Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ On Freedom and Compassion

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 14, 2006

On Freedom

I could write many things in this space, examples of which are too numerous to mention, that would without a doubt get me fired, sued, or even thrown in jail. If I were to have arrived here from another country, I could be deported, as Ernst Zundl found out. If I were a student, my unrestrained opinions about my teaching assistant could land me with a suspension.

I have always been one to defend the freedom of speech, but even so, in the light of the law and custom that surrounds my own speech, it is with some pause and worry that I regard the recent campaign by members of the press to publish offensive cartoons depicting, and mocking, Mohammad. I have not viewed these cartoons and out of respect for my Islamic friends I will not view them. Because it seems to me that we have entered a space that goes beyond freedom of speech.

I receive, perhaps not every day, but frequently enough to note, various types of attacks and criticisms in my email and elsewhere. Many are of the academic and argumentative variety, and while I rail against the misuse of reason employed to make the point, and wonder sometimes about the motivation behind the commentary, I am nonetheless content to deal with this as it comes. Sufficiently many, however, make no attempt at argumentation. They are simply vile and putrid attacks. Hate mail.

The purpose of these works is not to communicate, not even to oppose, but to injure. The authors of these works know that a constant barrage of unreasonable and personal vitriol can have a calculated effect. Honorable people recoil from such communications, question what they have done to provoke such frenzy, re-examine their motives and their beliefs, and take their questions with them home at night. An organized and sustained barrage of pointless and hateful criticism is an attempt to sidestep reason and logic entirely, to inflict harm directly.

This is not what freedom was meant to be. That's not what we mean when we enshrine principles such as freedom of the press or freedom of speech in our constitutions, no more than by freedom of assembly do we mean rock-throwing mobs setting fire to buildings and killing each other or the police. Our freedoms are designed to ennoble, to enrich, our lives, not to tear them apart and make a mockery of the values we seek to defend when we advance the causes of culture and community.

And what saddens me is that the people who publish these cartoons, just as with the people who send hate mail and the people who mount political campaigns of intimidation and harassment, know this. They cannot be under any illusion that they are defending a freedom. They are, indeed, engaged in a systematic and hateful campaign to undermine freedom, believing as they do that there is some noble cause that supersedes freedom, that, as they say, renders quaint any notion of human dignity or peace of mind.

We need to understand what it is, this freedom we are trying to defend. The legal term is 'quiet enjoyment', and while in such contexts it usually refers to the occupation or use of a property, it could equally apply to the living of a life. The canonical freedoms are intended to prevent the unwarranted intrusion of a government into the quiet enjoyment of a life, which means in the first instance that we ought to have the capacity to believe what we believe, to express this belief through our works or actions, to define for ourselves a community, and to enjoy this quietude of mind without fear of arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty or happiness.

There is the perception, though, mistaken, that these limitations - for the granting of a freedom to one is to impose a limitation on another - are limitations that apply only to the forces of law and government. There is the perception, which does not stand scrutiny, that freedom means to live one's life 'without restraint', subject only to the natural laws of physics and biology, and in some cases, god or deity. And so in our world today we find individuals and organizations acting and behaving as though the freedom of another is of no concern to them, that in the manifestation of their own freedom they are without restraint.

And so chaos follows law, and so the mass of lives are lived not in quiet enjoyment, but in fear and discord, lest they find themselves at the hands of one who, by 'living free', has deemed it his or her right and perogative to engage in a series of actions designed to disempower or even to harm the other person.

Oh, and there is no limit to the number of beliefs and causes that would motivate such a suspension of one's right to live a life in quiet enjoyment. The aforementioned laws of God and nature are paramount among them. How often have we heard the plaint that homosexuality, because it is not 'natural', ought to be prohibited? How often have we heard that the sanctity of marriage under God's law requires that only certain norms and customs are permitted? It is within my lifetime that people have been deprived of their livlihood and liberty for believing in one or another form of alternative economic philosophy. And it is indeed even today that there are laws in my own community, regarding, for example, shopping on certain days of the week, based not on the principles of good government but rather on the projection of one person's belief into the life of another.

We live, in a society, very close together, and in an age of electronic communications and a global village, right next door to all manner of people of all faiths and beliefs, of all cultures and lifestyles. And so it is easy to see how the expression of the values and faith of one could easily intrude into the space of another, and not at all surprising that an individual would find the expression of his or her own freedom in some way contingent on the imposition of sanctions against another. And no law enshrining our freedoms will change this basic fact of humanity, for no law will reflect anything other than the values and beliefs of those who craft and enforce it, and no law will suffice to constrain those who believe it is unjust or unfair.

