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Machan's Musings - Newspeak Anyone?
In fact, of course, the phenomenon of such corruption of language is by no means only fictional, of which Orwell was well aware and to which he meant to alert us all. But neither is such distortion mostly deliberate, as it was in 1984. In many cases—as in the recent essay by Professor of History David Hackett Fisher of Brandeis University, penned, you might have guessed it, for The New York Times (February 7, 2005)—the corruption of language is carried out nearly unselfconsciously. Professor Fisher achieves his obfuscation of the concepts of "liberty" and "freedom" not by insisting that they mean their very opposite but by conflating them with a great variety of their different senses. And his motivation seems to be the sentiment, "Why don’t we all just get along?" Let me explain.
Concepts, of course, evolve. They are mental tools by which human beings identify and navigate reality. They do not spring into full awareness at once but must be formed, often slowly and sometimes over several generations. Take the modern scientific concept "atom." It took centuries to get it formed and shaped so it now has a pretty clear, unambiguous, comprehensive, and useful (though never final) meaning in particle physics.
Value-laden—moral, ethical, political, aesthetic—concepts are especially troublesome. They are always being contested. Once a concept with implications for values succeeds and gains prominence, most people with agendas in the areas of morality and politics want to conscript it to their own purposes.
Classical liberals, over the last several centuries, have formulated conceptions of liberty and freedom such that they have come to mean, in their most consistent renditions, individual independence from the oppression of others, including the government or state. Even the family doesn’t own a person, not once he or she has reached maturity—everyone has the right to liberty, period.
There are some other senses in which the concepts "liberty" and "freedom" are used, of course, coming from different contexts and different traditions. Being free of a headache for someone with such pain isn’t what being free of a master is for a slave, although there is a similarity. Being free from governmental or criminal intrusion isn’t the same as being free to obtain food, to fly to Paris or to purchase a Rolls Royce. But, again, there is a similarity.
In Western political history the big breakthrough came when classical liberals identified the human individual as having the right to liberty. This took centuries of development, but with John Locke and other such liberals it emerged as a solid, coherent idea. Every adult is sovereign, self-ruling, not a subject of others’ will, be these others neighbors, family, bureaucrats, a monarch, the majority, or whoever.
Professor Fisher, however, wants to assimilate all these often mutually exclusive ideas of liberty and freedom, so that every tradition—including those actually quite antithetical to individual liberty—in which the words have appeared is pacified. He insists on being inclusive and multicultural.
By attempting this, however, he perpetrates the corruption of the coherent classical liberal idea, the one that has in fact served to liberate millions of people from the oppression of their fellows (whether the oppression is tyrannical or paternalistic, whether from coercive governments or authoritarian families).
There will simply never be any value-laden concepts that will yield to this effort of happy assimilation. Some will always find your or my or someone else’s conception of liberty, freedom, justice, goodness, or equality displeasing. There is no escaping having to take a stand. And the stand that succeeds is the one that provides the most comprehensive, consistent, clear, and unambiguous version of the relevant concept.
By trying to please everyone with his idea of liberty and freedom, Professor Fisher, most likely inadvertently, undermines the work that these concepts are supposed to do for human beings, namely, help identify and cope with a vital aspect of human reality.
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