Give me Liberty and them Death: The Absurdity of Fundamentalisms

As for my 78 slaves…well, uh, everything has its limits…


Well, then—don’t we all feel much better now?  We cannot, sadly, end this debate—either here or IRL (I heard my kids use it)—by fiat.  So what is to be done?

As this is an academic blog, I thought I would try and provide some intellectual navigational aids to the discussion around the various films, cartoons, and reactions thereto that have had this blog—and much of the Interwebs—up in arms. 

Do Unto Yourself, lest Someone Do Something Worse Unto You

Let me preface this post by saying that I am as confused about these things as the next person.  On the one hand, I believe in free speech, while on the other I believe that insulting people can be hurtful and, as a consequence, counterproductive.  I grew up (such that I have done) as a subaltern in an infantry regiment’s Officers’ Mess, where one of the golden rules was to avoid speaking of three particular topics when guests were present: women, politics, and religion.  The reason?  Because raising these issues—particularly when surrounded by people with whom we were not acquainted—was known to lead to arguments, which, in turn, were known to lead to fist fights.  Since the objective of having a Mess was to create an atmosphere of conviviality—a second home, as it were—our forebears decided (after much trial and error, I am sure) that exercising restraint was a wise path to follow.  Of course, this rule was not followed perfectly; when it wasn’t, there were times when the reasoning behind the wisdom of the ages was made plain.  (The most popular subaltern we had was a fella who knew how to patch holes in plaster walls.) The rule, like all golden rules, was not enforced, nor was it formally dictated.  It was, though, for the most part, observed, one strand of many in the tapestry of etiquette, manners, politesse, and good conduct against which we measured ourselves.  Let me add that when we were ‘at home’ without guests in the Mess, we did indulge in fulsome debates (often vigourous) on the three ‘special topics’, advancing the frontiers of our knowledge and taking the measure of the colleagues and friends with whom we were expected to serve.  When red lines were crossed, as they sometimes were, there wasn’t much that couldn’t be fixed with a robust handshake, a sincere apology and a pint (or more) of Rickard’s Red.  That was the price of living together in a group.

So much for the memoire.  On to the scholarly contributions of others.

Liberty: First we take Berlin… 

When we think about freedom—freedom of speech, for example—we could do worse than to look at the signal contribution of Isaiah Berlin.  His thinking and writing on the topic of liberty is more than instructive.  A Liberal—in the proper meaning of the word—Berlin’s analysis of the origins and trajectories of liberty is peerless. 

His 1958 inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor at Oxford contains within it very sage advice for our current predicament.  In his words

there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, in both the East and the West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are   neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.

 Some would posit that we are in equally perilous times now.  If so, then Berlin’s thinking should serve us now as then. 

 What does it mean to be free?  According to Berlin

 You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings.

 That leaves a great deal of scope within which we might find ourselves as ‘unfree’.  Indeed, Berlin notes that to many, like John Stuart Mill

Law [is] always a fetter, even if it protects you from being bound in chains that are heavier than those of the law, say some more repressive law or custom, or arbitrary despotism or chaos.

This position, one that I would label as ‘Liberal Fundamentalism’, is highly idealistic.  To believe in some hyper-individualised existence is at odds with reality: we are–for better or for worse–embedded in a social context.   

Berlin explains that political philosophers have long recognized this and

they supposed that [liberty] could not, as things were, be unlimited, because if it were, it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men; and this kind of ‘natural’ freedom would lead to social chaos in which men’s minimum needs would not be satisfied; or else the liberties of the weak would be suppressed by the strong. Because they perceived that human purposes and activities do not automatically harmonize with one another, and because (whatever their official doctrines) they put high value on other goals, such as justice, or happiness, or culture, or security, or varying degrees of equality, they were prepared to curtail freedom in the interests of other values and, indeed, of freedom itself.  For, without this, it was impossible to create the kind of  association that they thought desirable.

The emphasis is my own because I think it is the key ‘take away’ here.  This, Dear Reader, brings the discussion back to the point I raised in my preambulatory anecdote.  The Golden Rule of the Mess was introduced with a particular goal in mind.  We wanted a comfortable place to live and without the restraint espoused in the Rule “it was impossible to create the kind of association that [we] thought desirable.”  In other words, the ideal of liberty can be measured against its consequences, in comparison with other held ideals.  It is instructive to note the ideals that Berlin includes in his list: justice and security, to name but two.  While we often speak of the value of the some of the ‘ends’ brought about by freedom of speech (a growth in knowledge, the refutation of untruths, a clean breast, etc.) it is worthwhile noting that, at least as a philosophical alternative, some believe that we must also measure the damage to other ideals it might cause. 

