Saturday, December 8, 2012

On Freedom Again (Part 1)

Oh God, here we go again. What is freedom, and why does it matter? No, stop there. What is freedom? That’s a big enough question on its own for a Friday afternoon.

Why ‘should’ that bloke be allowed to make bad jokes about a dead girl? Why ‘should’ that Muslim be allowed to wish that British soldiers would die and burn in Hell? It is not immediately obvious that it is in our interests, or in some sense ‘right’, to accept, as a matter of principle, that others may think and say what they wish.

In any case, ‘accept’ does not mean ‘cravenly refrain from all reaction’. It means that our reaction should be constrained to expressing our own thoughts in the matter. We are perfectly entitled, indeed to some extent we are obliged (with freedom comes responsibility, and that responsibility can pertain not only to the person who exercises freedom, but also to the one who allows it to be exercised), to respond to positions and ideas we disagree with and dislike. We are entitled to attack, dissect, analyse, dismiss, the position of someone we disagree with, to attempt to prevent others from being influenced by it and to mitigate the harm we think it might do.

In other words, we are entitled to talk to each other about our ideas and beliefs, to exchange opinions and to persuade.

Why should we not try to forcibly prevent people from saying, or believing, things of which we disapprove? There are clearly two arguments to be made, one moral, one practical. The history of humanity- and doubtless its future as well- is full of the gruesome wreckage of attempts to stop people thinking things that somebody doesn’t like. One of the most basic lessons of history, a lesson still unlearnt by many people, and largely ignored by those who can obtain power, is that people who are free in a number of important ways live happier, longer, more satisfactory lives. Deprive them of that freedom and you deprive them of that happiness, comfort, satisfaction, and in the end of life itself. Who are you to do that?

Why is it right to shut people up, by force, or more commonly to bully others into doing it, because we don’t like what they say. It is very tempting to remove from our presence things we dislike, and so we find ways to justify doing so. We create notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and we attribute them to something greater than ourselves, ‘God’ or ‘our humanity’ or some such thing, to invest them with an authority which we ourselves do not have. In doing so we are still savages throwing rocks at the neighbours for coming too close, but more rational, nobler savages.

The freedom of others is our own freedom. If we recognise and defend the freedoms of others, we expect some kind of reciprocity. If we recognise and defend the freedoms of people we dislike to do things we disapprove of, we place a value of that freedom which is more than the value we can obtain from it, we state that it has intrinsic value greater than, independent of, the benefit we, personally, may extract from it.

On the other hand, stopping people from hearing something someone says, by force or abuse of authority, is not considered good by those who believe in freedom.

If we like the rule of law, and it seems to be good thing, there needs to be clarity in definition and interpretation. Many people will disagree about what a specific law should say, but on the whole we like them to exist. They keep other people in check, and we know what consequences our actions are likely to have. (Legal consequences. I assume we are sufficiently socially competent to know how people around us might react to the things we say and do. They are also likely to be limited, whereas the state has long arms, great patience and a thirst for blood.)


Vincent said...

I'm going to respond to this in a very old-fashioned Englishman's terms, which would not be out of place from the lips of the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, alias the steely & efficient Scarlet Pimpernel.

I would say you cannot make the world a better place by fiddling with the idea of freedom. The most important thing is a general shared sense of decency. When that becomes too weak, we can't plug the breaches with more laws, or more freedoms.

The sense of decency is a kind of flower of civilization. It cannot be reduced to a formula.

Perhaps what I've said above would fall apart in debate, but it's something to live and die for, all the same.

(Meanwhile, the Scarlet Pimpernel continues his anonymous vocation of saving more French aristocrats from the guillotine, and whatever other good works he performs - can't remember 'cause it's sixty years since I read anything by the Baroness Orczy.)

CIngram said...

Of course I wouldn't argue that if we all recognised and lived by a shared code of decency England and the world would be better places than the are. It is something to aspire to in ourselves, and to attempt to inculcate in others. We should all have a duty to ourselves and to the world we live in to be better than we are, and to help others understand this.

However, I have no idea how this might be achieved. We can work towards it, in tiny stages, with those we meet every day, but a broader plan with some chance of success I really can't devise.

Freedom is something different. The reason I bang on about freedom is that it needs to be kept in the minds of the powerful. Decency is a personal thing, which we choose to have or have not, but freedom can easily be taken away from us by others. They need to know why they shouldn't. And there is a kind of formula for it. It needs to be rationalised, expressible in words that make sense, and constantly repeated. 'We' need to show that we understand it and value it.

The audience for our requests for decency are those around us. The audience for our demands for freedom are those who have the power to take it away. That is, I think, the difference.

Of course, if everyone were decent, we wouldn't have to worry about how people used their freedom, so if we could have both freedom and general decency we would be living in a world that, probably, and sadly, has never existed.