What Sartre Means to an Iranian Democracy Activist

What Sartre Means to an Iranian Democracy Activist January 2, 2015

We like many western philosophers here in Iran. We as democracy activists have been looking at western philosophers as a source of inspiration for ages. It might be Montesquieu or Popper or Locke or Foucault or John Stuart Mill or Isiah Berlin, but if I have to guess no other philosopher has been as influential and as widely read by multiple generations of Iranians as much as the existentialists, and none of them as much as Jean-Paul Sartre.

jean-paul-sartre

And I think this is no coincidence. Few other philosophers’s thoughts are so miraculously Iranian – few of them seem to be directly talking to a repressed nation under a repressed regime, few of them seem to have looked so squarely at our ailments and had written a prescription we sorely needed.

I guess this is true because the notion of freedom in the way that was theorized by him is the only kind of freedom we might have. Freedom as conceptualized by Sartre is a concept many people criticize, as they call it unrealistic. As I understand Sartre, he never meant to be realistic. And whether he meant to or not, I believe Sartre’s ideas are very useful not as ways to describe reality but as attitude – attitude we need to nourish in our own, a mental fortification, a manner of defining ourselves in the world.

This is a summary of Sartre’s views on the concept of freedom:

For Sartre (chapter 1, Part Four), each agent is endowed with unlimited freedom. This statement may seem puzzling given the obvious limitations on every individual’s freedom of choice. Clearly, physical and social constraints cannot be overlooked in the way in which we make choices. This is however a fact which Sartre accepts insofar as the for-itself is facticity. And this does not lead to any contradiction insofar as freedom is not defined by an ability to act. Freedom is rather to be understood as characteristic of the nature of consciousness, i.e. as spontaneity. But there is more to freedom. For all that Pierre’s freedom is expressed in opting either for looking after his ailing grandmother or joining the French Resistance, choices for which there are indeed no existing grounds, the decision to opt for either of these courses of action is a meaningful one. That is, opting for the one of the other is not just a spontaneous decision, but has consequences for the for-itself. To express this, Sartre presents his notion of freedom as amounting to making choices, and indeed not being able to avoid making choices.

Sartre’s conception of choice can best be understood by reference to an individual’s original choice, as we saw above. Sartre views the whole life of an individual as expressing an original project that unfolds throughout time. This is not a project which the individual has proper knowledge of, but rather one which she may interpret (an interpretation constantly open to revision). Specific choices are therefore always components in time of this time-spanning original choice of project. (Source)

I’d like to begin my own argument about why this mentality is so useful with this quote by Sartre himself that I love so much and to me summarizes Sartre on liberty:

We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our suppressors wanted us to accept. And because of all this we were free. Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles. Because we were hunted down, everyone of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment. (Source)

To me this describes Iran. Of course, I don’t mean to say that our situation is as bad as the situation of Germans under the Nazis, we differ in degrees a lot. But in essence, this is our situation. And also the only form of freedom we can get. While I love John Stuart Mill and Isiah Berlin more than Sartre, we can’t have their type of freedom, that’s merely a distant dream in the future, an aspiration and nothing more.

But we are free in the same way that Sartre describes here. Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. Are you kidding me? I’d say my whole life has been a quest to make people believe in the truth – whether the lies were spread by the shameless 1984ian propaganda machine of the regime or its communist/royalist/whatever opposition, I’d say the struggle for a correct Iranian history is the most important one.

Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles. Because we were hunted down, everyone of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment. Again, few other countries other than Iran so forcefully exhibit this truth.

Because of the regime’s dress code, every woman who walks with a scarf half pulled over head, every bit of a woman’s arm or every too tight pants are not merely a choice of clothing but a political statement, a defiance. Because of the heavy atmosphere of censorship and repression every time we log on to Facebook with our anti-filtering proxy or turn our illegal satellite to watch the BBC, every time we download a movie from a torrent site, every time we go to a party and dance, every time we fall in love, every time we smoke pot and drink alcohol, we are sending a message to the regime, that we are free.

We are sending that message not only to the regime but to ourselves as well.

And ultimately the regime has failed to create the society it wanted to create. The type of people the regime likes are still in the minority, and the regime has failed to dress women the way it wants and to dictate our lifestyles the way it wants. We are free. We are free because we choose to be free – because we turn every small personal space we have into a conquest.

And that I think is very crucial to the idea of reform as well. People mistakenly call Sartre a radical, in the sense that he was advocating a very impossible view of liberty. I think of him more as dramatic than radical. The gist of his views is that no matter how dire your situation, you’re still free, and responsible for your choices.

We can say “but I never chose to be oppressed”, but you can choose to how face your oppression.

You have no control or very limited control over the world around you. But you have control over how you face it. You are free in that regard. And how you react to the world is more important than what the world does to you. Your lived experience is what shapes you. That matters more than anything else.

So Sartre is not really saying “stop whining your oppression isn’t real”, he’s saying “how you live your life is more important than your oppression”, and he’s right.

That’s what we do. They wanted to make their own version of Islamic utopia, but we dressed immodestly and consumed western pop culture, they failed. They wanted to make the (faint small) democratic aspect of the regime disappear, we poured into streets for two years and then elected Rouhani. They failed. They wanted to turn Khamenei to a saint, they failed. Iranian society, independent of the Iranian regime, is visibly moving towards a more progressive mentality. Fundamentalists change mind in rapid numbers.

Our lived experience will be remembered. We didn’t let the regime define us. We chose.

When Sartre says “you have a choice no matter how dire your situation”, we already know of our dire situation, so we listen to the “you have a choice” part, and we know it’s true, and we know we need to grasp it.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi – the imprisoned leader of the Green Movement and the namesake of my pseudonym – once said “We as Iranians always have a choice, and that choice is to remain hopeful”. Hope has always been Mousavi’s keyword. To me ultimately Mousavi and Sartre are sending the same message. It’s all about attitude. And as long as we don’t lose hope, the regime has not won.

Because that’s what the regime wants to kill. They wanted to kill it in those horrifying years of 2009-2013 and they want to kill it now. They want us to give up. And as long as we don’t give up they haven’t won. And we give up not in the world but inside our head.

In 1984 George Orwell wrote: “Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” And Sartre would say so you still have the most important thing. You are still free.

Personally speaking, if not for the attitude I feel I owe to Sartre when I read his works as a teenager, (and then reread many times later as an adult), I don’t think I would have bothered to run an atheist blog in English. But blogging on Patheos is one freedom that I do have, so I may as well grasp the hell out of it. Blogging to many might mean anything. To me it means that I’m free.


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