Universal Burdens : Stories of (Un)Freedom from the Unitarian Universalist Association, The MOVE Organization, and Taqwacore

University dissertation from Lund University

Abstract: Zen Buddhists have long given the following advice to attain liberation: “Eat when you’re hungry. Sleep when you’re tired.” In other words: “Freedom” is the “knowledge of necessity” (Hegel, Marx, and Engels). Early Islamic communities dealt with the challenge of internal warfare and tyranny and concluded that, “sixty years of tyranny is better than one day’s anarchy.” In other words, the worst-case scenario is a war “of every man against every man,” (Thomas Hobbes) and all theories of statecraft are built upon that premise. Ever since the dawn of colonialism, indigenous peoples have been struggling for self-determination. Many, such as Comanche thinker Parra-Wa-Samen, lived and died for the right to move across a land without state or borders. In other words, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (Patrick Henry). How is it then that an English textbook could possibly focus on “freedom” as a universal value and simultaneously exclude all non-European traditions and perspectives? Why should conversations about “freedom” begin with Hegel, Hobbes, and Henry rather than the earlier examples of Zen, Islam, and indigenous peoples? If “freedom” concerns everybody then do not the conversations in academia about “freedom” by scholars (as well as rising economists, planners, and politicians) affect everybody? If democratic inclusivity entails the demand that all people affected by decisions are to be included in those very decision-making processes then contemporary academia has a problem when talking about “freedom.” In selling the term “freedom” as a universally applicable but uniquely European (and sacrosanct) idea most of the planet has been excluded from these conversations. This means that control over the idea and how it is interpreted has been determined by a very narrow range of persons, from the mid-1600s to mid-1900s: almost exclusively white, male, heterosexual, property-owning, able-bodied, and, not uncommonly, racist. This thesis argues that the problem goes deeper than white supremacy and patriarchy and cannot be resolved with quota systems to ensure inclusion on the basis of race or gender. Instead, the problem is two-fold: (1) dominant conceptions of “freedom,” as the opposite of “slavery,” “tyranny,” or “constraint,” are seen here as bound to a mentality and language of domination, and (2) “freedom,” as a central value in social orders, perpetuates white supremacy and patriarchy. Focus on “freedom” contra “unfreedom” obscures, disguises, or denies those “unfreedoms” upon which “freedom” is necessarily bound. Once those “unfreedoms” are exposed or recognized (whether violence, obligation, responsibility, dependency and interdependency, equality and inequality, needs, justice, limitations, etc.) the conversations about “freedom” can be spoken in a language that all cultures can understand in order to participate as equal parties. Toward these ends, this dissertation engages in stories from three contemporary empirical contexts in the U.S.: the Unitarian Universalist Association, the MOVE Organization, and taqwacore. Through a blend of text analysis, ethnography, storytelling, and personal experience, the purpose of this thesis is to imagine what more inclusive conversations might look like. Using the term (un)freedom to transcend the false binary of “freedom” and “unfreedom,” three potential types of (un)freedom are conceived to further the aim of democratic inclusivity: Negotiating the Limits of Language, Shouldering Incalculable Responsibility in Community, and Feeling an Obligation to Challenge Injustice.