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Naïve definitions of freedom
January 12th, 2015 (January 14th, 2015)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Naïve definitions of freedom
[Non-popular / non-populist "food for thought": if you love hashtags and quickly-forgotten emotional internet campaigns, you might want to pass!]

   Following a crime in Paris, the internet has been filled by a wave of islamophobia, racism and other amalgams under the guise of protecting the "freedom of press"… leading some to misguided 'reprisal' attacks on Muslims.
   Selective moral outrage, here we come!
   The "freedom of press" is absolutely not threatened in France, the current emotions leads to a fallacy, but who cares? This freedom would be threatened if the state stopped protecting the press, or did not condemn crimes against the press… That's not the situation!

   While the crowd marches in the name of freedom, the government issue statements about reinforcing anti-terrorism, and everybody is naïvely okay with it because, as always, people think that of course any new measure will not target them, only dangerous "others".  This is another fallacy, one which Buddhism calls separateness (a root of ignorance)! People march for freedom but want to hear the government take freedom away, because they think they're separate from criminals… it's a self-serving illusion for the privileged; then they don't have to think too much about why some youth becomes fundamentalist and extremist in a country where supposedly they have "equality of chances"!
   One might also severely question the human rights records of the 40+ world leaders who took part in Sunday's unity march in Paris. 'Torture' anyone? 'Governmental censorship' anyone? Nice PR stunt!

   I'll pass on the absurdity of wanting freedom of expression while imposing on innocent Muslims to "openly" distance themselves from terrorists (what? just because of the amalgam others make?) —I don't remember the last time all  atheists or all  Christians have been asked the same e.g. following some school massacre by some crazy gunman, with more victims than at Charlie Hebdo. Selective amalgams, here we come!

   Beyond the absurdity of wanting freedom and the negation of freedom at the same time (i.e. wanting freedom without the risks of freedom, wanting a sanitised freedom), several philosophical mistakes are easily spotted in the dominant discourse.

   First, no, freedom of opinion is not freedom of speech.
   "Freedom of opinion" is a progress from the Enlightenment period in Europe; it was an antidote to the Middle-Ages stupidity of condemning people for alleged intentions.
   During e.g. witch-hunting season, even if people had not done anything wrong, you could condemn them for having the intention, having the idea of doing something… This was very convenient to burn witches, given that only mind-reading of intention / opinion would constitute a proof; I doubt there were many other facts in witch-hunting…
   The freedom of opinion is basically stating that you cannot condemn anyone for their opinion, even if  you were able to read minds ;-) For a modern treatment, see "PreCrime" in the "Minority Report" film.
  This being said, freedom of opinion is not freedom of expression, or freedom of press, of freedom to enact your opinion.

   Interlude: the definition of freedom is not « I do whatever I want »! That'd justify the law of the strongest: killing is okay, rape is okay, slavery is okay; if caught, just say "I wanted it"…
   The freedom of one stops where the freedom of another starts! Freedom doesn't exist without responsibility!  And responsibility doesn't exist when easy "carte blanche" or joker cards trump logic.
   The question of responsibility applies to 'speech' just like it applies to any other action, notably once "psychological suffering" or "psychological violence" are acknowledged (e.g. harassment).

   Second, freedom of speech is not freedom of press.
   Given the crime happened in France, let's remind the international audience that France —with its bunch of philosophers— has not  fallen for the naïve, stupid interpretation of "freedom of speech defined as a licence to say whatever shit you want".
   In France, the denial of crimes against humanity, e.g. denying the holocaust, is forbidden by law (loi n° 90-615 du 13 juillet 1990,  also known as Loi Gayssot).
   Incitement to ethnic or racial hatred is also forbidden (in private: penal code art. R.625-7).
   While you cannot be condemned for an opinion, you can be condemn for acting on it, and speech is an act! Consequences unfold, and might unfold far and fast. They might seriously endanger other people and institutions too.
   But, more important, while freedom of press is secured in France since 1881, specific restrictions apply to "public speech" (a category which the press falls in), simply because public speech will unfold faster and further than private speech… so freedom of personal expression is not freedom of press.

   Third, freedom of press is not a licence to say whatever, just because it's printed.
   To start with, the limitations that apply to private speech also apply to the press; the restrictions are even explicitly mentioned again, for the avoidance of doubt (art. 23&24 of the amended law from 1881 on freedom of press)!
   Notably, incitement to ethnic or racial hatred is forbidden (art. 24.5). Provocations based on belonging (or non-belonging), true or merely hypothesised, of the victim among a particular ethnic group, nation, race or religion (art. 48-1), on sexual orientation (art. 48-4), on disability (art. 48.6) are all serious infractions.

   For the avoidance of doubt, none of the above would allow any 'offended' citizen to take on himself / herself to punish the author of incitement of hatred, or a denier of genocide… or the author of any emotionally-painful pamphlet. Of course, not! The rule of law requires the offended citizen to call on Justice, not to execute whatever decision (s)he takes one his/her own.

