior persona. So, Berlin continues, freedom could be perceived as the state in which the higher self is in control and not a slave of the lower self, which logically goes on to say that there are individuals who are more rational than others, and who, by extension, know what is in the best interest of the less rational ones. Liberation, in such a line of reasoning, could be when the higher selves force the lower selves to be free of their passions. Berlin said that such a view was proper of totalitarian states, where the higher self was extrapolated to the collectivity, and he was unto something. Of course, the opponents of Berlin’s view on the contradictions and dangers contained in the duality of freedom, argued that there is not a necessary relation between freedom and desire. Such arguments, mostly in the negative freedom camp (mostly liberals), said that since freedom is being externally unopposed to do things, one can be free to do what one does not desire —which created yet another paradox, i.e. if freedom is not having obstacles to pursue one’s desire, then one could reduce unfreedom by desiring fewer things one is unfree to do.

Mind bending, isn’t it?

I won’t draw conclusions just yet for this is a real philosophical minefield. The contradictions are plenty. San Francisco area is full of former nerds and outcasts who are now the 1%, making them popular and trendy, but the acceptance is very much to the extent of success and, ironically, success is measured both by acquisitive power and popularity. Nowhere else is the world I have seen so many homeless people around such affluent areas and around heavily venture capital-funded tech companies’ buildings, and weed consumption and easygoing behavior are very much tolerated (and celebrated!) unless, of course, a homeless person is the one involved. Everybody seems to make so much effort in being rebellious and different than diversity is now the norm and originality has given way to authenticity. Ironically, after the Pride Parade, which celebrates tolerance and inclusion, the street party was involuntarily divided in 3 areas, one with salsa music mostly dominated by Hispanics, one playing hiphop in which the majority were blacks, and the rave-like one for whites. And if one wants to fit in and make friends, it is very much expected that conversations circle around acceptable topics and with acceptable opinions. For all the effort involved in being different… everybody seemed to end up looking the same.