What we believe we mean by freedom cannot be enshrined in a law, for as we have seen, the very existence of the law can and will be subverted by those who would for whatever reason seek to deny the freedom of another. The law is but a poor barrier against the excesses of uncivilized behaviour, a coarse and blunt instrument that provides only partial remedy to the most blatant of transgressions. The law and society universally condemn murder, yet murder happens every day in our society, and no law has been found yet, no matter how severe, that will constrain the passion of one intent to kill.

The best, and truest, measure of the justice of a society is found not in its laws and in its courts but in the justice in the hearts of its people. Not in the civil expressions of faith and charity and rule of law, but in the expressions of compassion each one of us has for the other. In a society where our hearts are hard and our feelings cold, there can be no justice, no freedom. For no law could set aside the barbarity with which we will treat each other, in day-to-day discourse, in the community, and in our media.

This is why the words hurt. This is why the expressions of our freedom, so glibly and unthinkingly attested through the actions of our writers and our journalists, undermine the very canon on which our society is intended to be founded.

No person doubts the impact that a word can have on another. In one of our major religions a book tells us, "In the beginning, there was the word," a recognition of the idea that our words and our communications, no less than our actions and experiences, shape us, cause us to become who we are. The very concepts of learning and culture are founded on the idea that through the communication of ideas and values, from one of us to the other, can shape individual lives and communities.

To the extent that we deny the impact of our expressions of sentiment one on another we are describing the increasing deadening of society. When I was told, as a child, that "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me," I was being schooled in the possibility of withdrawal, and granted license to use words however I may deem appropriate, with no regard to the effect and impact these words may have. If I was berated and belittled as a child, no less than if I were abused or bullied, I was being taught to fear and obey, to set aside my own ideas of individual liberty, and in turn to disregard that of others when the time came upon me.

A society that sets one part of itself against the other cannot survive, and the lives of people in such a society will be expressions of pain and sorrow, the idea of freedom nothing more than a hollow facade behind which we cower, perhaps to take a little shelter, perhaps to strike back in the only way we know.

We cannot be free unless we are free in our hearts, and we cannot be free in our hearts unless the very value of freedom becomes one with who we are, until the very value of freedom is one that guides us, not only through adherence to the limits set out by law and custom, but in our lives, our feelings for each other. We cannot be free unless we have a passion, not only for our own freedom, but for the freedom of all of those around us, a compassion for all of those in society, great and small, and a recognition that without their freedom of quiet enjoyment of their lives, we are lost.

Within the law, it is permissible to publish cartoons that are hateful to Muslims, as we have certainly seen, but the publication of such works, with ill-regard to the peace and well-being of those they address, is to demonstrate no great belief in freedom, but the opposite. Far worse than being an expression of hate or contempt for a culture or religion (though it may well be that), it is an expression of a bland indifference to the lives and feelings of those they touch.

They are dead words being published by people who are dead inside, an expression of a coldness and a callowness that is creeping across our society, an indifference masked by offense, a disregard for anything that could be seen as good or right or decent. And it saddens me, more than anything, that after all this time we have progressed so little, and the rage and the riots that have followed their publication remind me, too, of how far we must go, to find acceptance of a quiet enjoyment of life, to each our own, and in our diversity, harmony.

On Compassion

I have always viewed myself, and tried to be, a person of compassion. In my acts and my undertakings I have always tried to show not simply moderation and restraint, but a genuine caring for and understanding of the needs and values of other people and other communities.

In truth, though, I may be too far gone to understand what that means.

We are all beings not only of our own making but also shaped by the lives and the experiences we have lived. The manner in which we regard each other is not merely a decision, freely entered, whereby we can say, one day, "on this day I will be compassionate." Our attitudes and emotions, no less than our senses and perceptions, are driven inexorably by who we are, by what we have become through the days of our existence.

Nobody in society today is free of such influences, and nobody today can escape the barrage of influences that drive us, through reason or action, to become less compassionate.

But what does it mean to be compassionate? Because there is a fine line between compassion and fear, and it is this line that needs to be explored and understood.

Watch a dog that has has been brutalized since being a pup. Its undivided attention is on its master. Watch it as the dog is placed in a context with other dogs, or other people. It will attend to their every action, every nuance. It is ever outwardly directed, taking care to ensure that no action, no matter how small, will provoke a response, because all responses are potentially harmful. Watch how grateful the dog is for some small sign of affection, a treat, or a pat on the head.

Were the dog a human, we would be tempted to say that such a person is compassionate, because they are ever ready to take into account, and care about, the actions and feelings of others. Such a person, unless pushed to a breaking point, would never harm another, never even snarl in anger. Such a person would, indeed, be selfless in deed and intent.

