Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Liberty is not always a “lady”

The word “liberty” is frequently bandied about in political and media circles. It is impossible to argue that liberty is not a good thing. We all celebrate the liberation of slaves, the liberation of women and other oppressed groups. Most of us recognise the need for freedom of speech and for a free press. We cherish the right to live our lives as we choose.

Yet the word “liberty”, and perhaps the very concept, can become a tool of oppression. We often defend our own liberty at the expense of someone else’s. We defend our own liberty most vigorously when it gives us an advantage over another. Conversely, we become an opponent of liberty when it threatens our own comfort or well-being.

Those who parade through the media with the god/goddess of liberty held high, are misguided. Liberty is not an unqualified good. It is only one good, which needs to be balanced against others. A society, which consists of a large number of people who agree to live together in quest of some mutual benefit, must always balance individual liberty against other equally worthy values. Those who hold up liberty as a deity are perfectly well aware of this. They agree, implicitly and explicitly, to the curtailing of liberty on every side. Often, those who advocate liberty, also support the strongest sanctions against those who transgress society’s laws – which usually involves at least the loss of liberty, if not the loss of life. Those who advocate liberty also protest most loudly against, for example, the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy, or the rights of a same sex couple to marry. Those who most loudly advocate liberty often wish, in fact, to curtail it as much, and probably more, than those who are often disparagingly called “liberals”.

In fact, the louder and more often someone shouts “liberty”, the more I am sure they are simply interested in shoring up their own positions of power, which also, inevitably, limits the freedom and rights of others.

Before we make a god (or even a “lady”) of liberty, let her enter into dialogue with justice and compassion.


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