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OP-ED: What constitutes freedom -- and what does not

  • Published at 12:49 am November 16th, 2020
Anti-France protest
Protest against France over comments made by the French president against the Prophet REUTERS

What France is doing can in no way fall within the purview of freedom

US President Franklin D Roosevelt in his historic WWII speech said: “Men are born free.” But is it really so? 

Many scholars disagreed with Roosevelt’s notion, calling it a political stunt to get the US into war at the time. However, his idea has drawn much attention as part of theories on freedom in political science scholarship. 

In actuality, humans are not born free. Humans are born unfree. They are born with debt to and as liabilities for many parties -- be it nature or Creator.

 And in the process of their upbringing, they become indebted primarily to their parents, then to neighbours, relatives, friends, societies, countries, and to the environment as well. He or she becomes indebted in the process of his/her birth, in the process of inheritance, in the process of acquiring wealth, and in the process of seeking opportunities. Humans aren’t born free.

An innate desire

There is an innate desire for freedom within each and every one of us. There has been much debate over what constitutes freedom and what does not. Social scientists, political theorists in particular, at all times of human civilization have tried to figure out how we can achieve freedom. 

Thousands of pages have been written and are still being written every day. Each strives to find the “best” form of freedom. 

Freedom is something which every human desires for and enjoys. But how far should one enjoy their freedom and how can it be achieved? 

Freedom of expression is considered the cornerstone of democracy. Scholars argue that democracy necessitates the existence of the freedom to publicly express one’s views without fear of retribution. Such freedom is a social good that provides checks and balances on power and enables social and technological innovation.

Negative freedom vs positive freedom

Russian-British social and political theorist Isaiah Berlin has argued that the liberty of somebody must depend on the restraint of others and categorized freedom into two senses -- negative freedom and positive freedom.

In his view, when a person or group can do what they are able to do without interference from others, they enjoy negative freedom. But when you ask what, or who, is the source of control or interference, Berlin says, then you will get a sense of positive freedom. 

Positive liberty is the possession of the capacity to act upon one’s free will. It means one’s free will can be curbed further, to some extent, by somebody authorized for the collective social good of a group of people.

Freedom is responsibility

Irish political theorist Philip Pettit considers the property of freedom to be concept bound. He thinks “free” connotes responsibility and ownership. Pettit has developed the responsibility conception of freedom without entering into a sustained dialectic with alternatives. He argues that, wherever there is freedom, there is also responsibility. 

He thinks that freedom exists in agents being held responsible and categorized with there being three conditions for the subject being held responsible: 

1) The subject must count as fit to be held responsible from the perspective prior to choice, not merely after it 

2) The subject must be fit in a personalized way to be held responsible, not just fit according to received social standards 

3) The subject must be properly fit to be held responsible, not just fit to be treated as if they were fit to be held responsible

Contemporary Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, criticizes the idea of negative liberty in his book What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty. Taylor explains that negative freedom is an “opportunity-concept” -- one possesses negative freedom if one is not enslaved due to the external forces. 

Taylor correctly points out that freedom cannot be denoted merely as the absence of many external obstacles because there are also many internal obstacles curbing freedom. 

He says freedom involves one being able to recognize a subject’s more important purposes, a subject being able to overcome internal fetters, and a subject’s way of being free of external obstacles. Taylor speaks of a view of freedom which would deal with internal fetters, apart from external obstacles.

‘Civil freedom’

British philosopher John Locke coined the idea of “civil freedom.” He defined “civil freedom” to be something protected by the force of political law, which was later interpreted by various scholars as the “freedom to trade, to exchange without the interference of governmental regulation.” 

Inferring from Locke’s idea of “civil freedom,” many scholars argue that citizens should enjoy the freedom to practice their religious activism without any interference from political structures. 

Here, we can recall French philosopher Voltaire’s idea of freedom which, over time, has emerged as an axiom: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

German philosopher Immanuel Kant also did not support the idea of “absolute freedom.” He rather tagged “free will” with “morality” or “moral responsibility.” He said a free will means a will under moral laws. Kant strived for an establishment of the “supreme principle of morality.” According to Kant’s idealism, this supreme principle commands that our “actions should have the form of moral conduct.”

Inciting hatred is not freedom

The theories discussed above are a few dominant approaches to human freedom in political science scholarship. They address how to maximize one’s freedom, keeping others’ freedom untouched and social order in place. 

No social or political scientist has recognized inciting hatred (through mockery or satire) as a means of freedom. Meanwhile, every local and international law, convention, and charter denounce and prohibit acts that incite hatred and hostility among people, among communities. 

Professor of Communications at the University of Delaware and political satire expert Dannagal Goldthwaite Young in her book Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States argued that satire cultivates fertile ground where “political operatives can more readily sow the seeds of hate and division.” She also compared satire with a raccoon which is hard to domesticate and capable of turning on anyone at any time.

It is totally fine that you do not agree with what the Prophet preached and introduced. You might argue that what he introduced is detrimental to human civilization. I would disagree, but you have every right to do so. 

However, you should couch your criticism in a civilized manner, not in a militant manner. If this is what you believe, then you should tell us, you should explain to us as to how the philosophy of life given by Muhammad is bad for humans. Your constructive criticism is most welcome. 

One of the leading public intellectuals of our time, Garry Wills, has argued that the Qur’an is misogynist. Not only that, he criticized the Qur’an for (like the Bible) not outlawing slavery. No one from the Muslim world attacked Garry Wills because the tone of his critique was respectful.

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to the basic question of human reasoning. What would we like to achieve by resorting to the act of mockery and satires? Are these acts really helpful for human progress and prosperity? Are they enlightening? 

Even according to Western Enlightenment, the idea of “ourselves” is to be “morally free,” as opposed to “absolutely free.” So, what France is doing can in no way fall in the purview of a right to freedom. 

It’s a hatred campaign which only creates division and hostility. The question is -- what would France like to achieve through such hatred-generating acts?

Abu Taib Ahmed is a PhD student in Journalism at the Colorado State University, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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