The Cost of Freedom

Most of us ride the currents of values instilled in us through our environment. These forces, already in motion at the time we are born, are the substance of what we see as our identity… they shape how we see ourselves and the world around us — but is it really fair to say that we are these things which were installed by our culture and circumstance? Is it possible to see through the veil of cultural ideologies and make genuine choices that are not merely a reflection of the notions we were exposed to? The answer is yes, but not without enormous effort. Most of us don’t even recognize the fog we’re in. We see ourselves as self-aware and quite capable of free-will decision making when this is not the case for many of us.

The definition of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior differs wildly from one culture to another. Males of the Murut tribe of northern Borneo once sincerely believed that cutting the head off an individual was a natural and acceptable part of the preparation for marriage. As part of the culture, some of the men carried decorated baskets in which to put the head they planned to cut off.

Different headhunter tribes of Borneo and other places had different beliefs and rituals surrounding the practice of severing heads. Some communities on the Upper Fly River of Papua New Guinea also practiced cannibalism.[1] Some tribes held other beliefs such as those that considered the jawbone a protection charm. Some cultures used headhunting as part of a naming ritual for the children that were born into the tribal community.

The practice of headhunting in Borneo was largely abandoned as of the late 20th century because of influences from other cultures.[2] The main point here is that behaviors are viewed in the context of how they are valued within a specific culture. Behaviors that are seen as horrendous in one culture can be viewed as justified, admirable, natural, and otherwise having high value within another culture. What we come to accept, expect and value is powerfully influenced by the relational environment we develop in. This development of cultural norms effect takes place in large scales in communities, nations and regions and on smaller scales in families, intimate relationships and on personal levels.

The adoption of values, even destructive ones as “normal” and “acceptable” is not a unique phenomenon among tribal cultures. It is in fact common to us all. In some cultures dogs are viewed as companions, in other cultures they are viewed as food. Once a specific practice such as the consumption of dogs as food is established, efforts to ban it by other cultures can be viewed as an “attack” on the culture.[3]

It is possible to be horrified at the practices of certain Japanese soldiers, headhunters or those that eat dogs because of cultural bias while at the same time ignoring very similar behaviors practiced within one’s local culture. Social acceptance of behaviors is applied to what would otherwise be viewed as savage or immoral simply because they take place within the context of what we become accustomed to.

Some cultures perform live vivisections on animals for the purpose of medical or product research, education and so on.[4] Still other forms of live dissection, decapitations and other forms of execution without anesthesia are performed, not for research, but for food[5] or as punishment.[6] In some cases industrial farm chickens are raised in concentrated quarters, crated and shipped to slaughter houses where they are shackled by the feet, semi paralyzed in an electrified salt water solution as their heads are dunked in upside down. The chicken’s necks are slashed, they are sent through a bleed out tunnel alive, (so the heart continues to pump blood as they die) then they are dipped in semi scalding water. Some of the chickens flail in agony so much during this process that they have been reported to have “broken bones and disfigured and missing body parts because they’ve struggled so much in the tank”.[7]

Many of us happily feast on the dismembered carcasses of this “product” of what might be considered low quality living conditions followed by brutal slaughter, as part of what we simply consider a balanced diet. It is not uncommon in cultures acclimated to this practice to accept it without much thought for the creature, or the fate it suffered. Advertisers will produce images of the dismembered corpses adorned with colorful garnishes and prominently place these images in public view. The acceptance of rituals and beliefs associated with cultures that embrace factory farming is viewed as cruel and appalling by a certain subset of vegan[8] culture and animal rights activists[9], among others. The acceptance or rejection of behaviors within any given culture is defined by the standards for truth within that culture. Our standards for truth are often built on past and present accidents of association that influence our individual and group identity.[10] This standard of tradition as the legitimizing factor for what we see as truth is not reliable with respect to what nourishes us to our fullest potential. If we do not question the enculturation process by which we acquire values and behaviors that are deemed appropriate in our local culture we may be limited to the experiences driven by those values. In the absence of vision that transcends our developmental environment we become slaves to the experiences spawned by this lack of vision.

What we see as true is the foundation for how we value the events that we are exposed to. These values influence our experience of life. Sometimes the standards we use for truth amount to longstanding misinterpretations of how life is actually nourished and satisfied to its full potential. These interpretations and their subsequent behaviors may or may not have a causal relationship to what actually satisfies us. It does not matter if we sincerely believe, and passionately defend our perspective; reality sets the standard for how relationships contribute to our experience of life.

Without a serious probing of the environmental values that have shaped our world view these forces will drive our experience of life and we will have no real freedom.

[1] American Anthropologist Volume 54, Issue 2 Page 221.

[2] It is thought that there was a relatively small reemergence in the late 20th, early 21st century due to ethnic violence in Borneo. It is also possible that other Mexico’s drug gangs which also use the beheading technique presumably as an act of control and vengeance. For more information see the article by Tim Johnson in McClatchy News April 1, 2010: “Why are beheadings so popular with Mexico’s drug gangs?”

[3] See the article by Anthony L. Podberscek “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea” in the Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2009. (Page 615) Also see: “Some Head Hunting Traditions of Southern New Guinea” By Justis M. Van Der Kroef

[4] See “The Ethics of research involving animals”, Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Section 1.6. Also see “Vivisection in Historical Perspective” by Nicolaas A. Rupke, Routledge Kegan & Paul 1987

[5] For more information on the food industry as it stands in the early 21st century read “Animal Factory” by David Kirby. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

[6] For more information read “Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture” by Karen Farrington. Smithmark Publishing, New York, New York, 1996

[7] There are various methods of slaughter used. This is just a typical method used in industrial farming of the early 21st century. Source information from United Poultry Concerns,

[8] Vegans do not to use or consume animal products of any kind. This is sometimes for perceived health reasons, ethics, or both. According to the Vegan Society,, “veganism” denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.

[9] Along with traditional organizations that defend the rights of animals not to be subjected to abuse, there are also those that suggest we have no right to dominate other animals in any way. Animal rights culture has emerged over time. There is a move in the early 21st century by scientists to have dolphins declared non-human persons. See the Sunday Times article by Jonathan Leake January 3, 2010 “Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons”.

[10] For an example of how the influence of individuals and cultures works on the development of identity read “The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South” by John W. Blassingame. New York: Oxford University Press 1979.


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