Living Freedom 2018 was an opportunity to explore contemporary conundrums around liberty and autonomy, using both the insights of ‘the best that is known and thought’ and the provocations of contemporary intellectuals, to get to grips with the complexities and contradictions of freedom in the twenty-first century.
Freedom and tolerance are frequently asserted as fundamental values. In practice, however, aspects of freedom as they relate to different experiences or discrete groups are increasingly viewed as being in conflict. This has led many to question the virtues of an unconditional defence of tolerance or a no-holds-barred approach to the exercise of freedom. For example, if one culture or identity needs to be protected from appropriation by other groups, how does this effect universal notions or treating people equally? Or if an individual or group requires being shielded from potentially offensive remarks, then protecting the freedom of one depends on the denial of freedom to others. Such is the minefield of confusion around freedom today that what once were considered historic gains are now called into question: national sovereignty seems to conflict with rights to freedom of movement; sexual liberation with the right of women to be protected; the freedom not to be judged by gender or the colour of one’s skin with the demand for segregated safe spaces, whether on campus or public transport. Living Freedom 2018 aimed to make the case for freedom today while providing plenty of opportunity for challenging discussion.
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DAY 1: THURSDAY 5 APRIL
Introductory lecture: The dilemmas of freedom
Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘we all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing’. Actions, he said, are ‘hailed by some as the advance of liberty and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty’. Today, questions are rife over what legitimately represent gains for the cause of freedom. Is the emergence of #metoo the latest in a long line of gains for women’s liberation? Or is there a risk that freedom is being undermined by painting women as victims in need of protection? What some see as a boon – for example, restricting exploitation of darts girls, grid girls or Page Three girls – others argue will restrict women’s choices and ability to act autonomously. Is contemporary feminism becoming the enemy of freedom?
Elsewhere the role of universities and the benefits of academic freedom are increasingly debated and contested. Does pluralism and the assertion of the existence of multiple truths boost freedom by helping to open up the academy to a wider range of ideas and viewpoints? Or when insisting no particular idea is better than another, is there a danger of restricting our freedom to debate and discuss issues openly and arrive at a consensus on truth? Are trigger warnings and safe spaces a means of creating an atmosphere more conducive to freely engaging with ideas, or do they accelerate risk aversion and help create a culture of conformism in universities?
As the culture wars rage, freedom of speech is increasingly seen as conditional. The vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University has said ‘we treasure freedom of expression’ but adds ‘we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities.’ A columnist bemoans a TV station providing a platform for advocates of ‘gay cure therapy’ arguing that ‘the idea that free speech guarantees the right to incite hatred of minorities must be resisted’. Others go further, suggesting that freedom of speech is now merely a means for racists and ethnic-cleansing advocates to spout their bile. In the face of such conflictual claims on freedom, how best can we make the contemporary case for individual autonomy, an unconditional defence of tolerance and a no-holds-barred approach to the exercise of freedom?
DAY 2: FRIDAY 6 APRIL
Lecture: Classical roots of freedom
Freedom, and its consequences for society and the individual, is a core concept of modern political philosophy. Its origin can be traced back to Ancient Greece, specifically the vital works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Despite the difficulties of providing an accurate picture of Socrates’ life and thought (the so-called ‘Socratic Problem’), his legacy provides a basis for the works of Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s metaphysical outlook questions previous knowledge and considers the role of the individual within society, while Aristotle argues in Politics: a treatise on government that humans are naturally political, so they should be free to live how they wish. Historically, the Athenian mode of government has been viewed as an example of one of the first democracies, with its majoritarian and direct form of decision making, yet both Plato and Aristotle noted that it was still flawed. This session examined the classic concepts of freedom to ultimately ask: What does it mean to be free? Is freedom a basic right or an earned status and is there such a thing as a perfect/fully inclusive democracy? Finally, are the ideas of these key thinkers still relevant today?
Freedom Shorts: Four short lectures on freedom
Taking in Milton, Voltaire, Kant and Mill, these short lectures explore the emergence of key ideas about freedom in the modern age and ask: what is the legacy of these important thinkers? The French philosopher Montesquieu famously defined the Enlightenment as ‘man’s emergence from his self- imposed nonage’, highlighting the intrinsic link between the Enlightenment movement and modern political modes of thought and freedom. In the twenty-first century, do Enlightenment ideals of freedom still exist in practice?
