Why We Can’t Talk About Freedom

It’s funny. Maybe its because I’m still ridiculously young, despite the complaints on behalf of my parents who think the cusp of 23 is entry into spinsterdom, but since 2001 the word ‘freedom’ has seemingly taken on a completely ambiguous, useless, uncensored meaning. Or rather, non-meaning. More so than ever before, in my own memory and consciousness, freedom became something completely intangible, both hated and completely numerical as defined by flags and fries .

I don’t remember it ever being like that before the entry into the new millennium. At least, again, not to such a ridiculous and superficial, alongside grossly manipulative, sense. As a kid, I couldn’t define to you freedom but I knew exactly what it was: something which fit along the lines of Isaiah Berlin’s two takes on liberty: Positive liberty dictates the freedom to “pursue and achieve willed goals; and also as autonomy or self-rule, as opposed to dependence on others” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Isaiah Berlin) while Negative liberty dictates freedom from “not being obstructed by others in doing whatever one might wish to do” (Law and Morality pg. 888). Negative liberty promotes the idea of opportunity and complete lack of interference on behalf of others (think Libertarianism) while Positive liberty promotes more of the idea that certain regulations of freedoms need to be put in place for there to be overall greater freedom (think Rousseau’s Social Contract). And hell yeah I use citations. Obviously I had no clue who Berlin was as an 8 year old, but clearly my brilliance knew no bounds of age and cerebral development.

The truth, however, is that freedom’s a tricky thing to discuss, or to even fathom completely. There have been several great attempts to really create broad frameworks for understanding ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’  – even those, however, ultimately leave many holes; much room for varied interpretations and several questions unanswered. We continue to discuss it as a core fundamental ‘value’ of our society without even having a proper grasp of what it means, what it implies and what it demands.

Despite that general murkiness that surrounds issues relating to freedom and liberty, we continue to treat the related concepts in completely black and white terms, specifically on issues related to speech and expression.

While I, as a writer, fully support freedom of expression and speech, I also support responsibility, respect and, perhaps most importantly, an awareness of realities, specifically those which reflect particular power relations and dynamics.

And that awareness is precisely what seems to be most strikingly missing in this never-ending discussion of the ever-flexible boundaries of freedom of expression and speech. There is a dominant perspective and understanding that compounds this general discussion that leaves ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ completely without restriction. The problem with this perspective and approach is that it denies and ignores the inherently restrictive nature of freedom and liberty, however we choose to define them.

Unrestricted freedom (defined without imposition of rules, laws, etc by oneself or another or a silent social contract) restricts freedom. It’s an age old line that many have probably heard, but bear with me and where I’m taking this. Negative liberty easily can impede, and often does, on Positive liberty. A classic example of this within the discussion of Freedom of Speech (which is considered a Negative liberty) is that of pornography which captures the essence of the issue of the unrecognized dynamics of power relations. Ronald Dworkin, Libertarian philosopher and lawyer extraordinaire, argued that to restrict pornographers from their ability to create pornography was a violation of the pornographer’s freedom of expression, thus a violation of his/her Negative liberty – his/her ability to do something without threat of obstruction.

Catherine MacKinnon and Charles Taylor took an issue with Berlin and Dworkin’s approach because while Dworkin, specifically for our discussion, certainly had a point in regards to the violation of the pornographer’s Negative liberty, he completely forgot Berlin’s second assertion of freedom – Positive liberty, the freedom to do something. While both Berlin and Dworkin adhered to Negative liberty (Libertarian) as their choice of terms within which ‘freedom’  could be defined, MacKinnon and Taylor focused primarily on the second concept of liberty.

