Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Freedom is...?


If I review everything I did yesterday I find all of it was dictated by what I’ve done before. From making the morning tea to reading a few pages of my Kindle in bed at night, none of it was original. Nothing - not a single activity. We imitate others, we imitate what we’ve done before and that is virtually all life has to offer.

So where is the freedom?

For libertarians it may be the equivalent of farting in church, but let us suggest that freedom is merely an ideal. It doesn’t exist, we can’t measure it and it has hardly any unambiguous characteristics. Outside extreme repression we don’t really know what freedom is.

What we mostly experience is not freedom but repression, yet repression merely narrows the scope of imitation. Speed limits may reduce the freedom of some drivers to imitate each other by driving as fast as they can. For other drivers that is no great loss because they don’t want to end up in a mangled wreck. One might say that their freedom is enhanced by speed limits.

As an ideal it has its uses but freedom is the freedom to imitate. As imitation is virtually all we do, we don’t notice our freedoms but do notice when they are infringed and even then the loss is rarely unambiguous. All terribly obvious of course but too often we avoid the consequences of how terribly obvious it is. There are consequences.

Growing up

Watching our grandchildren grow up is both a delight and, in the background, a worry. In spite of too many tragic exceptions, the modern world nurtures its children as never before. At least in the developed world. Which is as it should be but behind the nurturing is something not so good connected with personal freedom and micro-managed behaviour.

We stand here on the sidelines and on the whole everything seems fine, the grandchildren are a credit to their parents. But -

Every now and then events pop up which throw a different light on all this nurturing compared to our distant and older version of what nurturing should be. Modern kids have to be careful what they say as well as being careful about what they do - more so than in our day. Or rather, they have to be careful in different ways, careful about whom they imitate.

It is not only swearing, insolence or threatening behaviour but anything where some official could have a finger pointed in their direction. And teachers are officials with a watchful eye on political correctness and anything even remotely connected with safety or causing offence and all the consequences those dread words now imply. Teachers must imitate the mood of the times.

From the sidelines schools seem to be both more and less tolerant than they were. When it comes to controlling behaviour they seem to have replaced corporal punishment with endless psychological pressure. In this sense they are not at all tolerant, not even as tolerant as they were a few decades ago. They do not tolerate even accidental childish slips, but exert endless psychological pressures on physical and verbal behaviour.

The trouble is, although many try one cannot easily compare today with yesterday. Social trends have to run their course and for all anyone knows this kind of pressure on youngsters may lead to a more relaxed and socially capable culture. It seems repressive because it is, but so was the cane, sitting up straight and chanting multiplication tables. So was war. So were the mills. So were the mines.

That’s the problem with freedom. Promoting it as an ideal is fine, but apart from the extremes assessing it in real life is beyond our capabilities. Those who value freedom seem to be convinced that they know what it is. They don’t. Nobody does in an absolute sense - in a sense where we know how to move from more to less or less to more. Apart from extreme repression or outright anarchy that is not so easy.

Free speech

As with almost all of us I like to think I know something about freedom, but my knowledge was acquired in part because cultural notions of freedom change. I see the changes rather than the freedoms because over time the changes become visible. One form of repression morphs into another and the repression we see with clarity isn’t the version we grew up with, adapted to and hardly ever saw at all.

The freedoms we see most clearly are obviously free speech and it is this which has changed most dramatically during my lifetime. To my way of thinking, free speech is where our vital spark of creativity is kindled and it is this which is being stifled by political correctness.

Within the narrow bounds of polite society we cannot be socially creative and that means we cannot be economically or politically creative either. We cannot strive for better unless we are constantly comparing better with worse, unless better is allowed to evolve and worse is allowed to die out, unless ideas are also subject to the survival of the fittest.

Ultimately the suppression of free speech is a failure of social progress, a failure to experiment, a failure to test the boundaries of what can be said, what should be said and what may as well be left unsaid.

Ultimately the suppression of free speech will destroy us as we lose even the ability to say why it is destroying us along with the ability to suggest solutions. We may close our ears to it, but even the crudest vituperation has its uses. Yet the day is coming when we won’t know what those uses are and by then it will be too late to even know that it is too late.


Sam Vega said...

I'm not sure I get the main point here. If all we do is somehow constrained by what we did before, then surely this would apply to free speech as well. If what you are claiming is true, then when was speech ever really free? In the past we might not have been censored as effectively, but how many of us had anything new to say?

James Higham said...

Suppression of free speech - like Merkel watching FB for any sign of Islamophobia as a result of the rape and murder.

Sackerson said...

Agree with your nuanced approach, AK. Had a go at it myself a while back:

Demetrius said...

My old joke book now has all the pages ripped out.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I'm not sure either, but language seems to have the potential to be creative even when based on what has previously been said.

To my mind this creativity is where much of our freedom is to be found, but it is optional and easily constrained. I'm sure that's partly why we put such a high value on fine writing and poetry. The words are all familiar but sometimes something is created which wasn't quite there before and a light goes on which cannot easily be extinguished. From that point we imitate, but we have made progress.

Creativity and freedom seem to be linked, which is why the false creativity of Damien Hirst is so appalling.

James - yes and without free speech we are stuffed.

Sackers - I'll bookmark that and read it.

Demetrius - commit it to memory and hope for more relaxed times.