Saturday, March 9, 2013

Some Thoughts on Freedom

Polygamy is illegal because it is against the doctrines of Christianity. In a culturally Christian culture we still haven’t got as far as challenging that particular bit of orthodoxy. Its time will come. In any case, it no longer matters much. Marriage has become, as it should be, a private arrangement, which people enter into how they wish and when they wish. It is only if you want to be recognised by the state that it will take any notice of you at all, but if you wish to share your life with someone of the opposite sex, or the same sex, or several of each, or three men and a goat, the state will not bother you much. It is one of the very few areas where state interference has decreased in recent years. It is true that you will not get official permission except for some of these arrangements, but it matters little. It mattered when the government and your neighbours would make your life a misery if your lifestyle wasn’t sanctioned by the right paperwork, but that is now no longer the case in Britain. Therefore polygamy is not illegal. It’s true there is no form for it, but there is nothing to stop you living with as many people as you want, in whatever sexual and social arrangement you choose. Some of your neighbours might still purse their lips, and the Daily Mail will encourage them to throw manure at you, but they won’t dare, as they no longer feel courage in numbers.

Similar considerations apply to business hours, particularly Sunday trading. Hours of commerce are restricted for reasons which have largely been forgotten, but it is still difficult to change the rigidly followed traditions. Trade, fortunately, is flexible, and the trader has found ways to give his customers what they want when they want it, even if the Vicar or the Councillor are not happy about it.

I made similar remarks when Theodore Dalrymple stated tangentially that we are quite right to forbid public necrophilia. I don't know whether we do in fact forbid it, it's quite possible no one has ever thought to make it illegal. But if it is illegal it is not because we are right to ban it but because there is no one who cares about it. If there were an underground interest in it, growing slowly, taking advantage maybe of increasing public and institutional acceptance of sex, we would be having a quite different argument. And we probably would be wrong to ban it, though ban it we certainly would.

The prohibition of the burqa/niqab is a matter of freedom or oppression depending on what its prohibition is intended to achieve, or will in fact achieve. If Muslim women in Britain are forced to wear it against their will, by their husbands, then a prohibition will make it much harder for men to force women to hide from life and the world. If, on the other hand, Muslim women choose freely to express/obey the tenets of their faith/culture, then a prohibition restricts their freedom for no reason and so is wrong. The question, then, is how do we know what we are trying to respond to, and how do we establish numbers, percentages, proportions, and sort out the mess of overlapping desires/beliefs/decrees/impositions to arrive at something fair and just?

I think the answer is we don’t. If a woman who does not want to cover her face is forced to do so by her husband, she has the same recourse in law as other abused women, if she so considers herself. If there are cultural difficulties which make it unusually difficult for her to take advantage of those laws, there are people who could work to overcome those obstacles. To prohibit women from wearing a particular kind of dress is, it would appear, wrong.

The assumption always seems to be that no woman would wear a niqab/burqa if she were not forced to do so, but this is almost certainly not true.

Religious freedom is not a special kind of freedom that only religious people have, it is just freedom. Freedom of religion is freedom of belief, is freedom of opinion, is freedom of speech, is freedom full stop. They are all the same thing, and we all want to have them.

It annoys me when people defend the freedom of others to hold and profess their own beliefs, and then have to add, ‘however absurd/irrational’. It is a little tick which betrays an unreflecting sense of the superiority of their own reason to that of people who don’t agree with them. It is not unnatural, of course. Most of us believe that being right, according to our own lights, makes us better than those who are wrong, but the middle of an argument in defence of freedom is the wrong place to express that feeling. A small point, but there you are.

Puritans always follow the orthodoxy. What makes them feel good is knowing the crowd is behind them as they stop other people having fun, or freedom. The exact same types who are now trying to ban tobacco, alcohol, food, sugar were using the same arguments to attack homosexuals fifty years ago. Certainly some people find the smell of tobacco unbearably unpleasant or the presence of drunk people frightening or they have seen their brother die a horrible death after smoking forty a day for twenty years, but most seem to be are motivated largely by the desire to stop other people from doing what they want.


Vincent said...

I think I understand your concept of freedom a lot better now, and I think I don't buy into it at all.

Given that we live in an overlapping plurality of communities and value systems today, it's important to understand the purpose of rules.