We are motivated from the days we are young children, most of us, to be considerate of other people. Most of us can recall lessons in behaviour hinging around the idea, "How would you like it if..." and many of us will recall being extolled to share our toys, to let the other person speak, to be polite. In modern education classes, we are also exposed to the benefits of tolerance and understanding, and even of the inherent value of other people's beliefs and ways of life. These are good things, no question, but they are merely appearances.

What is there in any of this that distinguishes what we should do and the fearful actions of a small dog? Our outward actions of compassion and fear are indistinguishable. And whether compassion is instilled in our hearts by a fear of God or a fear of the teacher or merely a fear of the approbation of society, it is nonetheless a sophisticated form of cowering, fostered and nurtured until it becomes a part of our being.

The act of compassion does not define compassion, and no matter how deep and genuine is the consideration for another, we can go about our lives believing that we are compassionate, but being in fact hard of heart and cold to the world. And it is in this way we can stop believing in the values that underlie our compassion, and to begin throwing stones or hurling words of hate. And it is easy to see what we have become, but we stop caring.

The very same things that lead us away from compassion lead us away from ourselves.

We live in a world of consumption and competition, described even as a dog-eat-dog world, one in which we are taught to push aside our feelings for the other, to get ahead, to get what we can get from life and to leave the others in a Darwinian dust red in tooth and claw. We, meanwhile, are well informed of how far we must go to be worth redeeming, whether we are atoning for original sin or merely shiftless and unproductive in society. Our worth is measured by our fame and our fortune, by our personal and professional conquests, by our mastery of the universe and who therein dwell.

We are so innatured to regard ourselves and our self-worth from the perspective of others that we don't even notice it any more. As children, we are taught to regard the evaluations of teachers and parents more highly than those of ourselves, and when the hollowness of this becomes apparent, we are nonetheless old enough to depend absolutely on the assessments of our friends and peers. And should we ever stray, we are surrounded by a media reminding us to watch how others see us, to look right and smell right, to like the right things and even subject our moral, political and religious views to critical appraisal by the community, to correct us should we stray too far from the fold.

We are disempowered by society, we are devalued and demeaned, so much so that it is not merely engrained in our very beings that we would accept this and welcome it, but that we are willing participants in the game, all too willing to inflict the same on others, lest they somehow accrue more value in society than ourselves. We are outward looking, and even when we know we should look inward for worth and meaning, are nonetheless drawn into this conflict with all of those around us.

And thus we are not free.

And when we look at the world, and we see it through such eyes, we see nothing resembling compassion at all, but instead, a world of cynicism and disillusionment, conflict and controversy, need and want and misery. And it is easy to say, if I cannot fix myself, maybe I can fix the world. But in truth, the only way to fix the world, is to first fix oneself.

Compassion is, as Kant said, the belief that others are ends in themselves, that is, that they have inherent and inalienable value and worth, not measured by their actions and achievements, but through the simple fact of their existence. Compassion can, and should, extend beyond this recognition of other people, but through to animals and living things, cultures, communities and societies, the ecosystem and earth, life itself, the universe itself. One who can look at the stars, not only in awe and admiration, but also with a deep sense of gratitude and thanks, has found compassion.

Compassion truly does begin in the heart, and it is a caring for and consideration of other people, but it is free of fear, and motivated only by a true and genuine sense of need to ensure their well-being. Compassion, truly spoken and felt, is the most powerful of the human conditions, but the road to it is fraught with difficulties and challenges, and the only way to it is through oneself.

To believe that other people and other things have inherent value, we must believe it of ourselves. No person can see the worth in anything if they cannot first see their own self worth. No value is worth having if the holder believes he is without value. No sacrifice amounts to anything if that which is sacrificed is felt to be worthless. It is on this that compassion hinges, and on this therefore that all things that demand compassion depend.

To be compassionate, we have to get past what has been done to us, to disassociate ourselves with the thoughts and the images and the fears, to put these aside and to set forth on our own path, confident and true in our intent and with conviction in our heart, unable to be swayed in our belief in ourselves, the author of our own fortune, the writer of our own story. This is what I wish for my Islamic friends, this is what I wish for those others close to me, this is what I wish, perhaps most of all, for myself.

Maybe I'm not too far gone, maybe none of us are too far gone, if we can find the courage to be compassionate without fear, if we can find it in within ourselves to act and live and breathe as a free people in a free society, openly giving of ourselves and not caring about the reward, nor how it looks or feels or seems, being at peace with each other because we are at peace with ourselves, giving simply because we have something to give, inexhaustible, the well.

It's a hard road, but it begins with an extended hand.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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