Act, but shall you receive? A review of Bellot’s essay on the nature of Freedom

Gabrielle Bellot’s essay on “What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong” (Bellot, G. “Freedom Means Can Rather Than Should: What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong”. Literary Hub, 8 July 2020. https://lithub.com/freedom-means-can-rather-than-should-what-the-harpers-open-letter-gets-wrong/), makes several valid points: relevant not to the “Open Letter” only, but to the entirety of modern public discourse, especially in politics.

In Bellot’s own words:
“the fundamental problem… is confusing freedom of speech, with the freedom to act without consequences. …I reserve the right to call you out for spewing rhetoric that unjustly maligns a particular sect of humanity. Having the freedom to say anything, in theory, does not mean one should say anything without ramifications”.

This, indeed, is the mistake of our century, in which people of every persuasion, confuse those freedoms. The very people (police-officers and school-teachers, and even ordinary citizens) who spend their time impressing the idea of No Misdeed Unpunished on all and sundry, become surprised and resentful when anyone uses it on themselves; principally because they, without thinking, assume the identity of the two freedoms.

The question of ‘Is’ v. ‘Ought’, remains open in philosophical circles; but in the public mind, at least, the defence of ‘Because I could’, or ‘Because nothing prevented it’, is far from unassailable, and invokes spectres of the doctrine of Force Majeure and other similar principles, which we remember with a shudder, as the defining spirit of war-torn times governed, if at all, by mere autocracy. If we assume these to be insufficient grounds for the rightness of an action, the identity of the two freedoms becomes difficult to sustain; and all the more so in the political climate of the United States and other former European colonies, which have always used the word ‘Freedom’ as a pretext for their demands, and yet do so in a variety of meanings. The Revolutionary use of the word, usually invoked as an example, meant only a ‘Free and independent State’ in the sense of one subject to no foreign power. The same use was revived in the Cold War, in which each side claimed to ‘Liberate’ its client states from the control of the other side.

Between these, we have the American Civil War, in which the two parties of Union and Confederate assumed contradictory definitions of ‘Freedom’: in the Union, that of a State, or Nation, in which all citizens were equal under the law, and no resident might be considered the property of another; and in the Confederacy, that in which every state in a federation, and every administrative unit within every state, down to households, was entitled to make its own laws without regard for more than a minimum of those which united them into a federation at all.

Similarly, the revolutions in South Africa, revolve upon a question of two definitions of freedom: on the one hand, the freedom of all residents of a nation to enjoy the privileges of citizenship; and on the other hand, the freedom of a certain former elite, to retain the privileges of their predecessors.

At present, the question raised by Bellot, is between two definitions of freedom in America, not unlike those of the Civil War, and even more similar to those recently contested in South Africa. It is not difficult to identify “freedom to say anything”, with the usages of the Union, and later of the African National Congress, and the privilege “to say anything without ramifications” with that of the Confederacy, and the former South African government.

The meaning of ‘Freedom’, then, may be said to have wandered somewhat from its roots; but in the last 150 years, at least, has changed little. Yet it is not exclusively a modern matter. The first 7 volumes of Livy’s history of Rome, depict debate after debate, civil disobedience after civil disobedience, upon that very question, of the freedom of all residents of a nation to enjoy the privileges of citizenship, weighed against the freedom of a former elite, to retain the privileges of their predecessors. The expulsion of the Tarquins, the famous saga of Coriolanus, the rise and fall of the decemvirs, the accession of the Caesars, and any number of (relatively) non-violent rebellions are described, by Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, and others, as motivated by precisely this question. It might thus be said, to be the defining question of all republics known to us in detail; at least, of representative democracies, rather than direct, in particular.

Having said that, if this is correct, and this is the defining question of republics, we may therefore argue, It is the right, the duty, and the privilege of all the voting public therein, to answer it. In fact, every generation does so: it may be the dissatisfaction of each, with the answers of its precursors, which keeps the question from settling itself for ever.