Freedom can never be ‘granted’ to us

Brendan O’Neill’s recent speech imploring young libertarians to keep their eyes peeled for ‘phony freedoms’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

On Saturday 6 April, Brendan O’Neill gave a speech about attitudes to freedom at the annual Liberty League conference in London. An edited version of his speech is published below.

I was doing my weekly shopping recently, when I saw there was a brand of toilet paper called ‘Freedom’. I started wondering, what kind of freedom is being offered by this toilet paper? Is it a ‘freedom to’ or is it a ‘freedom from’?

I thought it could possibly be a ‘freedom to’, in the sense that purchasing and using this toilet paper would give a person the freedom to wipe their bottoms, something they would not be at liberty to do if they did not own toilet paper.

But then I thought the toilet paper could also be providing a ‘freedom from’ – most obviously a freedom from stains. A freedom from uncleanliness, and also from the social ostracism that often accompanies that particular form of uncleanliness.

Now, of course, that’s ridiculous. This is really hygiene we’re talking about, not freedom. Cleanliness might be next to godliness, but it is not next to freedom of speech or freedom of association as one of the great liberties of the modern age. The Chartists did not demand freedom from skidmarks.

Only a crazy toilet paper company, desperate to catch people’s attention, would denigrate freedom in this way, right? Actually, you’d be surprised. These days, even in the upper echelons of the political classes, people talk seriously about the ‘freedom’ to have a hygienic bottom.

So the UN has made access to sanitation into a human right. Last year, on something called World Toilet Day, it declared: ‘Eliminating inequality can start in the most unlikely of places: a toilet.’ Apparently, ‘the humble toilet can be a stepping stone to… greater human dignity, freedom and equality’.

Now, I am all in favour of more toilets, of everyone in the world having access to a clean, flushing, preferably Gaddafi-style gold-plated toilet. And making that happen will involve further industrialising vast swathes of the earth. But I doubt very much that having a toilet will set people free – cleaner, yes, but freer?

The treatment of toilet roll and toilet matters as issues of ‘freedom’ reveals how casually that word is used these days.There are two ways to look at this. Either you can get really down about it and think to yourself: ‘Oh God, freedom has been so emptied of meaning that it is now literally something you can wipe your arse with.’ Or you can be more upbeat, and take pleasure in the fact that freedom is still such a valued thing, such a valued word, that it is used to give a positive gloss to everything – even the act of going to the toilet.

I think we should embrace that latter outlook. I think it’s actually pretty cool that we live in a world where the word freedom still has almost completely positive connotations, where everything can be dolled up with the word ‘freedom’. What this reveals, I think, is that freedom remains the one ideal of the post-Enlightenment era that still carries a massive amount of social weight. Other words thrust into the public consciousness during the Enlightenment, such as tolerance, have fallen into disrepair. People now actively boast about being intolerant, about taking a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards crime or prejudice. You would never hear someone boasting about having a ‘zero liberty’ attitude.

Everyone treats the ideal or at least the word freedom seriously. Everyone pays lip service to it. The ideal of freedom has made such inroads into the human consciousness, has become so intertwined with how we see ourselves and think of ourselves, that it would be a brave person who stood up and said: ‘It is time for zero freedom.’

This does not mean, however, that freedom as a lived experience is not under threat. It absolutely is. Many of our core freedoms, especially freedom of speech, are being undermined by a political class that doesn’t trust us to live freely. But here’s the thing: such is the value still attached to the idea of freedom that now even attacks on freedom get dressed up as an expansion of freedom. Even the killing of freedom is disguised as freedom.

Ours is an age of increasingly phony freedom, where our leaders promise us new freedoms that are actually incursions into the old freedoms we were already enjoying.

So in recent years, the government has granted us what it calls ‘smokefreedom’ – the freedom to walk into public buildings without encountering other people’s cigarette smoke. This, of course, is not a freedom at all, but its precise opposite: the top-down authoritarian rearrangement of public life to make it conform to the anti-smoker prejudices of the elite.

Officials also talk about ‘freedom from hate’. People should be free to go on to the internet or go about their business without encountering hateful or racist or sexist words, they say. This, too, is authoritarianism disguised as liberty, because it is actually about clamping down on the fundamental freedom of speech of those we consider hateful or stupid.

Even one of the most insidious forms of authoritarianism of recent years – nudging – is justified in the name of freedom. It is referred to as ‘libertarian paternalism’, an oxymoronic nonsense that brings to mind Orwell’s phrase ‘freedom is slavery’.

Another example of phony freedom is gay marriage. Here, too, it seems pretty clear to me that what is in fact an authoritarian instinct on the part of our rulers is being dressed up, and accepted by many people, as an expansion of liberty. The driving force in the gay-marriage campaign is the desire of the state to get its foot further in the door of private life, to assume something like sovereignty over how our most intimate relationships are defined and understood. Yet it is promoted as a new liberty, graciously being bestowed upon gays by a caring government.

Time and again, the language of freedom is used to undermine the experience of freedom. In such circumstances, libertarians must devote themselves to explaining what freedom really means, or what it ought to mean, beyond the word itself.

They must expose phony freedom. They should do this firstly by reminding everyone that freedom is always something you must fight for. Freedom must always be wrestled from authority. In fact, it is in the very process of fighting for freedom that you become free, or at least aware of your capacity to exercise and enjoy freedom. Through using reason, thinking independently and making demands of officialdom, our freedom grows; it expands; it becomes more possible.

If a freedom is given to us, then it isn’t freedom. It is a contradiction in terms to be ‘granted freedom’. When the government calls a press conference to announce that it is granting us smokefreedom, or freedom from hate, or gay-marriage freedom, then it’s incumbent upon libertarians to ask: what’s going on here? Be critical, be conscious, be aware that, historically, all freedoms worth having have been won through serious intellectual or physical struggle.

And secondly, libertarians should remember how important moral independence is to the lived experience of freedom. They should ask, ‘Does this so-called freedom expand or shrink a person’s ability to think and act independently of the state?’ If it expands our capacity for moral independence, that is good, something worth fighting for. But if the so-called freedom really shrinks our moral independence, and makes us more reliant on the authorities to protect our fragile souls from smoke or from hate, then it is not freedom. It is chaperoning. And who wants to be chaperoned?

If you need the state to hold your hand as you go about your life and engage with other people and ideas, then you might actually be better off staying inside your toilet after all, and looking for your dignity in there.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an edited version of a speech he gave at the Liberty League conference in London on 6 April 2013.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today