The profound words of John Milton’s poetry have solidified his position as not only a literary genius, but as an early modern political thinker. In an age where censorship remains an issue, Milton sets out the case for letting ‘truth and falsehood grapple’. Although he is arguably most famous for his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Milton’s legacy extends further due to his later conscience-driven polemics. This is exemplified by his pamphlet Areopagitica. Published at the height of the English Civil War, Areopagitica was highly critical of the Licensing Order of 1643, which required writers to have their works approved by Parliament before being published. Areopagitica is considered one of the most eloquent and powerful defences of freedom of speech and freedom of the press ever written. What lessons can we take from Milton today?
Writing plays, poetry, novels and essays, François-Marie Arouet – usually known by his pen name, Voltaire – was a prolific writer who used his texts to advocate for religious tolerance, freedom of speech and civil liberties. He championed Enlightenment ideas such as reason over superstition, placing himself in opposition to the tyranny of religious dogma and censorship. For Voltaire, freedom of expression was imperative and his fierce loyalty to his principles made him unpopular with the authorities, which led to imprisonment and exile to England. He never, however, sacrificed his beliefs and he remains an important figure today. He also placed significant importance on science and empirical evidence, directly contradicting the superstition of the powerful Church. Does Voltaire’s belief in free speech hold up today? How would he respond to today’s society?
Immanuel Kant is widely regarded as the definitive Enlightenment philosopher, both criticising the metaphysical pretensions of his peers while at the same time justifying and celebrating the power of human reason. In his 1784 essay, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, Kant sought to sum up the spirit of the Enlightenment, boldly arguing that the Age of Enlightenment demanded people use their reason, think for themselves and debate in public. This session examined the assumptions, spirit and implications of Kant’s argument.
John Stuart Mill
Few texts have sustained such extensive reference and quotation as JS Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’ still provides the ground on which numerous debates around civil liberties, lifestyle choices and the external limits of freedom are fought. Yet it is imperative to understand the aims and context of On Liberty if Mill’s arguments around press liberty and the Harm Principle are to be properly understood – as the endless argumentation about what ‘harm’ means shows. Mill’s inspiring defence of personal autonomy and his attention to women’s issues of freedom in the Subjection of Women marks him out as a prominent Enlightenment thinker. However, are his ideas at odds with contemporary political rhetoric?
Guided seminars on Milton, Voltaire, Kant and Mill
Lecture: Religious freedom: a critical right or a license to discriminate?
Tensions are growing around how and whether religion should be accommodated in public life. In the era of Trump, religious conservatives in America have made it easier for hospitals, doctors and employers to object to providing birth control, abortions and transgender care on the grounds of conscience. Detractors say this is discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. Similar debates are playing out across Europe. So how do we reconcile the right of faith communities to exercise their beliefs in a pluralistic society? Should we censor individuals that disagree with same-sex marriages? Is firing a midwife that refuses to perform abortions an act of justice or discrimination? Does the right of conscience mean that a pharmacist can deny emergency contraception or that they can provide it even if it is forbidden? Or both? Has the United States gone too far in protecting the faithful? Has Europe gone too far in neglecting them?
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Lecture with respondents: Decolonising the curriculum or radicalising knowledge?
‘Pale, male and stale’ is the term often used to criticise curriculums which predominantly feature traditional canon writers like Shakespeare, Milton and Aristotle. Calls to diversify the curriculum have long been a feature of student politics. But a new movement to decolonise teaching at university has taken hold, with some academics and students claiming that it is harmful to BME students to teach works written by colonial writers. Some courses have been changed to include post-colonial work, some have removed authors from syllabuses completely. Pro-decolonisation activists claim that teaching all-white curriculums normalises a Eurocentric and racist view of the world. Does teaching Kant restrict the freedom of black and ethnic minority students? Should students choose the content of their courses, or should that be up to their tutors? And is the call to decolonise the curriculum an attack on academic freedom?