MacKinnon, amongst her contemporaries, argued that pornography creates conditions which hinder and violate the freedom of all women to participate in society as equal members, both formally and informally. Pornography, albeit a legitimate form of expression in and of itself, both creates and reiterates sexual power relations which pervade beyond the privacy of one’s sexy-time in front of the computer. Images of sex, violence and the human body reinforce women, primarily, as a subjected sexual objects while simultaneously taking this commodification and dehumanization to a completely other level. This commodification and dehumanization is not necessarily explicit when it penetrates popular culture, mentality and personal and professional relationships. It can be, but it’s not always. In its implicitness, however, its nuanced character makes for more trouble than when it’s explicit.

[By the way, and I always reference this book because I think it does an awesome job of providing a very real take on modern sexual culture post-Feminist revolution and all that jazz, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture is a great book that surveys how pornography has come to take a handle on our current engagement with sexuality, women’s lib movement and general gender relations.]

Taylor specifically attacks Negative liberty on its ignorance of internal restraints which can hinder a person’s external freedom; Berlin and his Libertarian minions focus primarily on physical obstructions (i.e. the State) while completely ignoring obstructions which can come from within which hinder the achievement of self-realization and being completely free, such as fear, addictions, false consciousness and self-esteem issues. So, for instance, a medical school student can, given the stressed nature of her studies, become addicted to speed. This addiction then serves to act as an obstruction to her achievement of her goal of becoming a medical professional. Negative liberty – again, with Freedom of Speech and Expression falling under its guise – does not take internal obstacles into consideration. Positive liberty, on the other hand, does. Positive liberty allows for us to take into consideration both external and internal obstacles that may stand in the way of one achieving one’s goals and self-realization.

Taylor goes onto highlight differences which are placed within the various Negative liberties. In other words, some liberties seem to trump others – even though they are all important and fundamental freedoms in a liberal democratic society (which is what Berlin et al. advocated and wrote within the framework of). For instance, the right to religious expression and practice is treated more so as a fundamental core value than, say, freedom of mobility (i.e. traffic lights); “we make discriminations between more or less significant freedoms, based on discriminations among the purposes people have” (Law and Morality pg. 285).

We recognize that religion has been abolished in Albania, whereas it hasn’t been in Britain. But on the other hand there are probably far fewer traffic lights per head in Tirana than in London.[…] Suppose an apologist for Albanian socialism were nevertheless to claim that this country was freer than Britain, because the number of acts restricted was far smaller. After all, only a minority of Londoners practices some religion in public places, but all have to negotiate their way through traffic. Those who do practice religion generally do so on one day of the week, while they are held up at traffic lights every day. In sheer quantitative terms, the number of acts restricted by traffic lights must be greater than that restricted by a ban on public religious practice. So if Britain is considered a free society, why not Albania?

Thus what happens with pornography is that it creates both external and internal obstacles to self-realization. For both women and men. Men are given ridiculous standards and ideas of sex and women to expect, implicitly and explicitly, while women are given ridiculous standards and ideas of sex and themselves to live up to. And this is pervasive, not exclusive to personal relationships, seeping into professional relationships as well. The public and private cease to exist completely; very strong and oppressive power relations become actualized.

So, where am I going with this?

The recent brouhaha and debates over the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad on the side of those who claim to complete adherence to Freedom of Speech and expression completely ignore the issue of power relations which plays a strong role in this particular discussion. No longer is the issue of the depiction of the Prophet a theological issue (Muslims do not depict the Prophet out of fear of the potential polytheism that can emerge through the worshiping of an image, as Islam places the utmost importance of the Oneness of God, or tawhid), but rather one of a heavily marginalized and discriminated against community being reminded of its “place” in this particular society (North America in our context).

“Freedom of Speech implies Equal Power Relations: It doesn’t reflect reality”

This was a title to a brief collection of observations a friend of mine made when she went to university on May 20th to discover how a table had been set up to “Draw Muhammad.” And I think it captures perfectly how I personally feel about the issue of the relationship between Freedom of Speech and minority groups (including women, even though they comprise a majority).  Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing – but just as it has the power for so much greatness, it has an equal power for destruction. It can enhance freedom but also at the expense of another’s freedom. It may not necessarily create any external physical obstacle in the lives of, for this particular case, Muslims living in North America – but it does create, or has the potential to create and reiterate, an internal obstacle which can be defined in various ways, but perhaps most obviously as a continued feeling of “otherness”  – and of course this is not exclusive to the Muslim minority groups.

