Happiness Poll — Freedom Of Choice

How free to be yourself do you feel in the Virgin Islands on a scale of 0 (completely oppressed) to 10 (free in a world without judgment)? (Submitted photo)

In 1844, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that freedom was the cause of anxiety. The concept of absolute freedom, the famously melancholy thinker implied, made people grasp for rules, boundaries, guardrails, and limits.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” Kierkegaard said in the snappy-titled book “The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin.”

Insightful as his words might be, they likely didn’t mean much to people trying to survive human bondage in the Danish West Indies.

That same year, the Copenhagen elite started discussing freeing the enslaved laborers from whom they’d acquired their great wealth and reflective leisure time. Three years later, they decided the children of enslaved people in their Caribbean islands would be born free. They pegged 1859 as a good year to emancipate everyone. But Virgin Islanders’ ancestors had other ideas and forced the Danes to do the right thing in 1848. There’s no record, that I know of, about how Kierkegaard felt on the subject.

Anxiety-inducing or not, the world happiness survey lists freedom to choose what you do with your life as one of six key elements of a happy or unhappy society, along with generosity, perception of corruption, healthy life expectancy, social support, and a country’s gross domestic product.

Choosing your profession, your leisure activities, your style of dress, and your general direction in life all lead to greater happiness, the researchers posit. The same for your ability to question authority, speak your mind, or choose not to participate.

“This also includes human rights,” the study authors wrote. “Inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights without discrimination.”

In other words, the down-presser man can appear as an abusively controlling person, oppressive laws and social norms, and literal chains.

Whatever the cause, the effect of limited availability of choice is a negative factor on the happiness scale.

General Buddhoe, the Fire Queens, Rothschild Francis, and the brave souls of the St. John slave revolt, all fought for freedom. What they considered oppression then and what we consider oppression now might differ in severity but both are valid.

While I like to think official discrimination is mostly a thing of the past in the United States, recent laws and court rulings targeting gender identity and women’s bodily autonomy have me concerned.

Off-the-books or mislabeled discrimination is pervasive too. These rules or policies are usually coated in terms like “protecting the children” or some such lie when they are really about protecting parents from having to explain issues they find uncomfortable. Laws that limit honest self expression can keep people from meaningful employment, from using the toilet that aligns with their gender, or simply feeling safe in their own skin. And if that isn’t trampling freedom I don’t know that is.

The freedom to go where they like is an issue for many people around the world. Those with U.S., U.K., and E.U. passports enjoy few restrictions on where they can travel without a visa — which can be difficult to obtain and expensive. Traveling on an Afghan or Sudanese passport is not as easy.

Then there are the obstacles confronting people with limited physical mobility or loss of a sense like sight. The Virgin Islands and the Caribbean as a whole must be very difficult for people in wheelchairs or dependent on a seeing-eye dog. They depend on laws ensuring fair access for all.

Then there’s our own mental slavery.

No matter where you come from or who you are, the most pervasive limit on freedom is likely located between your ears. Homophobia, male chauvinism, racism, and other maladies are real problems for both the perpetrators and victims. They bind the aggressor up in a feedback loop of badness where they’re victims of their own crimes.

I was tramping down the St. Thomas waterfront one bright, hot, and very, very loud J’ouvert morning with a couple thousand fabulous friends when I spied a guy on the roadside making a gun with his fingers. He pretended to shoot my buddies while making anti-gay slurs. There he was, at an event of absolute joy and carefree celebration, dredging up the worst of himself.

The Virgin Islands is a very permissive place in many ways but retains some odd taboos — secrets everyone knows but dare not speak. Silence, sadly, can lead to violence.

That said, we’re all eager, judgment-prone freedom limiters in some ways. I won’t pretend to condone swimwear on Main Street, for example. Bikinis are for the beach, says I.

The problem with defining freedom, as I see it, is our predicament as individuals in a group setting. Ironically, trapped alone on a deserted island may feel freeing to some people. When does personal liberty cause harm to others and when does societal control cause harm to the individual? What’s the sweet spot?

This whole topic can get a little weird quickly.

One of my favorite USVI talk radio hosts once refuted my claim that most people want others to see the world as they do, act as they act.

Not me, he said. The world would be a better place if everyone lived and let live like I do.

See, I said, you want the world to think as you think, do as you do.

It was a cheeky cheap shot. I know it.

Back on topic: On a scale of zero to 10, to what degree do you feel you have freedom of choice in the Virgin Islands? Are you dissatisfied (zero to 3) with your freedom to choose what you do with your life, somewhat satisfied with your freedom (4 to 6) or very satisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life (7 to 10)? Send your answers, as well as your island of residence or if you are a Virgin Islander living abroad to localtourist340@gmail.com.

Also, feel free to disagree with me. It’s cool and healthy.