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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Freedom is Conformity: Restricting Liberty in the Name of Liberty

Freedom is Conformity: Restricting Liberty in the Name of Liberty
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

There has been a growing hostility on the part of some conservatives towards basic civil liberties. Some might argue that this hostility has always existed, especially given the prevalence of authoritarians among conservative; yet I think a case can be made for the idea that such people are becoming far more willing to be open and public with their animosity. In the past it was treated as something that needed to be uttered in hushed tones among the faithful, but recently more and more have been willing to proclaim their hostility towards liberty in a public and unashamed manner.

Newt Gingrich is a prominent member of this club, having recently claimed in more than one context that Americans will have to give up basic liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. He has claimed that free speech should be restricted, which isn't a surprise, but more curious is his claim that religious liberties should be restricted. Conservative Christians complain that secularists are denying them the right to pray in schools, but Gingrich would take Muslims and throw them in jail as terrorists for praying on a plane. I haven't seen a peep of complaint from conservative Christians — do they only care about religious liberty when it's their religion involved?

Even more prominent right now may be Dinesh D'Souza who has been arguing that Muslim extremists don't hate America because of its foreign policies, but because Americans at home abuse their freedoms. It must be admitted that he has a point because these extremists have, for as long as they have existed, been very critical of Americans taking liberties with their liberties. Even if America were 100% isolationist and never did anything abroad that bothered them, they would still object to American culture. Where D'Souza goes wrong is in suggesting that their terrorism against America is based on this. Muslim terrorists don't fly planes into buildings because American women wear short skirts, because American couples dance too close together, or because Americans use their freedom of speech in ways that are insufficiently respectful of religion or Islam.

Why do people like D'Souza get it so wrong? I doubt it's an accident because the liberties they suggest need restricting in order to appease the extremists are exactly — and only — the liberties which they have been arguing against for so long. They don't recommend appeasement in any other context, but if it gets them the sorts of restrictions they have been longing for over the past decades, they will gladly don the cap of Chamberlain and fly to Munich to negotiate the elimination of people’s freedom to say unpopular and critical things.

What is it with authoritarian conservatives — whether Christian or Muslim — and their complaints about people "abusing" freedom by doing things they want to do? It's difficult to understand what abuse of freedom really is because I don't think that any of those who complain about it have ever specifically defined what it is, when "use" of freedom crosses some line to become "abuse" of freedom, and why it shouldn't be protected. This vagueness raises the suspicion that "abuse of freedom" is a catch-all label for anything which authoritarians don't like, but can't pretend isn't protected as part of basic civil liberties. If they can't deny that something is a protected liberty, and know that they can't successfully argue that the liberty should be ended, maybe they hope they can turn the tables and get people to believe that freedom can be abused.

I do think it would be a mistake to think that freedom is something that couldn't possibly be abused. We all have freedom of speech, but if enough of us use it to shout nasty things at a person then perhaps we are abusing our freedom to create a threatening environment for that person. If it is legitimate to use the concept of "abusing freedom" here, though, it must be narrowly limited to situations where others are put in danger or have a legitimate reason to fear that they are in danger. They can't simply say that they don't like what's going on — seeing women in short skirts isn't the same as being concerned for your physical safety.

I'm not sure that people who tout the "abuse of freedom" rhetoric would be willing to accept such distinctions, however, so perhaps another tactic is necessary. Could we accuse them of abusing their freedoms because they are arguing for restricting other people's liberties? That's at least as plausible as the arguments they are making, and it carries the advantage of putting them in a position where they have to explain how and why their writings are not abuse. That, in turn, requires that they explain what abuse of freedom really is, which will give the rest of us a chance to demonstrate that their concept is nonsense, or perhaps even that it applies much more broadly than they have been willing to let on.

I fear, though, that rhetoric like that used by Gingrich and D'Souza will fall on fertile ground in America. Although such ideas are contrary to the basic principles upon which America was supposed to be founded, the fact remains that conformity is generally easier — socially, psychologically, politically — than freethought and independent dissent.

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