I think we can distinguish two alternative ‘trends’ in the political application of ‘individual freedom’. When I say ‘freedom’, I don’t mean any nonsense about ‘positive freedom’, the freedom from poverty, or anything like that – I mean unambiguously freedom-ish freedom.
The two agendas are what I will call ‘freedom of the privileged’ and ‘freedom of the oppressed’ – but those labels are a little inflammatory and can be misleading. Hopefully what exactly I mean will become clear.
Identification – seeing things from someone else’s standpoint – is important, and who we identify with is very much a product of socialisation. Although it will vary a lot between individuals, there are noticeable overall trends. I’ve written in the past about “the social subject”, the person referred to be words like “someone”, the abstract figure who doesn’t need a qualifying adjective – isn’t a ‘woman such-and-such’ or an ‘asian such-and-such’ but just ‘a such-and-such’.
This social subject is, among other things, white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied. It is associated with certain experiences (things which everyone in adverts and sitcoms do) and less with others. People who resemble it will, by and large, have more ‘access’ to the social imagination – it will be easier for others to identify with them because they seem so familiar, so clearly a normal individual. This is what is often called ‘privilege‘.
Based on this, I think we can distinguish one ‘freedom agenda’ that involves those issues that can be imagined as affecting the social subject, and a distinct ‘freedom agenda’ that involves those issues that can’t.
For example, freedom of speech is part of the first, because everybody feels that speaking is something they do – everybody is happy to identify with the figure of the dissident, the courageous political speaker criticising authority. On the other hand, freedom from psychiatric coercion, freedom to avoid being held and controlled against your will by medical professionals on the basis of your mental health or mental difference/disability, is very much a freedom of the oppressed, because the mentally ill or different/disabled are not figures that people in general easily identify with.
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