Why do we fear freedom?

The first casualty of the politics of fear is open debate.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Politics has little in common with the passions and conflicts that shaped people’s commitments and sentiments over the past two centuries. There is no longer room for principles, ideals or even a clear political purpose.

Instead of ideas party leaders look for brands and sub-contract the job of image creation to think-tanks, public relations agencies or marketing organisations. But without purpose, politics becomes a caricature of itself. Politics becomes exhausted and discredited when the energies of its devotees become entirely invested in the project of winning elections.

One symptom of the exhaustion of politics is the disorientation of the ruling elites. They seem to lack a mission or a focus. Public figures find it difficult to account for their objectives through the medium of political, moral or philosophical ideas. Their parties lack a programme, even an identity. That is why party conferences are invariably distracted by the question of ‘who are we?’. Instead of addressing people about their beliefs, principles or doctrines, political parties modestly refer to an ‘agenda’ or a ‘project’.

Hurrah Words and dull agendas

UK prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘Respect Agenda’ is only the latest example of this rhetorical strategy. Increasingly, the rhetoric adopted by the political elites is deployed to obscure the fact that, not only do they not have a big idea, they also lack a small one. Take some of the Hurrah Words that trip off the tongues of public figures. Everybody is for diversity, transparency, social cohesion, inclusion, best practice, evidence-based policy, adding value and stakeholding. But what does any of it mean? Is it any surprise that some public figures feel uncomfortable about expounding their project when they are armed with such empty phraseology?

The demise of political ideology is an outcome of a profound sense of estrangement from the experience of the past. Its impact encourages a sense of defeatism about the future. Without clearly formulated alternatives, politics loses its orientation to the future. It becomes short-termist and regards the future as a no-go area for policymaking. So instead of elaborating policies that can secure a better future, governments have become obsessed with micro-managing the present.

Public figures eschew big issues, and opt for a diet of unconnected single issues. Foxhunting, school dinners, licensing laws, university top-up fees, foundation hospitals, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) or parenting orders are represented as the make-or-break questions of the twenty-first century. The flipside of the depoliticisation of public life is the tendency to focus attention on the minutiae of people’s existence. But these issues, which are framed through the soulless idiom of managerialism, invariably fail to engage the imagination of the public.

Costed proposals and evidence-based policies do little to inspire or mobilise the electorate, and politicians have come to recognise that their political, ideological and moral links with the public are fragile. Managerial forms of party rhetoric and micro-politics have little purchase on an evidently disenchanted public. The ceaseless search for yet another public relations-led initiative serves to heighten Westminster’s isolation from the people.

It is difficult to motivate normal human beings with a ‘Respect Agenda’. People are unlikely to be inspired by a minister’s undertaking to extend ‘best practice’ or to ‘add value’. And the claim that Britain stands for diversity while the terrorists uphold evil is unlikely to engage the imagination of people who are looking for some clear purpose in life. Most people intuitively sense that the vocabulary used by public figures consists of platitudes masquerading as meaningful political idioms.

Take a key Hurrah Word: diversity. Celebrating the value of diversity is a roundabout way of saying that society has no values with a distinct purpose to celebrate. Diversity has no intrinsic political or moral meaning. It does not represent a view of the world nor provide society with a purpose or a vision of the future. Diversity merely provides a rhetorical strategy for avoiding the challenging task of outlining what society stands for by claiming that it stands for anything.

At best, the word diversity is a term of description that testifies to the unlike and the varied. The term ‘diverse society’ tells us that people have different origins, cultures and ways of life. It says little about what distinguishes that society and what ought to be its aspiration. It certainly offers no alternative to the jihadist, and lacks the credibility to inspire any significant section of society. The embrace of this term by otherwise intelligent political figures is evidence of a profound sense of malaise that afflicts public life.

It is the sense of political malaise that encourages many Western governments to adopt such a negative style of governance. Curbs on civil liberty are one manifestation of this trend. The other is the politicisation of fear. The politicisation of fear is inextricably linked to the inability of governments to project a sense of purpose.

The politicisation of fear

Societies that are able to project a positive vision of the future do not need to employ fear as a currency in public life. Take for example former US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933. His statement that the ‘only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ was integral to a positive orientation to the future, which would eventually lead to the launching of the New Deal. The contrast between Roosevelt’s message and the statements made by politicians today is striking. Alarmist exhortations about binge drinking and child obesity compete with the warning ‘Not If – But When’.

