Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On Freedom Again (Part 3)

We use force all the time. We shout others down, we intimidate and cow them, we create authority for ourselves and exploit it. We take advantage of our size, strength, intelligence, obnoxiousness or whatever. It’s how we get on in the world. It’s how the world works. It’s how we are here at all. If we can’t do it we pretend that it’s a bad thing and try to get others to stop doing it. But we try to place limits on our use of force, and to reach collective agreement about how it can and cannot be used.

In Britain, and to a certain extent in these countries mentioned, and to a much greater extent in many of the miserable polities that still exist around the world, our freedom of ideas and expression are at the mercy and whim of others. In many places those in power will simply decide a posterior if they will let us get away with something or not, a decision which will depend on how they consider it might affect the solidity of their power. In Britain it will depend on the current interests of politicians, the need to hide something else, the desire to make an example, simple stupidity, and, of course, the size of the hysteria whipped up by the press for its own ends.

We should not imagine we have any solid defence against an accusation for something we said. The law does not protect us, and is not intended to protect us, not in Britain. It is intended to be flexible. Indeed, not just flexible but malleable, ductile, and slippery. It cannot be known in advance who may have to be thrown to the wolves, and who may need to be appeased, so you can’t tie your hands too much.

The irritating thing about this is that as often as not you end up defending the right of a bunch of shits to show themselves for what they are. But that is the price of freedom. You have to let other people have it, too.

Freedom of thought, opinion and speech are not the natural state of man. Our instinct is to prevent people from doing things we don’t like or understand, or from saying things we don’t want to hear. The fact that it is better for all of us to let the people we don’t want to hear speak, is a lesson learned slowly, and only by some of us. Those of us who value the right to have our own ideas, and not have to hide them from the government, recognise also that other people must be allowed the same privilege or it can’t function at all. It takes constant vigilance and constant effort to defend a situation which some of us understand to be good. 

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