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.
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.
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.
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
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.