Expert Seminar Option A: Transgender wars
Transgenderism has rapidly emerged as one of the most controversial political issues. Debates about toilet access and sex-segregated spaces have prompted many institutions to reorganise along gender-neutral lines. Some universities have asked staff and students to refrain from using gendered language, like ‘mankind’ and ‘postman’. The Conservative Party has proposed to change the law, making the process of receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate easier – effectively allowing people to change gender officially without medical checks. This has prompted criticism from some who argue that men are men and women are women. The Labour Party is currently engaged in a war between feminists and transgender activists over whether to allow trans women to work in women-only roles. The trans debate can turn ugly and censorious, with anyone asking questions about the transgender community vilified as a transphobe. Should we be free to identify with any gender? How involved should the law be in facilitating this freedom? And should we be free to criticise trans politics?
Expert Seminar Option B: Generation Snowflake: myth or reality?
The term ‘snowflake’ was labelled the defining insult of the year by the Guardian in 2016. It was first used to describe students who called for protections like ‘safe spaces’ or ‘no platform’ policies at university, but swiftly became a catch-all term to define millennials seemingly ever keen to declare their emotional vulnerability and demand safeguarding and support. We can laugh at university campuses offering puppy-petting zoos to combat exam stress, but mental health has become the focus of global concern. The World Health Organisation says we are living in an anxiety epidemic, one that particularly affects young people, while a survey by The Prince’s Trust said that 58 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds believed recent political events made them feel more anxious. To what extent should we give credence to the claim that today’s generation needs protection and support? What is behind the emergence of ‘Generation Snowflake’ and the attributes associated with it, and how should we respond?
Lecture: National sovereignty versus freedom of movement
When the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said ‘borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians’, he expressed a widespread, fashionable belief: that transnational institutions such as the EU are the champions of cosmopolitanism and internationalism. Indeed, many have argued that the recent vote for Brexit in the UK and the rise of anti-Brussels populist movements throughout Europe are an expression of parochialism. So, is rejection of the EU akin to pulling up the drawbridge against the world, and turning inwards? Are we seeing a worldwide revolt against cosmopolitan modernity? Is there necessarily a contradiction between national sovereignty (and therefore democracy and freedom) and an internationalist outlook? Indeed, what is the relationship between national sovereignty and citizenship and is the claim to be a citizen of the world a valuable aspiration or a meaningless concept?
Lecture: Genetics, genomics and society – determinism vs free will
Our genes have, for better and for worse, been a central preoccupation in science, medicine and politics for more than a century. How has our understanding of genes changed during that time? Why are we moving increasingly from talking about ‘genetics’ to talking about ‘genomics’ (and ‘epigenetics’ and ‘epigenomics’)? What, if anything, can our genes really tell us – individually and collectively – about where we’ve come from, where we’re going to and how free we are?
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DAY 3: SATURDAY 7 APRIL
Lecture: Identity Politics – finding ourselves or a threat to freedom?
Loved and loathed, it seems identity politics is inescapable in contemporary political discourse. To some, identitarian politics represents the antithesis of liberal ideals, and a divisive force in society. To others, the political embrace of the personal is a vital tool in the struggle against oppressive institutions and practices. Progressive, political movements have historically fought for people not to be defined by their race, religion, gender or sexuality. Is the contemporary claim to identity necessarily hostile to more universal political ideals such as democracy and equality? Beyond the culture war of identity politics, how should we seek to construct a sense of ourselves today?
Panel Discussion: Stop Funding Hate: consumer boycott or censorship?
While many responded critically to the recent Hope Not Hate campaign that aimed to stop bookshops such as Waterstones from stocking titles by right wing or anti-Semitic authors, there seems more support for protesters seeking to control the content of newspapers who are said to be engaged in ‘hate campaigns’. Stop Funding Hate, for example, targets pressurising big businesses — like Paperchase, Lego, John Lewis, Virgin — to stop advertising in what are referred to as ‘hate newspapers’ (that is, tabloids such as the Daily Mail). According to its Facebook page, Stop Funding Hate aims to ‘tackle the culture of hate, demonisation and division that is poisoning our political discourse’. How should we view such campaigns? Are they liberally minded, positive consumer boycotts offering a progressive cry for increasing tolerance? Should we welcome the emphasis on individual action over state bans? Or should we be more worried that even where exercised informally, this amounts to censorship, one that dons a progressive mask but actually amounts to age-old intolerance?