There is now a substantial body of opinion that regards fear as a positive resource for ‘raising awareness’ in society. This orientation is not confined to the war on terrorism. It is worth noting that the first major speech that Blair made after returning from his summer holiday was on the need to protect the majority from the minority of irresponsible parents who refuse to control their children. Blair warned that ‘people need to understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to their community, there is something that is going to happen, they can’t just get away with that’.

Blair’s parenting orders are typical products of the kind of negative politics that contributes to the institutionalisation of fear. Like the erosion of liberties in the name of protecting people from terror, parenting orders represent an encroachment on people’s democratic rights. They limit freedom of movement and threaten to force errant mothers and fathers to bring up their children in accordance with the rules set by officials. As the prime minister put it, whether they like it or not parents ‘can be forced by the order to accept support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their child’s life’.

The government appears to take the view that the British public has become more relaxed about defending its civil rights and free speech. In his September speech promoting parenting orders, Blair was upbeat on this matter. ‘You know, a few years ago probably the talk about…parenting orders and parenting classes…would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous’, he remarked. But apparently attitudes are changing. According to Blair, while ‘there are still people’ who see this as ‘interfering with the right of the individual’, the ‘law-abiding majority’ is less worried about minor infringements on civil liberties.

In one sense, Blair is right. At present there is little public resistance to curbs on civil liberties as long as they are promoted as sensible commonsense policies rather than as attacks on people’s freedoms. I am always surprised that the automatic vetting, by the Criminal Records Bureau, of adults who work with or who might come into contact with children has rarely been questioned. Since its introduction, more and more adults have become targets of this procedure and it is only a matter of time before a parent will need to be vetted before she drives her son’s mates to their football team’s match.

That adults need to be vetted before they interact with children indicates the extent to which fear-provoking policies have enveloped intimate aspects of our lives. At least the curbs imposed through the anti-terrorism legislation can be justified on the grounds that they constitute an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances. These curbs on civil rights are linked to what has been defined as a war in which the integrity of society is at stake. The police vetting of adults who come into contact with children, by contrast, is presented as the normal and responsible way of operating.

The expansion of the work of the Criminal Records Bureau into everyday life is not presented as a response to exceptional circumstances but as a routine fact of life. So it is hardly surprising that if we are prepared to accept our loss of freedoms in exchange for the illusion of security for children, there will be little questioning of other forms of attacks on civil liberties.

Is freedom just another word?

Debates about free speech and liberty are ultimately shaped by two contrasting views. Those who cherish liberty claim that free speech is not simply a democratic right; it is also indispensable for the clarification of ideas and the conduct of civilised public life. However, from an authoritarian perspective, free speech has no special virtue. At best it is regarded as a source of confusion and at worst an instrument of subversion. In between these two contrasting positions lies the outlook of the pragmatist, who regards free speech as useful but in times of difficulty an unnecessary and disposable privilege.

Today the pragmatists and the authoritarians, who claim to be speaking on behalf of the law-abiding majority, are making all the running. The view that ‘too much’ freedom and ‘too many’ civil rights are somehow inconsistent with waging a war against terrorism is transmitted throughout society. When politicians invite us to defend our freedoms from terrorism, the freedom of speech is not what they have in mind.

For some time now, the UK government has sought to place new legal curbs on the public’s right to express its views freely. Consequently, our right to question and criticise religion is compromised by proposed legislation that seeks to criminalise ‘incitement to religious hatred’. Although the law aims to protect Muslims from the destructive force of hatred, its effect will be to undermine the potential for a free and open discussion of the role of religion in British society. Such a law will encourage people to skirt around the question of where Islam fits into British society and avoids having a grown-up discussion about the subject. It will help consolidate a climate where the regulation of speech can be represented as normal behaviour.

As a quid quo pro for not letting anyone incite hatred against Muslims, ‘they’ will also be legally forbidden to hate ‘us’. So we now have the invention of a new offence – that of ‘indirect incitement’ to commit terrorism. Typically, the term ‘indirect incitement’ is deliberately diffuse, so that it can cover virtually any strong opinion that is hostile to the government’s war on terror. When government ministers were asked to provide examples of what constituted an indirect incitement to commit terrorism, they pointed to phrases that ‘glorify terrorist acts’ or ones that attack ‘the values of the West’.

