The Handmaid’s Tale’s season ender comes out this week, and it couldn’t be timelier. Because as fictional as the Republic of Gilead is, the terror it presents feel real—too real, in fact, that it got me reflecting on what independence truly means, today of all days.
I remember a passage from chapter five of the Margaret Atwood novel from which the Hulu TV series is based on: “There’s more than one kind of freedom,” the handmaid Offred reflected. “Freedom to, and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. ‘Now, you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.’” This is what she was told at Gilead’s re-education center, where the reformer “Aunts” try to convince Handmaids that their status as sex slaves/breeders who don’t have their own money but are physically looked after by the state is a good one.
Offred then recalls her life before Gilead, when she was still recognized as June Osborne—mother, wife, friend, daughter—and was free to practice her civil rights: the right to find employment, to own property, to have a family, and to have agency over her body and her life. That freedom came at a price, though: “Women were not protected then. I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he’s the police; make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble; keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a Laundromat by yourself at night. I think about Laundromats [and] what I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money. Money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.”
Now, as she walks to and from her Commander’s home and the marketplace, she notes the kind of quietness that the new world order has created: “We walk along the same street… and no man on the street shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.”
Freedom to, freedom from. Expressed in these terms, the concept of independence takes on more gravitas and becomes more binding even as it is freeing. There’s always a trade-off, a responsibility attached to every liberty, which is something that people conveniently forget. Like when it comes to freedom of speech: We’re free to express incendiary opinions in public, but that doesn’t mean we’re free from other people making use of the same freedom to criticize and counter what we say. Freedom to exercise one’s civil rights doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, especially when we overstep boundaries and impinge on the rights of others. And when we support ideologies and policies that propose doing away with certain rights in the name of pursuing “peace and order,” like suspending the writ of habeas corpus and other forms of freedom from following due process, we shouldn’t be delusional and believe that we’d be exempt from this erasure.
This is what Serena Joy, one of the Wives in The Republic of Gilead, got to learn the hard way: As one of the early and vocal proponents of Gilead’s policies to subjugate women and take away their rights, she had thought that her role in the establishment of the new order would make her the exemption rather than the rule. Sooner rather than later, though, she finds herself limited by the oppressive theocracy she had helped put in place. In the end, she’s still just a Wife bearing the indignity of supporting a Handmaid in her home, a few rungs above the rest when it comes to power, but ultimately bound by the rules that keep all women down.
Serena Joy is a lot like Martial Law deniers and Marcos apologists, those who believe that an iron fist could run a country better. “Freedom from” is all they can focus on, even at the cost of “freedom to,” cherry-picking whatever fits their narrative from the stories of those who had lived under the Marcos dictatorship.
Among the younger deniers and apologists, the irony is real: their golden ideas about what Martial Law was like and what it did to the country skip over the fact that the avenues that allow them to spread their naïveté now wouldn’t have been possible under a dictatorship. They don’t seem to get that their freedom to log online and shut down anyone with an opinion contrary to theirs was made possible by those who had fought the government’s insistence on enforcing freedom from any dissenting thought.
Freedom to, freedom from—deciding which is better is not a matter of listing each column’s pros and cons and tallying their sums. The latter operates by limitation disguised as protection, and its danger lies in determining who decides what and how much to limit because it hands over power to only a very few.
“Freedom to,” on the other hand, is an expansion, but must also be tempered with the responsibility of ensuring that everyone else receives sufficient elbow room to move and grow. It’s responsible, self-actualizing liberty, not a free-for-all anarchy. We can all benefit from remembering this.