Dual Lecture: What is Freedom? Existential and Political Freedom
What is freedom? During the twentieth century, two of the most compelling answers to this question were formulated by two ‘existentialist’ philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Hannah Arendt. Both argued that freedom could only be found in individual choice and action, yet they disagreed with the role that other people played in the expression of this freedom. Both were sceptical of placing undue weight on individual identity, yet both understood the importance of given obligations like family or citizenship. Haunted by the often devastating, often inspiring, political events of the twentieth century, both set about re-examining human agency in the midst of modern mass society. This session brought both these perspectives to bear to shed light on the nature of freedom.
Breakout Workshops: What the Papers Say
From policing behaviour in the public sphere to official intrusion into private lifestyle and from clamping down on microaggressions to curtailing of parental autonomy: the daily news is awash with an enormous range of stories that raise vital questions on the future of freedom. Having spent lunch perusing the papers for newsworthy freedom-related stories, each group considered the moral questions raised as regards to freedom and liberty.
Lecture: The liberated mind in action: from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution
It has been claimed that the Industrial Revolution was the biggest turning point in human history. It was the moment when the creative potential of society was left free to flourish, leading to huge changes from life expectancy to the growth of cities, from wealth production to the establishment of democratic nation states. Yet, in today’s climate of pessimism and low expectations, the Industrial Revolution is often either seen with scepticism or as a historical accident, a result of factors such as technology or cheap raw materials from the colonies. The crucial missing link is the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In the former, the mind demands its freedom; in the latter, it shows what it can achieve when it is free to translate its ideas into action.
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Expert Seminar Option A: The digitalisation of democracy: net neutrality vs surveillance and security
In 2016, the British government passed the Investigatory Powers Act, giving the police and intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to surveil our private communications and internet activity. More than nine people are arrested every day in the UK under the Communications Act 2003, which makes it illegal to ‘cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another’ with online posts. Digital rights groups have criticised these policies, claiming the government is over-policing the internet. Others suggest tighter controls are necessary, as unfettered internet use can harm democracy. Examples of hacking, echo chambers and radicalisation online have all been used to justify the restrictions that change how we use the net. Can democracy thrive with a totally free web, or should governments step in to protect the citizens they serve? Is it possible to solve new-age problems like filter bubbles and the transformation of our public sphere with a more open online framework? And what can we learn from success stories of democratic digitalisation overseas?
Expert Seminar Option B: Big Data and the post-truth world
Silicon Valley is allegedly the birthplace of technolibertarianism, a world of technological advance taking advantage of fluid, free, unregulated markets to create wider social freedoms. However, Silicon Valley has now become synonymous with monopoly internet giants like Facebook and Twitter, and is commonly associated with setbacks to the cause of freedom, whether through data collection or breaches of privacy and trust. Are the Valley’s new-media firms abusing their access to our data? With the recent Channel 4 News exposé on Cambridge Analytica, should we be worried about our freedom online and indeed do such companies now pose a threat to our democracies? Do we have the right to spread lies freely? Or does the propagation of falsehoods limit our freedom? And with calls to clamp down on fake news, under the guise of responding to ‘post-truth’ are we in danger of allowing unaccountable gatekeepers decide how far internet freedom extends?
Panel Discussion: Is women’s liberation helped or hindered by #MeToo?
The #MeToo hashtag has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year ‘for pushing us all to stop accepting the unacceptable’. It’s been celebrated as a watershed moment by many feminists, with spin-off campaigns like Time’s Up and exposés like Pestminster happening in its wake. But in the six months of #MeTooism, something of a backlash has occurred. Some are criticising the movement’s assertion of victimhood, claiming the revival of the idea of the ‘tainted women’ goes against the spirit of women’s liberation. In today’s sexual-harassment panic, is women’s freedom at risk? This provocation lecture with respondents looked at how #MeToo has called into questions women’s moral and personal autonomy.