This discussion on Freedom of Speech needs a better, more broad approach. It’s not black and white. It has never been black and white and it’s only going to get more grey from here on in the more integrated and globalized we and our values become. Freedom of Speech and Expression, just like any other freedom we’ve written upon paper as a biblical truth, is not and cannot be unrestricted given the very nature of freedom, however defined. Aaaaand I know that sounds hella problematic, but I don’t mean that we start clamping down laws and shutting people up in regards to these cartoons (I’ve got another opinion on pornography given its pervasive nature) – which was the problem Berlin had with Positive liberty that he felt gave leeway to authoritarian statism. And rightly so as it’s definitely, without a doubt possible for a pure focus on sustaining Positive liberty to evolve into such a system. Yeah, I see the problem with what I seem to be saying.

But that is not what I am saying.

What I mean to say is that this is why we can’t talk about freedom. We’re actually unable to have a proper and comprehensive discussion on what we can and cannot do. This is my main contention. We throw talk around as though it’s all just black and white, while completely disassociating realities that cannot be, but are, ignored. You can’t disassociate issues of power, sex, discrimination, race, history and economics from how we interact with our freedoms and liberties here in North America and even beyond. As earlier mentioned, we ourselves place more value on certain freedoms than others when theoretically there should be no difference between these fundamental liberties, from the perspective of Negative liberty which does dictate our understanding of freedom and liberty in North America, particular the United States (props to the founding fathers). But we do. Why? Because reality is far too different from the theories we create. Reality can never successfully court ideals.

So that’s it. That’s what I’m trying to say. We can’t really talk about freedom because we, simply put, just don’t get it. We don’t know what freedom is.

Disclaimer: My discussion on freedom and liberty has been watered down, to the nth degree, and I really don’t do a good enough job of explaining Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. The issues I bring up deserve their own published papers and hell of a lot more citations and fancy name-dropping, but I was just trying to offer another perspective.

6 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Talk About Freedom

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  3. Well done exposition of a subject so many have never considered and so few take the time to study.

    Your writing, especially “Freedom of Speech implies Equal Power Relations: It doesn’t reflect reality” might have helped the jury in the Irvine 11 Free Speech case recently adjudicated here in Southern California.

    But the promotion of my free speech cannot hinge on the denying of your right to free speech which is what these 11 students failed to grasp.

  4. I try to make my writing as accessible as possible – hence my informal, extremely lax and at times questionable language. Even then, I’m talking about negative/positive liberty and even I get wtf’d about it still. This post is actually my most widely read post yet has received no comments. I’ve received comments re: it in email, Twitter and FB – but none here. I’ve noticed that when I write a critique of an individual (K’naan, Salman Rushdie) people are more likely to pounce on it for discussion or offense – or when I write about a particular social topic affecting Muslims (in terms of religion, not even politics), people will jump on it. It’s quite interesting to see what people will comment on and what they won’t – that doesn’t mean they’re not reading it.

  5. It may be that an easier discussion of this is done in person. Each of your sentences is packed with meaning, or at least most. So possible responders are scared off.

    Does the response trail to critiques of persons or Muslim topics portend a move away from the philosophical?

    Has philosophy, for most folks, lost its appeal and cachet?

    Is a philosophical discussion such as you so adequately portray here just simply an exercise for academics?

    I personally enjoy such discussions but eventually all such tete a tetes must lead to something pragmatic. At least I think they do. And of course they do in the heated forays about personal freedom.

    You have at least sent me scurrying to find Berlin, have Dworkin, Taylor, but must find MacKinnon. Thanks for this boot to knowledge.

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