And so, following this line of argument, Berlin explains that

it remains true that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others. Upon what principle should this be done? If freedom is a sacred, untouchable value, there can be no such principle. One or other of these conflicting rules or principles must, at any rate in practice, yield: not always for reasons which can be clearly stated, let alone generalized into rules or universal maxims. Still, a practical compromise has to be found.

The idea that freedom can be regarded as sacred strengthens the idea of ‘Liberal Fundamentalism’ to which I referred earlier.  If any thing is elevated to a supernal level, it makes real politics impossible.  If liberty is elevated to the status of an ‘untouchable value’ then, in the case of freedom of speech versus portrayals of Mohammad, we are really looking at a war of religion: the secular religion of Liberalism vs the spiritual religion of Islam.  Since both are founded on matters of faith or belief, rather than reason, there is little point in trying to argue or debate.  Neither side is likely to yield.  Which leads me to ask what the point might be in trying to ‘inform’ or ‘educate’ the other side, as some have claimed is the value of the various films and caricatures.  (If the ‘other side’ is not listening, and ‘our side’ is not willing to budge, the films and cartoons must actually be for us and our amusement.)

 This would seem to be too trivial as to reward with any conference of numinousity.  As Berlin points out:

Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong.

 But even here some, such as Mill again, take a hard line.  Even if some people would abuse their freedom,

All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

This is a sentiment shared by many, and not just political philosophers.  Perhaps the most strident manifestation of this belief can be seen in the oration of Patrick Henry, the American legislator, who famously declared, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”  Rousing stuff, to be sure…but is it a bit, shall we say, dramatic for our own day and age?

But there’s the rub.  If we find Henry (and Mill) a bit inflexible, a shade OTT,  and we move away from the sure footing of a purist position, we find ourselves on a slippery slope. Berlin recognizes this:

We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.  What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate.

Berlin forwards one strategy to move beyond this debate: self- (as opposed to externally coerced) restraint.  Rather than fighting everywhere, all the time, we can use our own judgement to keep the peace.

I wish to be master of my kingdom, but my frontiers are long and insecure, therefore I contract them in order to reduce or eliminate the vulnerable area.

Some will see wisdom in such contraction; others will see cowardice.  It certainly doesn’t have the dash and élan of Henry’s declaration. 

But if we see Henry’s as a fundamentalist position, in the same conceptual vein as other kinds of fundamentalisms (i.e. unyielding, inflexible), we can see, as Berlin does, that such thinkers fall prey to a

particular kind of error, namely the belief that human nature is static, that its essential properties are the same everywhere and at all times, that it is governed by unvarying natural laws, whether they are conceived in theological or materialistic terms, which entails the fallacious corollary that a wise lawgiver can, in principle, create a perfectly harmonious society at any time by appropriate education and legislation, because rational men, in all ages and countries, must always demand the same unaltering satisfactions of the same unaltering basic needs.

If only it were so.  Such perfection cannot be created here on Earth, Kant’s ‘crooked timber’ and all that being very much the problem.  Logically, Berlin states it thus:

My claim to unfettered freedom can prima facie at times not be reconciled with your equally unqualified claim…[because] in so far as I live in society, everything that I do inevitably affects, and is affected by, what others do.

And so, no matter how unappealing when compared with our pure, Original position, we must take a measured view. 

As simple as this (Berlin’s) logic is, it competes with a stronger, more primal, drive for absolutism:

There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions.

But such self-satisfaction (monism as onanism?) has a price:

To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts.

And so Berlin ends his essay with a warning.  Liberalism, yes, but pluralist, moderated liberalism, if you would be so kind.

‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time [Joseph A. Schumpeter], ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’  To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy…

Sage, yes, but stirring?  Hardly.  Few of us would wish to stand by the ‘relative validity’ of our beliefs.  As Johnson remarked to Boswell:

…were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.

We want a world in which we can eat our principled cake and have our ordered cake, too.  It is not for nothing that another Chichele Professor, Sir Michael Howard, wrote at length about the combativeness inherent in the “Liberal conscience”.  Liberals, Howard believed, are those who see the world as something to be improved, being that it does not adhere to the ideals (which include, of course, liberty) to which they subscribe.  And a conscience “not simply a belief or an attitude but an inner compulsion to act upon it.”

We can see now in the case of the Prophet vs the Profane, in the Fundamentalism of Freedom and in our desire for Freedom from Fundamentalism, the absurdity of our present condition: we strive for elegance and purity in our principles, but find a world that doesn’t quite play that way. 

 Camus defined our absurd condition precisely as the ongoing tension between

these two certainties–my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle–I also know that I cannot reconcile them.

What is to be done?

The question, then, is what are we to do?  For this, I have no answer, because there is no single answer.  I, too, hope that the process by which we come to some kind of ‘resolution’ to this is guided by maturity, humility, pluralism, and compromise.  