The government proposes to crack down and expel radical preachers, to make sure that they cannot preach hatred. It appears that the new ground for deportation includes ‘fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person’s belief or justifying or validating such violence’. No doubt there are some people who are deeply hostile to British society and who use dreadful words to express their hatreds. One does not need to spend a fortune on a Panorama-type investigation to encounter vicious propaganda that seeks to demonise every dimension of British life. But why are we so worried about their words of hatred? Do we think that extremist views are, by definition, powerful and capable of infecting anyone? Do we believe that young people are so simple that they are more likely to be influenced by a radical preacher like Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed than by reasoned thought? Or is it the case that, since we are not too sure about who we are and where we are going, we feel confused about how to respond to views that call into question our way of life? It seems that the obligatory incantation about the celebration of diversity serves as a prelude to shutting up those who are a little bit too diverse.

Whatever the motives that fuel the UK government’s illiberal attitude towards free speech, this attitude reveals a profound sense of disorientation and defensiveness. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the government does not believe that it can effectively counter the views of its opponents with arguments of its own. At a time when a confident government would charge forward to engage its opponents in a battle of ideas, the British elite has opted for the defensive strategy of damage limitation. Even the university, an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and reasoned debate, cannot be trusted to contain the ideas of the fanatics through the exercise of free speech.

Back in July, the heads of UK universities were told that they too had to sign up to the crusade against terrorism by clamping down on the influence of extremist campus groups who promote terrorism. Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, informed a meeting of vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit to challenge the ‘evil ideology’ responsible for the recent bombings in London. Rammell claimed that free speech was important but added that ‘we also have a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus’. Unfortunately, experience indicates that the objective of rhetorically coupling free speech with the demand that ‘we also have a responsibility to tackle extremism’ is to close down open discussion. That is why Rammell is not asking university authorities to wage a battle of ideas in defence of democracy, but to demand vigilance and if necessary to curb free speech.

A few weeks after Rammell’s speech, Middlesex University suspended the president of its student union for organising a meeting at which the Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir was to speak. As far as the university authorities were concerned, curbing debate and free speech on campus is the obvious way to defend ‘our way of life’. What the managers at Middlesex University failed to comprehend was that their action sent out the message that they feared the consequences of a debate in which Hizb-ut-Tahrir was a participant. In this way, they succeeded in acknowledging their own moral and intellectual confusion, and helped transmit the idea that Islamist views are something that we have to really fear.

Sadly it appears that in its conflict with the enemies of democracy, the British establishment regards civil liberties as a source of weakness rather than a source of strength. That is why liberties are represented as a potential source of vulnerability. When Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, warned that ‘some erosion of what we value may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives’, she implicitly presented civil liberties as an obstacle to effectively countering the bombers. The ease with which ‘what we value’ is traded off for the elusive promise of security indicates a feeble attachment to democratic principles.

The cavalier attitude of British officialdom towards civil liberties is not driven by some malevolent or authoritarian desire to dominate public life. This is the response of a political class that feels estranged from the world of ideas and principles. From time to time, leading voices in the government call for a ‘battle of ideas’ to uphold the ‘British way of life’. But such pleas have an entirely rhetorical character, since politicians are very reluctant to spell out just what is this way of life that they wish to uphold.

In fact, it is precisely because British politics is lost for words that politicians would rather close down discussion about what it is we are defending and fighting for than engage with it through the force of its ideas. In such circumstances, many public figures are more than happy to allow the imperative of security to compromise liberty. As always, one of the first casualties of the politics of fear is open dialogue and debate.

The term ‘politics of fear’ contains the implication that politicians self-consciously manipulate people’s anxieties in order to realise their objectives. There is little doubt that they do regard fear as an important resource for gaining a hearing for their message. Scare tactics can sometimes work to undermine opponents and to gain the acquiescence of the electorate. However, the politics of fear is not simply about the manipulation of public opinion. The political class is itself anxious and disorientated. In the present circumstances, even professional political operators who are in the business of promoting fear are themselves habitually overwhelmed by it.

The politics of fear is a manipulative project that aims to immobilise public dissent. But it is also the mantra with which a disconnected elite responds in the circumstances of its isolation.

What the ‘politics of fear’ really expresses is the renunciation of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, it has no clearly focused objective. There is no big plan behind the elaboration of the recent raft of illiberal government measures. For the political establishment, one of the attractions of the politics of fear is that it absolves its practitioners of having to formulate what they actually stand for. Of course it does not make it any better that freedom in Britain is being undermined, not by a malevolent conspiracy, but by a powerful sense of stasis.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and author of The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

He is speaking in two sessions – Is morality making a comeback? and The humanist project in the twenty-first century – at the Battle of Ideas in London on 29-30 October 2005.
Read his latest article on bird flu at

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