Unless freedom is for everyone, it is not freedom
WHEN principles are applied to some but not others, they become prejudices — which is why some who claim to fight for freedom on this planet and in this country do most to give it a bad name.
Now that world attention has drifted from the horrific murder of French cartoonists, few have noticed that the comedian Dieudonné is on trial in a French court for his comments on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The prosecution says his remarks supported the killings; he hotly denies this.
Whatever the merits of what he said, this shows how selective the world’s power holders are about the liberty they proclaim. In his immediate response to the murders, French President François Hollande claimed they happened because France is a “country of freedom”. This refrain was soon repeated by voices around the western world — we were told time and again that people who, while condemning the killings, found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons offensive, failed to realise how deeply committed to freedom of expression the French state is.
Which French state? The one that banned Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor because it didn’t like its politics? The one that restricts the rights of devout Muslims and Jews to express their faith by wearing head coverings in public? The one that defends the right of some who use humour to say what they want while prosecuting others who do the same? The freedom France’s president and his allies defend is really only the right to say whatever they allow you to say.
This is why, while the murders have been greeted with horror by all sane people, much of the reaction has seemed to many not a principled defence of the freedoms we should all enjoy, but a thinly disguised attempt to defend the right of people in Europe and parts of North America to decide what is best for everyone else. And so they insist that free speech is simply an excuse to offend minority religions and cultures. A more tolerant society, anxious to offer a place to all, would, they say, be less accepting of those who offend the sensibilities of others.
The hurt this expresses is understandable. But just about everything worth saying offends someone and so the call to watch your tongue — or pen — is sure to become another excuse for double standards, a new way of ensuring that some can speak and others cannot. The answer is surely to insist that everyone be heard, no matter how difficult the listening may be.
The problem with freedom’s supposed defenders in Europe and the US is not that they allow too much to be said but that they allow only that which fits their prejudices.
All of this is important for us because it describes our reality too. Since 1994 just about everyone in this country claims to defend freedom. But what they usually mean is that people like them are the only ones entitled to rights.
Shouting down the governing party in Parliament is hailed as a blow for freedom — doing the same in the Western Cape is denounced as barbarism. When Nelson Mandela’s former secretary uses social media to offend many black people she is, a business leader tells us, exercising freedom of speech — when black people reply to her, they are bullying. Private car owners are exercising their rights by refusing to pay tolls — shack dwellers who don’t pay for services are abusing the system.
In all these cases, those who demand freedom for those like them are keen to deny it to others. The disease is deeply rooted — many here seem to find it hard to tolerate even those who are meant to be on their side. And so political parties and organisations across the spectrum are plagued by wars in which people do not simply compete with those with whom they differ — they try to silence them. Sometimes those who want freedom only for themselves show this simply by ignoring the rights of others. Right now, organisations are hogging the headlines by fighting for the freedom of citizens to challenge government decisions. But, while they are deeply concerned about the rights of police officers or the identity of prosecutors, they spend no time or money defending the rights of shack dwellers or farm workers.
And, as this column has pointed out before, much of our media are fixated on the freedoms of a small sliver of the middle class while ignoring those of everyone else.
So, here as elsewhere, statements about freedom should not be taken too seriously — they do not mean that everyone should be free, simply that some of us should be, often at the expense of others. And so they are not statements of principle but weapons in political battles.
The only people who need to worry about this are those of us who feel freedom is important — too important to be the sole preserve of small, smug groups. Unless freedom is for everyone, not just for us, it is not freedom. We are bound to try to rescue it from those who turn it into a tribal prejudice. BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.