Posts Tagged ‘ Benjamin Franklin ’

Fuck freedom, give me security

A wise man once said:

“They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Oh, sorry, got a typo there. A *white man once said.

The above quotation is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, a rich white dude and one of the Founding Fathers. Apparently, according to wikipedia, he was “the first American”, which is pretty impressive. His famous quotation on Liberty and Security is often repeated, usually as “he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither” or some close variant, in debates on freedom of speech, censorship, government surveillance etc. And I have a problem with it.

Laurie Penny – a writer who I admire hugely – recently wrote an article entitled “Online bullying isn’t freedom of speech“. The article is brilliant, obviously, describing the ubiquitous nature of the online harassment of high-profile women and how this harassment silences female voices. Ironically, when this fact is pointed out – that this oppression is trampling on the freedom of speech of women on the internet – those calling for the harassment to end are inevitably accused of attempting to stifle the freedom of speech of the harassers. So it has always been.

I don’t get it.

What is this “freedom of speech” that we, as a culture, seem to have this raging principle-boner for? It sure as fuck isn’t the freedom to say whatever you want. No, we’re not free to make threats, we’re not free to print untrue or damaging information about other people, we’re often not free to preach our religious beliefs. And yet I never heard the free-speechers clamouring for Abu Qatada’s release. Weird.

I’d say that most people support those particular restrictions on speech. Even Americans, whose entire society is built around freedom-as-an-ideal, don’t allow their rich to be slandered or their religious to be offended. Free speech is, at best, fairly free speech, and I personally am not even very attached to that.

The problem with freedom is that it allows those with more power – physically or socially – to override the freedoms of those with less. In any free interaction, none are guaranteed any freedom at all. In a best case scenario, each may choose to act conscientiously, allowing the freedom of the other; in a worst case scenario each may choose to act in a way that diminishes the freedom of the other. In an interaction regulated by social norms and the threat of state violence (law), each can be confident that their major freedoms will be preserved. In an ideal interaction, only those actions that would directly diminish the freedom of another would be regulated. The maximisation of freedoms after the guarantee of security, as opposed to the misguided notion that freedom is an end in and of itself.

It is easy to see that freedom and security will be prioritised differently by different sections of society. Those with power will never have cause for concerns of security, and thus will not prioritise security highly. They will interpret their privilege as freedom. Where they encounter resistance to their perceived freedom – when they’re criticised for harassment, for example – freedom will naturally become what they prioritise most highly.

Conversely, those without power – those whose freedoms are consistently diminished by others – will prioritise security. People who only want to be heard, such as the women in Laurie’s article, do not require the freedom abused by those who act to silence them. They need a guarantee that their basic freedoms will be protected.

It was all well and good for Benjamin Franklin to expound upon the virtues of Liberty over Safety, but it’s important to remember that he was a person whose safety was never particularly at risk. When he wrote those words, and throughout much of his life, Franklin himself was a slave-owner. Anti-abolitionists argued that they had a “right” to own slaves – that abolitionists were attempting to take away their freedom.

Fuck that. Fuck your freedom. I want safety, for myself and for those I love, and I’m willing to fight for it. Franklin would later become a strong proponent of abolition, which is better than nothing I suppose, and I live in hope that one day we’ll come to our senses too.

I guess what I’m trying to say – without wanting to put too fine a point on it – is that freedom is slavery.