   Still, confusing the various freedoms end up proliferating into a lot of other confusions and erroneous views, prejudices, biased conclusions, preconceived responses (anti-terrorism vs. anti-inequality?).
   Ultimately, I think the core confusion affecting the recent debate is this: the dignity of a human being (i.e. the basis for human rights) does not  automatically transfer into a dignity, or legitimacy, of this being's opinion, nor does it automatically transfer into a dignity or legitimacy of this being's speech. This applies equally to religious fundamentalists, to xenophobes and to nationalists!
   Granting you "inalienable" human rights does not mean your opinion deserves to be spread freely. Human rights don't even prevent that you could be legally thrown to jail, i.e. don't prevent your freedom being legally limited if you prove incapable of using it responsibly.  So why would anyone expect speech to be out of the realm of causality and responsibility?

   Definitions of freedom which would allow calls for jihad, denial of the Holocaust, incitement to hatred to be legitimate 'press' are naïve  and faulty. Yet most of the well-intended definition I've recently seen fall into this category. And they've proven faulty, for they already have supported a wave of faulty 'reprisal' attacks and unfair expectations on a whole community.
   That one might want to organise any angry response by an 'offended' reader, so that it takes the path of tribunals rather than the law of the strongest is the natural course for a civilised "rule of law"… but the 'press' shouldn't be arbitrarily shielded and allowed to print whatever crap they want, irrespective of facts, without having to face any consequence. Or that's just another law of the strongest: the law of the loudest!
   I know many Americans will be perplexed by the above, out of some oft-misunderstood constitutional principle… but when one looks at the damage that uninformed citizens cause by their ignorant votes, after listening to lies and fallacies on Fox News, I'm afraid Americans also have all the proof they need. When elections are linked to how much money one can raise to become the loudest, rather than linked to a comprehensive well-constructive platform, Americans have all the proof they need.
   Freedom of the press shouldn't be out of the realm of responsibility.

   Insults, defamation, harassment, etc., are not legitimate forms of expressions… whatever the opinion one has of the "assholes"! And it's quite important that it is not legitimised, because at the end of the day, every single one of us is an "asshole" in the mind of someone! The debate wouldn't lead very far if anything could be said, irrespective of facts and proofs, and irrespective of consequences…

   Oh, and calling it a "joke" [or an "expedient mean", by the fake Zen teachers and other proponents of "tough love"] when things turn sour is just a feeble attempt to escape one's responsibility; it is neither legitimate nor constructive!


   Freedom in Buddhism is not  defined as « I do whatever I want », that would rather be seen as the bondage of one's unchosen, context-dependent impulses and desires.
   On the contrary, freedom in Buddhism is tied to acting out of non-greed, non-hatred, non-ignorance, i.e. not letting self-serving biases, selfish tendencies, self-centred opinions make you act in automatic, make you pick suboptimal options (by missing the bigger picture), make you be a victim of your unquestioned habits.
   It is freedom from lust, from aversion, from stupidity. Sometimes it means "doing the right thing"  regardless of narrow-minded selfish interests, regardless of "I'd rather do something else"…  because the 'I' should not arbitrarily and automatically be assumed the right 'measure' of ethics: co-dependent others count too!
   « I want, I want, I want » has little ethical value: others don't "want" to be hurt by our ignorance. How do we handle this? That's the question, that's the contradiction and koan of Life! How do we find Peace amidst the conflicting 'wants'?  Often it starts with picking one's words wisely, e.g. to educate rather than to insult, rather than to utter poor jokes at the expense of another, ignoring the suffering caused!

Internet rather than press?

   It's very easy, and regularly popular on the internet, to blame the 'offended', to tell them that being 'offended' doesn't give them rights, doesn't make them right… That's lame and, basically, that's blaming the victim! How about… if someone suffers from our words, maybe we could have picked more constructive words, out of compassion (even if they need help to become less ignorant / obtuse / clingy / righteous)?
   Hurting people is never particularly constructive, so it's nothing to be proud of. The offence doesn't make you 'right' any more that it makes the offended 'right'! There's "moral high ground" on neither side of this argument.
   If you think offending is some sort of "public service to others", give yourself a break from your arrogant superiority complex (or your misguided appropriation of Línjì's caricature as role model, if you happen to see yourself as a Zen practitioner).
   Caring for others is what's valuable and constructive, what leads towards the cessation of suffering, and it very rarely goes via hurting their bodies (corporal punishments are being banned from schools for being ineffective), nor their feelings. What's "convenient" or "easy" rarely is the same as "necessary", so don't use the copout of "I had to hurt", just look for better words!
   While the pen is more powerful than the gun, it is so when it nobly teaches; ask Malala Yousafzai, who fought for an education!
   People will suffer enough from seeing their certainties crumble (e.g. thanks to good argumentation and education), they don't need an extra dose of suffering by unnecessarily harsh words.

   Do good (constructive), refrain from evil (harmful), purify the mind (intention), that is the teaching of all the buddhas.

#philosophy #freedom #engagedBuddhism #Buddhism #ethics