Jesse Ball: On Freedom

Freedom is often considered a byword for individual liberty, and nowhere more so than in the US. Perhaps it’s time for a new definition.

Image courtesy of Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

Let us picture a room, a rather small room, but one outfitted sufficiently that people may live there. Let us say four people can live there. These people wash their clothes, cook their meals, conduct their toilet, sleep, socialise – and all of it in the space of the room. Suddenly, one day, one of the inhabitants says: “It is my right to have one quarter of the space. None of you can come into that space. In that space, I may do as I like.” He has a toilet brought in and installed, a shower, a mini-kitchen, a washer. That quadrant of the room now is piled high with things. He sits in the middle of it. Meanwhile, in the other three quadrants, the inhabitants go on with their existence. They bowed to his demand, but in truth, the overall happiness of the denizens has decreased. This is because, in permitting him to go his own way without regard for anyone, they have lost several things. They have lost one quarter of the space. They have lost the workings of consensus as to what happens in the overall (still contiguous) space. And they have lost him – a person, who, though perhaps somewhat selfish, helped them all to pass the time. The division of the space into quarters, and the taking of one quarter, is an artificial thing, and in its artifice, it injures the community as a whole.

If you were living in that space, many things that you like doing would come to an end when the partitioning occurred. The full space of the room is no longer available for momentary uses, for games, celebrations. After the washing of clothes, there might not be much room for hanging. In any case, a rude wall must now be stared at, with all its negative implications. And then worries would begin, at first on the basis of empathy: What is going on in the other quarter? Why he doesn’t he want to share life with us?These feelings might eventually turn to distrust, tribalism.

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Freedom is thought of in many ways. As a word, it is, like any other, not just subject to use, but, in fact, is its use. It is the aggregate of its use. And so we cannot say a person is wrong to use the word freedom in one way or another simply because we disagree. There is nothing to disagree with. You can call your dog Freedom. 

We can, however, say that a particular use of freedom turns it into something vile. Or that a use of freedom is not continuous with the history of the word as we understand it. If that is true, then it is important to examine it and see how we should receive it. The advantage of cloaking the new usage of words in words that have prior sacred meaning is that it makes them unobjectionable. Why is that? It is because people do not realise they should object to what is sacred. 

In America, people love to talk about freedom. We like to talk about religious freedom, and our right to self-determination. However foolish it is, Americans are proud to have crossed the ocean, pioneered across the plains, etcetera. Why is it foolish? Because we did not do it. Furthermore, in doing it, our forefathers demolished entire cultures, eradicating them from the face of the earth. Yet we are proud of this manifest destiny, of this constant pursuit of our pleasure described as freedom.

Let us look at some specific uses of freedom.

Freedom in America has become, on the one hand – in poor America, in black America – the right to escape the prejudice of others, to escape or avoid the impossible burdens of a tortuous legal, financial, educational system – even, in some remarkable cases, to transcend, to defeat it, for a short while. We will return to this definition.

On the other hand, in the dominant America, freedom is something else, something to my mind horrific and disgusting. It is a person’s right to do as they like without reference to anyone else. 

Do we, in fact, have this right? Is this second version a meaningful definition of freedom?

I would propose that freedom is not the above. Freedom is the ability of a person to take up responsibilities to others in a community, responsibilities that are desired by others. It is the freedom to participate as an organism in the larger organism formed by interaction. The responsibilities extend not just to the members of the group, but to all other life forms on the planet. Freedom is the freedom to be a realised person in relationship with the world as a whole. 

It is not the right to separate yourself from others and behave in a fashion that injures them. You have no right to cause suffering.

Having the above definition, we now can see that the use of freedom such as it is in poor America – the right to not be endlessly and unfairly dominated so that your life is flattened into a painful degenerative prostration; the right instead to be permitted to form healthy communities, to treat others gently, to not be looking every moment over your shoulder for the supposed agents of justice – we can see that this use of freedom is legitimate because it is implied in our definition. It is a precursor to our right as an organism to form healthy relationships, our right to be responsible to others and for others.

It is this right that is ignored when a family is broken up on the slave block. It is this right that continues to be ignored in the United States, as a function of the stock market, of the prison system, of the manner of representation in government, of the rules of government, of the military-industrial complex, even of the corporate legal code, wherein a corporation is considered a person, the equivalent of a human being.

Lawmakers do not have the right to pretend that an imaginary company has the rights of a sentient being and then use those rights to push people out of their homes. Yet this happens every day. If you object to it you are ignored or, in some cases, jailed.

Americans are wrong about many things. They are human, like other humans. But being wrong about this, being wrong about freedom, and feeling somehow that freedom permits America to behave as it likes, without reference to the global situation, leads directly to a scene of eventual universal suffering. It is a juvenile definition. It is a child’s behaviour. We must act together to reject this definition of freedom.

Census, published by Granta, is out now.

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.