I would say, in closing, two things:

First, we live in a social context.  And that is what makes all the difference.  Even Thomas Jefferson’s admits this when he says,

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.
In age of globalisation, our social context goes beyond a single agora or village green; it is both diverse and diffuse.  This means, far beyond the initial reckoning of political philosophers, or even the precautionary notes sounded by Berlin, our social embeddedness is fraught with an almost endless array of contradictions and contestation.  Shared values are not easy to find.  But this does not mean that we can realistically revert to philosophies predicated on the belief of some imagined ‘first condition’ or ‘state of nature’.  Nor can we realistically find comfort in the communitarian/cosmopolitan debate; the boundaries are too pourous and these models just don’t work any more.
I think that living on the Internet–as cosmopolitan as it can be–can isolate us from our social-qua-global reality.  Because we tend to listen to our own echos, we can feel like we don’t actually have to share space on this planet.   What I would say is that we need to wake up to the fact that ‘times have changed’.  If we live as if they haven’t, then the next attack we face (after the next salvo of free speech) may not occur “out there” at one of our outposts, but here at home.  The Other does not live “out there”; our countries and cities are admixtures of Us and Them; circling the wagons or battening down the hatches is no longer realistic strategy.
Second, we need to keep in mind the desired endstate.  Rights and freedoms are not ‘God given’ to us on stone tablets; they are human constructions, instruments designed to bring about a particular state of being.  We need to figure out what just what kind of state of being we can live with and use our instruments to bring it about.  We need to determine the tools, rather than the other way around.  We cannot, in trying to free ourselves from the shackles of apprehended oppression, create suicide vests out of our liberties.  In order to do so, we must accept that nothing is sacred.  We in the West don’t seem to have a problem with viewing the spiritual as profane.  We have to start looking at the material and idealogical in the same way. 
Liberty is fragile.  The world has seen it extinguished many times over the millennia.  It must be nurtured and defended, to be sure.  We cannot allow it to be curtailed because it has been abused.  As Thomas Jefferson reminds us
Liberty means responsibility.  That is why most men dread it.

12 thoughts on “Give me Liberty and them Death: The Absurdity of Fundamentalisms

  1. David Betz says:

    ‘…we are really looking at a war of religion: the secular religion of Liberalism vs the spiritual religion of Islam. Since both are founded on matters of faith or belief, rather than reason, there is little point in trying to argue or debate.’

    Oh? Is Liberalism’s origin in the Enlightenment, a.k.a. the ‘Age of Reason’, coincidence now? Which god spoke the Two Treatises on Government to Locke?

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      In the post I clearly state that freedom is indeed NOT god (let alone God) given. It is when, and only when, it is sacralised that it stops being political and starts becoming ‘religious’.

      This nuanced meaning was ‘hidden in plain sight’ in the first part of the sentence from which you cut and pasted the above citation, which reads:

      “If liberty is elevated to the status of an ‘untouchable value’…”

  2. Pericles says:

    Fascinating post. I have a slightly different take, please bear with me.

    Firstly, it was great to see Isaiah Berlin cited, but curious that his famous distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty is not made more explicit. ‘Positive’ liberty of course involves intervening to change the conditions of everyone for the better-whether described as ‘Manifest Destiny’, Robespierre’s ‘General Will’, Bevan’s ‘welfare state’, ‘Communism’ or whatever (as an impulse, it spans both left and right). Everyone becomes a bit more free in the abstract, but historically those who had special advantages before the drive to achieve a bit more positive general liberty have a tendency of getting guillotined/strung up from lamposts, and certain groups also become very vulnerable to general scapegoating (be they ‘kulaks’, ‘Jews’, ‘toffs’ or ‘Johnny Foreigner’).

    ‘Negative’ liberty represents a reaction to that, and is the ‘right to be left alone’-to be, in one’s own private life, bisexual, transexual, a caffein addict, someone who enjoys buggering beetles, whatever. Clearly the two forms of liberty are in fundamental tension with each other. Berlin came down heavily for negative rather than positive liberty, and in fact most post-91 governments in the West have favoured that emphasis. The modern UK Conservative Party is far more likely to endorse gay marriage than it is to start squeezing the rich until the pips squeak-but the Labour party is exactly the same. Only in the US (amongst Western states) do you really see (to my knowledge) a ‘traditional’ conservative brand of politics-one that genuinely abhors racial intermixing, gay rights, sex before marriage-in conflict with a strong libertarian wing-within the same party!- which upholds the private sphere as sacrosanct.