If there are no rules, to govern such things as modes of speech, dress, behaviour and so on, we don't have the comfort of shared decent behaviour.

As you say, religious freedom is not a special kind of freedom, it is just freedom. But freedom doesn't make any sense as a starting point. Freedom only acquires meaning as freedom from rules.

As I get older I see that the rules around me have changed, and in many ways this causes me discomfort. I don't like certain aspects of speech, sexual behaviour and dress. Modern comedians, girls wearing clothes so skimpy you'd think they were prostitutes. But these are just examples and they don't matter. They simply mean I'm no longer a member of certain communities of the like-minded. In a plural society I can usually find a community that thinks as I do, whose members value the same kinds of restraint.

For every in-group there is the possibility of an out-group which takes the consequences of not being in the in-group. And to be in the in-group you also face consequences, because you have to accept its rules.

I live in a mainly Pakistani Muslim area (80-90%, I'm in the epicentre, 50 yards from the main mosque). Women encased in black with just the slit for eyes are rare, but it's clear from their body language that they wear it with defiant glee, because it leaves them free. They can wear alluring eye-makeup and don't have to drop their eyes modestly to the ground. I think they feel much more liberated than their dowdy sisters in drab scarves and traditional modest clothes. They seem to look and feel like snappy dressers. They return my interested gaze without inhibition.

As a natural outcast from every conceivable group I shall challenge any cliché when it suits me, and defend the right of any in-group to limit the freedom of its members!

CIngram said...

My concept of freedom (which I probably don't understand very well myself, but insofar as I'm able to articulate it), is approximately that I want to know why my freedom is being restricted in any particular way. I often ask the same question about other people's freedom as well, because I'm not entirely selfish, although I ask it about others in a more abstract sense, whereas I ask it about myself viscerally.

The reason I ask the question constantly is that it has become very clear to me that people love restricting the freedom of others for no reason at all. When they have nothing to gain from it, possibly no one at all has anything to gain, certainly not me, even though it might be done 'for my own good'. This doesn't mean that I can't recognise and respect limits on my own actions which I wouldn't otherwise impose upon myself. I don't tend to join groups (this was not always true), but when I do I know that the group will limit my freedom. If I can choose whether to join, and decide whether what the group does together is worth having it tell me what to do in some areas, then I don't complain. To accept a limit on your freedom to gain something else (company, an activity that must be shared, trade, peace) is not the same as uncritically accepting any limitation anyone wants to visit upon you.

It is too easy to convince people in a group of the necessity for something 'for the good of society/the people/some nebulous abstract that is irrelevant to the case.' Communist Germany, among others, managed to make people accept that it was necessary to build a wall around them and shoot them if they tried to escape 'for the good of the revolution', or some such thing. History and geography are full of examples of rules imposed upon, or invented by and accepted by societies which a short time later they, or their neighbours, recognised as being absurd or inhuman. The point is that it is very hard to judge what these rules are really for, whether they are actually benficial, and most people don't even try.

The people who make the rules usually do it for their own ends. Even when their intentions are benign, it is nearly always the case that the ultimate good, appealed to as a reference to justify the need for some rule or action, is an abstract derived from, but then divorced from, the people it is supposed to represent, and it often ends up as an end in itself, whose good is opposed to or at least very different from, the good of the people it was supposed to benefit, and who might well have created it themselves originally.

I feel a post coming on. And please keep challenging clichés!

Vincent said...

We inhabit different experiential landscapes.

Coincidentally I read the latest post from my MP. We haven't met face-to-face, but I respect him greatly. Now he recommends a book by Ayn Rand, whom I hate. But you may be interested in what he has to say:

CIngram said...

Thanks for the link.

'We inhabit different experiential landscapes.'

Indeed we do, and it makes things much more interesting. I hate being told what to do, a revulsion that comes from my childhood, which I spend trying to do things I wasn't allowed to and trying to avoid other things that I was made to do. A perfectly normal childhood, I suppose, in most ways, but it left me with the determination to make my own mistakes once I was old enough (I have done so very feely over the years).

I am also not very sociable. I enjoy the company of family and friends, but I don't seek it and I don't usually miss it if I don't have it. I don't feel the need to be part of something.