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.
As a result, there is one ‘freedom agenda’ which has a long and distinguished history, and is what people think of when they hear phrases like ‘individual freedom’, or ‘civil liberties’. Issues of due process, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the press, privacy, etc. The validity of this agenda is almost unquestionable, such is its cultural force. Everybody believes in freedom of speech, after all. It has been written into constitutions for hundreds of years (even if hypocritically).
But at the same time, there is another ‘freedom agenda’, including such things as border controls, psychiatric control, prison abolition. These are all cases where individual’s freedom is directly impinged, often in quite severe ways. But because immigrants, lunatics, autistics, and criminals have little access to the social subject, to the communal repository of selfhood, because they are ‘other’ – these issues are not seen as the key examples of ‘individual freedom’ as a value.
An interesting historical example is the way that the USA bill of rights was written as a defence of ‘individual freedom’ per se, or rather, the freedom of the privileged. But in the 1960s, it was re-interpreted to apply to abortion rights, a freedom of the oppressed (how many of the founding fathers had ever had to struggle to get an abortion?). Issues around reproduction are more mainstream than issues around, say, prison abolition, but they still aren’t seen entirely as parts of that mystical ‘freedom’ that the revolutionary war was supposedly fought for. They seem to occupy a somewhat intermediate position.
Anyway, I don’t want to disparage the freedom of the privileged. It is very important – and it benefits many people who aren’t privileged. A disabled african trans asylum seeker can claim ‘freedom of speech’, and while their access to it won’t be perfect, it will probably be better than in a society where that freedom wasn’t seen as an important thing. And even people with ‘privilege’ of various forms need not be all that well-off.
But I want to point out this difference, and the presence of this less widely-recognised agenda. There is a need not just to defend but to articulate the ‘individual freedom’ of those who are most ‘other’, most oppressed.
I want to reclaim the idea of individual freedom from being the preserve of the elite and a favoured topic of the right wing. Ethnic minorities, prisoners, immigrants, transexuals – they do not just want equality, dignity, and all that stuff. They also want freedom, the same sacred individual freedom that right-libertarians pronounce in defense of. But the issues that it raises for them are often different, and deserve as much attention as more traditional issues.
I of course cannot give a remotely full account of what this agenda, this freedom of the oppressed, means – the whole point is that the oppressed themselves must articulate it. I write from a very privileged and mainstream position, so all I can do is indicate some of the things that, from my listening, have been put forward. There are no doubt others.
But when people speak of freedom, we must, as with many other things, try to peer through the abstract idea down to the concrete examples that give meaning to the word – and ask, whose freedom?