Negotiating with absolutes
By Maria Amir
“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
There are few words in any language that have as many intonations as ‘freedom’. This is perhaps the only word that is taken seriously in equal measure in both an individual and collective capacity, which predictably, also makes it the most problematic word in any given language. The dictionary definition of ‘freedom’ reads: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance of restraint / Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government”. It does not take much effort to recognize that this concept is utopian and beyond the scope of most mortals. That said, what demands further inspection is whether it remains an ideal worth aspiring to.
Over the years our understanding of the word has altered perceptibly. We have mentally moved from the collective to the individual, from the idea of ‘free people’ to the idea of ‘personal freedoms’. Yet we remain trapped by the need to ensure freedoms for a collective. Historically ‘freedom’ has been qualified, classified and dispersed as seen fit by varied religions, monarchs, governments and / or tyrants. Though this continues to be the case, humanity has cultivated a document laying out the essential freedoms available to each individual that ought to be safeguarded by a State. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[i] (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 and, ever since, has propelled an ideal that the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran referred to as “a common understanding of the peoples of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family… and constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community.” Twenty years ago, over 150 countries reaffirmed their commitment to the UDHR at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.
There are several psychological trenches when it comes to the concept of freedom, and it is not uncommon to hear people saying: “Of course we should have freedom, but in ‘moderation’”. This is an Orwellian trip-up along the lines of “All freedom is absolute, but some freedoms are more absolute than others”. Theoretically it makes no sense, but in practice, it is the most reasonable ethical premise available to us.
Negotiating ‘freedom’ is an intense and self-defeating exercise in absolutes. It means pitching up an idealized utopian free-point and then taking an axe to it bit by bit until it becomes ‘acceptable’. Naturally, different societies do this in different ways and this is why as a species, we are nowhere near achieving the freedoms we already allegedly possess. No one can deny the importance of utopias in Philosophy. There can be no progress if one does not place a pinnacle; in some ways, the UDHR is humanity’s standard for wellbeing. Victor Hugo put it brilliantly when he said “Our life dreams the Utopia”, following it with “Our death achieves the Ideal”. In the negotiation of ‘freedom’, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle of this equation. We need to decide whether we still value the purist ideals of freedom in their absolute form enough to avoid examining the merits of compromising on definition. Can we still afford to want “absolute freedoms of thought, speech, expression, belief”, and do we? Or, like Michael Novak, have we come to the understanding that practice makes premise and “to Know oneself is to disbelieve utopia”? Are ideas and ideals still more important that facts and realisms?
This is a subtle and tenuous dance, the difference of wanting and aspiring toward an absolute freedom and the reality of living it. ‘Freedom’, like ‘democracy’, is an accepted ideal but its absolute form has never functioned in practice, no matter how politically incorrect it is to entertain this particular factoid. None of the absolutes of the four major freedoms posited in the UDHR hold up on closer inspection. The freedom of belief, if defended to its nth degree, would validate human sacrifice and suicide pacts made in lieu of commemorating the Rapture[v]. It also makes for interesting studies in deciding custody cases for children of Mormon parents, where the subject ‘freedom of belief’ cosmically clashes with the 2005 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Not to mention when the question of the child’s own beliefs (or lack thereof) are being addressed, which law takes precedence?
Freedom of expression condones demonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan[vi] as well as films such as ‘Innocence of Muslims’ released to inflame the religious sentiments of Muslims around the world in July 2012. Salman Rushdie even categorized freedom of expression as the “freedom to offend. Without which it would cease to exist.” Similarly ‘freedom of speech’ could potentially legitimize hate speech, racism, homophobia, and let us never forget apostasy and blasphemy. The latter is especially interesting considering that the concept of blasphemy is both legitimized and denounced by Article 18 of the UDHR (if taken without any qualifiers as an inherent ‘freedom’); the same freedom that allows belief in anything allows one to denounce and reject any belief. Kierkegaard said that people demanded freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom used, and he may have had a point. That said, ‘freedom of thought’ is perhaps the most complicated category as it needs to be coupled with one of the three other branches to take effect, but is always the perpetrating force behind belief, expression and speech. Also, freedom of thought rests on freedom of access to information and it is this divide across developed and underdeveloped nations that gives rise to the patronizing but honest sentiment “they just don’t know better” or, biblically put, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[vii] Many may go on to presume that this canon of lost knowledge or disparate knowledge is the premise for the Huntingtonian ‘Clash of Civilizations’. In this cesspool of intense negotiations, which freedom is ethically ranked above another?
There are some of us who rank our belief over our freedom of speech and others who rank our right to information and our thoughts over our right to express them.
There is a term in Sanskrit called ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ which denotes that the whole world is one single family. The term extrapolates how worldviews vary among people but this does not diminish the need for respecting differences; if anything, it increases it. Essentially , ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is the premise behind modern multiculturalism and was revived as a contrast to (what was perceived as) Western absolutism. The philosophy also recognizes other ecosystems and organisms as having an ‘atma’ and thereby being worthy of respect. It is an ethical and rational seesaw – whether ‘freedom’ and ‘respect’ go hand in hand or not. This posits a moral mathematics that the UDHR does little to address.
What needs revision is whether both these categories are still equal or whether one needs to be placed above the other. There are those who argue that aspirations are nice and all, but practice is elementary – then again, being perpetually stuck at the elementary level means accepting that we are not built to better ourselves. In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the fallen king as a parable for the absurdity of human life. He concludes by saying “one must imagine Sisyphus as happy. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t, but when it comes to freedom, it is worth imagining that we are each our own Sisyphus lugging our individual boulders up our personal moral peaks and plateaus…some freely, others bound.
Maria Amir is Features Editor and columnist for the magazine.
[i] The Universal Declaration has established many of the principles for a number of important international conventions and treaties including the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading treatment or Punishment; the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1981, clearly defines the nature and scope of the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief contained in the Universal Declaration and the International Covenants.
[ii] Cartesian doubt is a form of methodological skepticism associated with the writings and methodology of René Descartes. It is also referred to as Cartesian skepticism, methodic doubt, methodological skepticism, or hyperbolic doubt. It forms the systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one’s beliefs, which has become a characteristic method in philosophy.
[iii] Pragmatically speaking, this view is in keeping with UDHR Article 18 which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
[iv] Holocaust denial, the denial of the systematic genocidal killing of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, is illegal in a number of European countries. Many countries also have broader laws that criminalize genocide denial. Of the countries that ban Holocaust denial, a number (Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Romania) were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and many of these also ban other elements associated with Nazism, such as Nazi symbols.
[v] The Rapture is a term in Christian eschatology which refers to the “being caught up” discussed in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, when the “dead in Christ” and “we who are alive and remain” will be “caught up in the clouds” to meet “the Lord in the air”.The term “Rapture” is used in at least two senses and is commonly used among US Christians who welcome a final resurrection.
[vi] The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), informally known as the Klan, is the name of three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States, which have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through terrorism. Since the mid-20th century, the KKK has also been anti-communist.
[vii] Reference to Jesus addressing God in Luke 23:24.