When I was in my early teens my older cousins took it on themselves to be my spiritual and moral guides. They did a good job of it too. I remember them often quoting me the following words: “Remember, your freedom stops at the end of an Englishman’s nose”. As a pampered and spoilt boy I was pushing boundaries and this was the way my cousins sought to establish borders for me.
These days the word “freedom” is bandied about quite a bit. I wonder how many of us stop to think that it is a loaded and many faceted word. For instance, the phrase “freedom of speech” comes up in countless discussions and in newspaper articles and politicians hurrumph the phrase; interviewers hector interviewees with it, others wave it about like a flag. But has anyone stopped to think what exactly they mean by the phrase? Is it the freedom to attack? freedom to incite violence? Freedom to speak out in a void where no one is listening? Or is it the freedom to be insensitive? In a gathering of family and friends would you exercise your freedom of speech to say exactly what you think of the company? You would be a fool to do so, although I admit some people can be fool hardy and they pay for it in the end. We would do well to remember that in civilised communities, the world out there is an extension of our own social circle and that our behaviour is necessarily circumscribed by certain unwritten rules. The internet has come to blur the lines of communication but we owe it to ourselves to be dignified and circumspect and not cause offense when we exercise that “freedom of speech”.
Moving on to what we mean by freedom in general, may I suggest freedom is specific to persons, time and place. In the above picture is my good friend Jim. He lives very happily with his second wife on a tropical island. He is well into his seventies and deserves the happiness and peace he has found in this place. He is as free here as any man can be. The beach is near private. He could on a morning walk into the sea stark naked and no one will see him or object or complain. He would cause disgust and horror if he did that on a beach crowded with holidaying families. To put it another way he would be flaunting his freedom in front of other peoples’ noses. Jim’s freedom here is place specific. Let me see, if I had a wardrobe malfunction on stage I at my great age would quietly be taken away to a place for the elderly confused. If a glamorous woman had the same malfunction she would go up points on the popularity stakes. That is person specific. Freedom is time specific too and here I let you decide for yourself.
I am no philosopher but I have trouble with the idea of freedom as an abstract concept. Freedom has constraints wherever you look. We live in one of the freest countries of the world but we do not have the right to drive as we please. We have to follow rules of the road. Nor can we shirk too many social rules before we come up against social disapprobation. We have to obey a whole host of laws and pay our taxes. Freedom for me living in an urban setting has many more limitations than for my friend Jim on his paradise island.
The whole thing sounds so obvious when I put it down in writing. I was compelled to do this post as the concept of freedom is on everyone’s lips right now. When we wave the flag of freedom let us consider for a moment what constraints we ourselves have before trumpeting it out loud. Do we for instance have freedom from hunger, and violence, and debt, and stress and fear from being bullied at work? What does the 14 hour wage slave think of what freedom means for her or him?
I am sorry folks for stating the obvious. I shall end now!