    Where does this leave us with the riots in London last year or the Muslim reaction to the anti-Islamic film? I see both phenomena as in fact symbols of our extremely atrophied hold on positive liberty, and the culturally excessively dominant sway of ‘negative liberty’. The rioters in London were not agitating around social programs or for political change-they were rather performing a distorted form of the ritual which they believed was ‘allowable’ within the conventions of negative liberty, the right to shop (or in this case, the right to loot). Similarly the riots and unrest in the Muslim world over anti-Islamic cartoons need to be seen in a context where incandescent rage and violence around an insult to one’s personal religion is widely seen as ‘allowable’-whereas actual steps towards ‘positive liberty’, like letting women drive cars, are far more problematic and controversial. Both phenomena are in fact linked to the atrophy of positive liberty, and the hegemony of notions of ‘negative liberty’. Tony Blair’s emphasis on ‘interfaith dialogue’ is therefore (for example) hardly the answer here, since Blair is amongst those most blind to the glaring absence of current balance between positive and negative liberty in all societies. When Blair talks about all societies moving towards being ‘open societies’ he’s repeating the delusions of the 1990s, which I don’t think he’s ever outgrown-he’s still acting as if negative liberty, ‘choice’, is the main answer to all the most important questions in life. Weren’t the people who killed the American ambassador in Libya also exercising an extremely twisted form of ‘choice’? Couldn’t we perhaps analyze a little more deeply why such mass acts might be manifesting themselves?

    Zizek made a recent quite funny allusion to all this, when writing about about the modern day treatment of smoking. Smoke tobacco in public nowadays almost anywhere except China, and you are seen as committing a heinous crime against the liberty and health of others. Grow your own weed for your own personal consumption at home however and you are completely within your civil rights, and the ‘pigs’ are then ‘fascists’ if they kick your door down and destroy your stash. It’s these kind of schizophrenic signals, I want to suggest, both created by the suffocating dominance of notions of negative liberty, which create the kinds of irrational, spasmodic, and frequently violent outbursts we’re seeing in many parts of the globe at present. The violence is a function of people living in a world of truncated choice, where what’s permissable’ and ‘acceptable’ is dominated by twisted notions of negative liberty.

    I apologise for such an extremely long and probably macabre response.

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      Both freedom from (negative liberty) and freedom to (postive liberty) are at work here. Most Liberals (including Thomas Jefferson and Berlin) believe that my positive liberty is circumscribed only at the point where it begins to interfere with your negative liberty. As Berlin says, that point is not often in contention. The tricky part is agreeing where to draw the line.

      That is where politics kicks in. Enjoy the ride.

    • Pericles says:

      That point often IS in contention, but, as I said, societies in general have striven to consistently neuter outbreaks of positive liberty and redirect them down paths that then don’t become systemic threats, even as the system itself staggers. I’m sure Gaddafi for example felt that his personal negative liberty was being impacted quite strongly by other people’s incoherent manifestations of ‘positive liberty’, round about the point at which someone sodomised him with a pipe before beating and shooting him to death. I look forward with bated breath to his murderers appearing in the Hague. However there’s also a consistent drive in both Western and non-Western societies nowadays to put any potential genie of positive liberty back in the bottle, just as there was after 1945 (see for example Italian general election, 1948). In this context, overthrowing dictators is permissable, as a ‘choice’, and often even encouraged, but don’t ever try to undermine the rules of the overall system. I’m struck for example by the description I often hear some people in the US make of their own political beliefs-people BTW who are thoroughly disenchanted with both Republican and Democrat games. The most common self-description they use of themselves is that ‘I’m a social liberal, but a fiscal conservative.’ Rather than a manifesto of political independence however, of a ‘floating voter’, this is the embodiment to me of self-imposed intellectual self-censorship, and the impasse to which the worship of negative liberty inevitably leads.

    • the state quarters in cicurlation will never be worth more than a quarter Same with the sacagawea, susan b. anthony and presidential dollars. The silver state quarters are worth something of course Nice denver o 69 proof.

  3. terry says:

    “The question, then, is what are we to do?”
    Maybe we could start by agreeing that the answer to someone’s exercising their freedom of speech is not mob violence.

  4. Madhu says:

    How did the nuance and particularity of belief systems and the relation to local politics and power (not everyone believes the same exact thing, but they are more likely to pretend if feeling threatened) turn into a back-and-forth about the golden rule?

    What am I missing? I confess, I’m confused with the direction the conversation has taken….

    It’s probably me, I always get mixed up about everything.

  5. Thank you for a sensible, thoughtful and polite response. Sensible in the sense that rules maintain the balance that enables people to live together in harmony in society – whether it’s an officers mess or some other community. Thoughtful in the sense that it represents an attempt to grapple with two seemingly irreconcilable fundamental ‘freedoms’ in a logical manner. And polite in the sense that there is no shouting; no refusal to compromise in the hope that we can live together in peace.
    Whilst I am free to abuse other people whose views I disagree with, I hardly believe this is a freedom I’d ever wish to exercise.

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