TRUE OPINION: It’s the favourite trick of the far-right and the anti-vax movement: debating about freedom instead of nuances, writes Yaakov Aharon.
There is a scene in the tv sitcom Black Books. Before work one morning, Manny washes himself in a bubble bath while humming to the jazz on the radio that sits tub-side. The sound from the radio cracks and sparks fly as water splashes everywhere, but Manny keeps in tune. He dries his long, matted hair with a blowdryer in his right hand.
Click. The toaster sitting beside the tub and the radio announces to Manny that breakfast is ready. Manny grabs the toast with his wet, soapy left hand. He burns his wrinkled fingers on the toast and releases the blowdryer in his other hand, dropping it in to the bath.
But Manny escapes injury.
“Whew! Lucky.” He says, realising he was nearly electrocuted. Despite his near-death experience, Manny promptly resumes blowdrying in the bath.
You could argue that in this moment Manny is truly free; free from anxiety, free from desire and greed, and free from the fear of having his organs fried and dying a sudden but violent death.
Welcome to the ideal of freedom given to us by so much of our political discourse. The far-right internet warriors will complain about cancel culture infringing on freedom of speech, and will advocate for free speech at whatever cost. The anti-lockdown mob will wave the flag for freedom of movement. The anti-vaxxers co-opt the feminist slogan of ‘my body, my choice.’
They all believe in a twisted definition of freedom: that we have the same right to do (or to not do) things that we want to do, even if it is dangerous to ourselves and to others. Damn the consequences.
Listen up, you shit-stirring, short-sighted assholes: I wouldn’t stand by idly if I was your housemate and you used the blowdryer in the bath. I would tell you that you are being a fucking idiot and that you have to stop unless you want to find another housemate. You will not risk burning down our sharehouse in an electric fire. You do not need the radio to feel freedom while relaxing in a bath.
Society is like the bath. We have removed ourselves from our natural circumstances, and with those changes comes new things that we are able to do and that we are not able to do. We can float on our backs with our eyes closed and imagine we are in paradise, but we cannot also use the toaster. Does this make us more free or less free? It doesn’t actually matter. Freedom is a vague story we tell ourselves about.
Readers may call me a dictator but I also believe in further common-sense limits on your freedom of speech:
1. Yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre is dangerous.
2. Inciting violence with speech is the same as committing violence oneself.
3. Defamation laws protect all of us from vicious speech more often than they attack our freedom of speech.
4. Consumers have the right to advocate for a boycott of a business because they don’t like what the business has endorsed.
5. People can advocate for a public platform to be revoked from a political agitator. If the agitator is not defaming someone, and not inciting violence, it is the right of the host of that public platform to choose to censor the agitator by giving in to the people or to stand their ground. (Could you imagine if the opposite was true? If, for example, Trump forced Twitter to lift the ban on his account and to continue allowing him a platform for his outrageous views? What would happen to Twitter’s freedom to conduct their business how they want?)
Conservatives can call this ‘cancelling’ if it makes them feel like that wins new territory in the culture wars. However, these are actually age-old foundations of our social contract that existed before cancel culture mobs and before the grifters who capitalise on arguing for freedom of speech.
Similarly, COVID-denial is a danger to all of us. Vaccinations and lockdowns only work if everyone is on board. It is through these measures that we can live normally again. Freedom isn’t a metric for success here. I just want to do what must be done to return to normal again.
COVID-deniers are hijacking the feminist slogan ‘my body, my choice’ for their anti-vaxx, anti-mask bullshit. Abortions are not like vaccinations in the sense that abortions hurt no one, but if my neighbour is unvaccinated that also puts me in danger of being close to an outbreak. However, abortion and vaccinations share similarities in the sense that the political discourse around them revolves around whether these practices really are harmless.
To my pro-choice comrades: there are other convincing arguments for abortion, but ‘my body, my choice’ is not one of them. Yes, every mother deserves the right to an abortion. But a mother’s freedom to do what she wants with her body means nothing to a conservative who sincerely believes that abortion is murder. ‘My body, my choice’ is only a sound argument if it is first proven that abortions hurt no one else. Therefore, meaningful debate around abortion can only begin with bioethics.
It’s time that addressed the true nuances of political discourse. The blowdryer must be away from the bathtub because of personal safety. Lockdowns and vaccines are required for public health. Abortions are a woman’s right because biologists have not found evidence that life begins at conception. Speech must be regulated because speech can be dangerous. Freedom is a distraction from the nuance, not a catch-all argument for when we are too lazy to think for ourselves.