Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Freedom From Versus Freedom To (2016-08-25)
A number of writers, among whom the most famous is probably Riane Eisler of Chalice and the Blade fame, have explored the differences between "power over" versus "power to." The differences, as you can imagine, are not just semantic, but also ethical, and when or if "power over" should be valued more than "power to" is a critical question all of are daling with right now. For example, should we be seeking power to work with the environment and ease the difficulties the changing climate is bringing us, or should we bullheadedly try to take power over the climate à la bad science fiction with climate control machines? A much smaller scale example may be at play at your local place where people get educated: should people's power to for active learning be curtailed in favour of rote learning? This example is a bit better, because it draws out where we struggle most, when it seems like "power over" might be the right answer in one situation, and "power to" in another. Thinking this over made me think again about another culturally loaded word in english these days, "freedom," which is related to power.
"Freedom" like "power" isn't a word that can stand by itself when we want to be sure what we're discussing. One modification for discussion purposes is the one that I have made in the title, of "freedom from" versus "freedom to." Similar to "power to" and "power over," these are not absolutely separated concepts or even absolutely separated kinds of action. They are interwoven in that how we enact them impacts other people around us enact them from their side. I may be able to exert power over someone to force them to do what I want, and that obviously denies any power to say no they may have, and may do damage to us both in terms of the potential power to have positive relationships with others. There seems to be considerable overlap between the different versions of power and freedom at first glance, because if I have such power over, I am free to act in that way. But the key thing to take notice of is that power refers to an action you can take, an ability you have, freedom is a state that you can be in.
So I may be free from sickness or fear for example, or free from coercion by any of the all too numerous ways it may be applied. Because of such freedom, I may have attendant power to do an all manner of things, from the undoubtedly positive such as help others, to the definitely negative like punch my neighbour in the nose. On the other hand, I think a case could be made that "freedom to" is just a semantic difference in this context rather than a truly meaningful one, unless the difference can be vested in the role of other people. I've actually done this fortuitously by highlighting "coercion" in the "freedom from" part. Coercion requires at least two conscious wills, one person forcing, the other person resisting more or less successfully. If we follow that, then we could argue "freedom to" obtains in situations where we could be prevented from exercising our power of whatever sort by factors outside of any willed action. The standby examples here tend to be weather and natural disaster related. There are people currently dealing with the effects of earthquakes on their lives in Burma and Italy would love to have the freedom to go about their ordinary lives, but this is not going to be possible for awhile. I would like to have the freedom to go for a long walk in just a t-shirt and shorts today, but it's pouring. Then there are instances such as, I'd like to go work on this paper now, but I need to eat first.
Perhaps this perspective could help sort out what people mean when they inveigh about their "freedom of speech." So often the people who make statements in public about "freedom of speech" are clearly having no issues speaking freely whatsoever, to the point of intruding on the peace of some and blocking the speech of others, that a quite different message comes across. They seem to be demanding freedom from the speech of others, whose speech they find coercive, that it forces them to do something they would rather not, or at least that it makes them feel they must oppose such force. Which is quite backwards if the person insisting has one or more likely more positions of privilege in society, as indeed the majority of people I have observed insisting on "freedom of speech" have. This is not generally a rhetorical ploy of people of colour, anyone in poverty, or women, for example.
Which leads me to think not a few "freedom of speech" folks are effectively demanding that everyone accept that any new information or speech that inspires them to question their privilege or to think about it anyway, is a form of coercion. This in the teeth of the fact that they are refusing to do that questioning and thinking, and their social privilege guarantees them the choice. It is undeniable that having your privileges challenged is uncomfortable, it's just that mere discomfort is not a surefire sign of coercion. Perhaps more often than not, it is our better nature not allowing us the freedom to ignore the actions we must take to put wrong things right, especially when those actions are our own.