Freedom, Justice, and Civil Society

I have been thinking a lot recently about a number of related topics: civil society, of course, but also freedom, self, and justice. I suppose none of these are particularly new, but I’ve but been thinking about their intersection in new ways.

Last week, for example, the University of Chicago made headlines when the Dean of Students expressed the following sentiment to its incoming Freshman class:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wider range of ideas.

What’s interesting about these two paragraphs is the totally divergent visions from people on different sides of this issue. Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces – I’ll leave invited speakers aside here because I see that as a different issue – see exclusivity, reverse discrimination, and coddling. Proponents see tools which serve precisely that priority the University seeks to advance: welcoming people of all backgrounds and encouraging rich intellectual exchange.

It seems almost strange that such orthogonal interpretations can co-exist.

This is where, it seems to me, that different conceptions of core issues such as freedom, self, and justice come into play – with striking repercussions for how we organize civil society.

These terms are by no means clear or consistent. For example, my friend and colleague Peter Levine once listed at least six different types of freedom. Does freedom mean freedom to act? Freedom to create? Or, perhaps, freedom is a “negative liberty” – freedom is freedom from constraint.

Applied to civil society, the question is no longer what it means to be free, but rather: how do we live freely together?

This question is important because inevitably, our individual freedoms will come into conflict. Social norms as well as laws can be seen moderators of our various freedoms. Murder is illegal because most of us would rather give up our own freedom to commit murder in order to reduce the possibly that someone else will exercise their freedom to murder us. Alternatively, we could argue that one person’s freedom to live outweighs another’s freedom to murder.

Taking freedom in this way, much of our civil infrastructure can be interpreted as a process balancing freedoms: is one person’s freedom to speak more important than another’s freedom to not hear? How hateful or harmful does speech need to be – if indeed there is such a line -before the freedom of the listener outweighs the freedom of the speaker?

These are important questions, but they cannot be separated from questions of self and justice.

First of all, such a concept of freedom only really makes sense if you think of ‘self’ as a discrete, individual unit. If, on the other hand, your concept of ‘self’ has less well-defined boundaries – or perhaps no boundaries at all – then the very idea of freedom becomes less clear. What does it mean for me to be free, if ‘me’ is little more than a “a psychological and historical structure,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote.

And, importantly, there is the issue of justice. Or, more precisely, the issue of systemic injustice.

Too often, this topic is missing or sidestepped in discussions of civil society.

The question of balancing freedoms is most easy to answer when the people in question are essentially the same. If you think of society as a game where we each have an equal number of points to spend on expressing our defending our freedom, then it seems entirely fair to say that – major issues such as murder aside – we should leave each person to spend their points as they may.

The idea that trigger warnings and safe spaces coddle some students at the expense of other students seems to tacitly rely on this idea: one person’s freedom of speech is too precious to sacrifice another’s comfort.

But such a view disregards the effects of systemic injustice. Safe spaces, for example, are not primarily about exclusion or shutting some perspectives down – it’s about creating space, just a little space, for those people who live their lives inundated with the message that they are bad, inferior, or unalterably wrong. A safe space needs to be created precisely because no other space is safe.

This is an issue far beyond college campuses. We see this issue on campus for precisely the same reason college campuses have seen so much activism: we are training young people to be engaged members of society. We are teaching them to not simply accept the world as it is, but to engage in the hard work of continually working to make the world better.

I once heard a university professor tell young students of color that the world is full of racism and discrimination – so a university which shields its students from those realities is doing them no favors.

The students – justifiably, in my opinion – were shocked.

They each knew all too well that the world is full of discrimination. They each experienced it personally and painfully again and again and again each day. They weren’t asking to be coddled, they weren’t asking to be shielded. They were asking for the opportunity to learn with the freedom their white peers seemed to enjoy.

And they were demanding their own freedom of speech; their own freedom to protest and speak out and to engage fully in the hard work of bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.


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